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January 31, 2005

Ahhhh... sweet impact.

In my post on Basil Flint, I suggested that Atomic Sock Monkey Press, the publishers of Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot should release a supplement that includes "Fonz" and "Shark."

Well, MNPR writer (and creator of the brilliant RPG Dead Inside, which better win some awards this year and which you should buy) Chad Underkoffler (doesn't "Underkoffler" sound like a really cool mad scientist's invention?) took this as a challenge. As the artwork in MNPR is stick figurish, he has provided Fonzie and Shark Stick Figures for the game.

This pleases me to an almost absurd degree.

January 21, 2005

A very welcome Disturbance in the Symphony

For those who don't know, Steve Jackson Games has finally launched e23, their PDF/electronic publishing arm. And it's one of the most progressive of its type -- sacrificing DRM for portability and ease of usability, for example, and setting things up so that if you have a catastrophic disk failure, you can always go back and download the stuff you've bought again. (I have my iTunes bought music backed up in like three places, because Apple won't do something this consumer-oriented, as a counter-example. Bastards.)

However, what has me so totally stoked -- even more than new Chad Underkoffler works (and a new outlet for Dead Inside, which long time readers know is one of the best and most innovative new games of the last couple of years, and which you guys need to buy. But I digress.

What has me excited is broad In Nomine support.

I have never liked a role playing game as much as I like In Nomine. I probably never will. And like all the IN faithful, I've been scared that it would be going away sometime, since support was fading away. However, SJGames has figured out that there are people like me out there, and we're willing to spend money. Cash money, no less. And e23 is perfect for that.

I have nothing in the current crop of In Nomine offerings. (Though that should change one of these weeks. It's in the can and waiting.) However, I have lots and lots of excitement for these products. And the way they're going about doing the releases is just plain cool.

So, they're getting my money. Go check them out. Buy stuff. Make some of that stuff In Nomine. And Dead Inside. And then look at everything else.

November 19, 2004

The line between sexist and hysterical really becomes one of perspective, doesn't it?

As you may remember, I posted a snark a couple of weeks back where I examined geek clichÈs in webcomics. The cliches I specifically identified were Monkeys, Ninjas, Pirates, Robots and Cleavage. In comments, some readers also put Zombies on the list.

Well, Steve Jackson Games has now announced SPANC -- which stands for Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirl. It's a card game... and lives in the eternal RPG/Card/Wargame realm pioneered by Macho Women with Guns lo those many years ago.

As a good liberal, I immediately wondered "do we really need a game with a bikinied catgirl on the cover?" I mean... honestly? And yeah, it's Steve Jackson Games, and I like Steve Jackson Games (of course, full disclosure requires I mention I get checks sent to me by Steve Jackson Games at highly irregular intervals). And I tend to trust Steve Jackson Games... and enjoy their card games, for that matter. (While Chez Greek left me a little cold, Chez Geek itself was a masterpiece of hilarity, for example. And some other time I'll take the time to write mash notes about Illuminati and Illuminati: New World Order.)

Then, however, I saw that said Catgirl was a Phil Foglio drawing. And that in fact Foglio does all the artwork for the game.

And the good liberal in me said "oh -- Phil Foglio? Cool! We have to buy this game."

So, I guess it just goes to show -- be consistently hilarious (even in your Porn Comics) and have consistently high quality in your art, and you get a "no, it's satire, not sexist" card free.

And for the record, Catgirl and Amazon are both subsets of Cleavage, but both are also close enough to their own clichÈs that we can practically make them their own categories. "Space" implies a robot, here or there. We have Catgirls instead of monkeys, but that doesn't rule out monkeys appearing in some of the cards (Planet of the Monkeys!) And there's always room for zombies.

I'm not sure we can call this hitting for the cycle, but it certainly loads the bases.

November 17, 2004

The obligatory and long overdue snark where I talk about In Nomine

This is the three hundred and thirty-third post to Websnark. Which is frightening and wrong, on so many levels. However, I'm awfully glad there's actually someone reading these words, so for the record, thank you for coming.

However, the number 333 means something to me. Something all important. 333... means that we have just invoked Ralph, the Demon Prince of Apathy.

I probably need to explain this.

In Nomine, from Steve Jackson Games, is one of my favorite role playing games of all time. It's a game about the cold war between Heaven and Hell, told from the point of view of the angels and demons fighting it. All too often, they're caught as pawns between the great, celestial powers who provide mandate, but little understanding of the world of humans. There are some wonderfully dysfunctional archangels, some oddly sympathetic demon princes... and the game fully supports either a "bright" game where Good is ahead of the game, or a "dark" setting where Evil is... as well as adjusting the "contrast" on just how much difference there is between the Angels and Demons. (Because I'm comfortable and own my incipient damnation, I like running bright, low contrast games, where it's hard to tell which Archangels are good and which are evil, and the same with the demon princes, but over time the characters can figure out what the right thing to do is.)

One of the core concepts of In Nomine are Words. The entire cosmos, be we talking the Earth, the Celestial realms or the realms of dreams and imagination, are all bound up into one Symphony, with the angels and demons mere instruments. A half-step from the musical imagery we get the idea that angels and demons can be bound to a single concept -- expressed as a Word in a celestial tongue -- and gain strength or grow weak based on that Word's relative strength in the hearts and minds of humanity. So, you have Michael, the Archangel of War. You have Andrealphus, the Demon Prince of Lust, and so forth, up on the high end. On the low end, you have guys like Imbap, the Demon of Stale Bong Water.

Yeah, stopping Imbap is not considered a priority for the Hosts of Heaven.

Anyway, In Nomine is just plain fun. And, for those of you who need some webcomics content in all my snarks (yeah, I get letters like that), there's even an official mention of Kizke, the Demon of Internet Comics, Servitor of Kobal, the Demon Prince of Dark Humor. (Kizke is named for K'z'k from Sluggy Freelance). On the official mailing list, you get a semi-regular dose of webcomics inspired fun as well (I've seen writeups, if I remember correctly, for the cast of Something Positive, Sluggy Freelance, Queen of Wands (I think -- I could swear I've seen an Angela writeup, at least), and others. It works out nicely.

And then there's Ralph, the Demon Prince of Apathy. Who just doesn't give a fuck.

Ralph is a fan-creation of Nana Yaw Ofori, and his writeup, which doesn't need... well, any understanding of In Nomine to read, can be found here. For a while, he became a running joke on the In Nomine mailing list. And then someone brought up... Interventions of Apathy.

You see, the basic die mechanic in In Nomine is the "d666." Essentially, you roll three six sided dice -- one a different color than the other two. The two similarly colored dice are what you roll to do something, trying to roll high. The third die is the "check digit," and reflects how successful you are. However, if you roll three ones on the dice -- a 111, or a 2 with a check digit of 1 -- this is a Divine intervention (think of the Trinity, despite the... er... lack of any information on the Trinity in the game). Something happens that God would like. So, if you're playing angels, it tends to be good for you. If you're playing demons, it tends to be bad for you. On the other side of things, if you roll three sixes... yeah. 666. Infernal Intervention. Lucifer takes a notice and does something he finds appropriate or funny. Which is generally good for the demons, but not always. Lucifer's on the fickle side, at least when he thinks something is funny.

Finally, someone on the list suggested that any time you rolled three 3's... that caused an Apathetic Intervention, attracting the notice of Ralph, Demon Prince of Apathy.

What happens then?

Nothing, of course. Ralph doesn't give a fuck.

So. I missed my Divine Intervention post. (Post 111 was Random Reader Question, Randomly Answered, which actually was one of my favorite posts of all time. As well as one of the shortest. Have a look, if you want). My Infernal Intervention is still a few months away. But right here, right now, this is Post 333 to appear on Websnark.

This is Ralph's post.

And somewhere, in the Depths of Hell... Ralph doesn't give a fuck.

September 24, 2004

Cancer in the Collective Detective

First and foremost, I'm going to talk about Alternate Reality Gaming in this post. If you don't know what that is, go to The Haunted Apiary and the late, lamented Beast/A.I. Game (which I'd point to Cloudmakers.org to show you, but Cloudmakers seems to be gone. So here's a like to an archived version at The Internet Wayback Machine).

These are immersive games, using the nature of the web to build communities to solve their puzzles over the web. They are a unique art form on the web, using search engines (the Beast was reached by people who noticed "Jeanine Salla" being credited as a "Sentient Machine Therapist" in the trailers for A.I.) and internal links to build a consistent game world (thus, Alternate Reality Gaming). A couple of sites -- Cloudmakers.org and Spherewatch -- formed around the Beast to solve its core murder mystery. Along the way, the masterful writing seduced us.

I was a Cloudmaker, and proud of it. I checked the sites daily. I obsessed over clues. I shared what I had to share. I even did a fan site of the thing. It was exciting and wonderful. I still miss it.

Well, all indications are the same team who did the beast are doing "The Haunted Apiary," starting at I Love Bees and going from there. The theory is it's connected to the Halo video game, and from all accounts it's pretty cool.

One of the tasks the Beekeepers have been working on in the game is restoring the functionality to a crashed/insane ship's AI named Melissa. Melissa has been slowly designating some players as 'crewmembers.' And today, Melissa and one of those players collaborated to capture (or destroy) another AI, named the Sleeping Princess. It was a pretty cool move, unexpected....

...and, in a way, signals a death knell for ARGs as we've known them.

You see, the community that formed around the Beast -- the Cloudmakers -- was intensely remarkable. It was the best part of the game. Better than the puzzles. Better than Sean Stewart's astounding writing. Better than the visuals. Better by far than the actual movie A.I. We came together as a group -- a collective detective, as the term came to be -- and brought monumental results. We were part of something huge, if just for a little while. And it all worked because the moment one of us found something out, they told everyone else. We made our decisions collectively. We posted our mistakes collectively. We played our game in collaboration. When an AI named Loki had become a threat, we learned that he was attracted to nightmares. So Cloudmakers started posting their nightmares online, baiting a trap for the monster. And we destroyed him, and were rewarded with a remarkable Flash animation involving all of our efforts.

The Beekeepers were working in that same way. Triumphs were collective. Mistakes were spread about. But now, some of the players are keeping secrets from others. Some are making decisions unilaterally, not collectively, and having tremendous impact on the game. Suddenly, a small portion of the players have incredible power in the game... and suddenly, there is real factionalism to be had within the 'collective detective.'

I know at least one player who won't post his speculations on the Unfiction forum board, because he's afraid someone will use his speculations in ways he won't like. We've also seen that by keeping secrets and making decisions on their own, players get to have disproportionate control over what happens next. And casual players suddenly aren't players. They're advisors to the people who can have an impact on the game. Or they're groupies. But someone solving puzzles and posting speculations doesn't have the same impact that the people talking on the phone to Melissa do.

Some players are already aligning behind the Sleeping Princess, to free her. They've admitted this is now a goal. Others are "crewmen of the Apocolypso," and are going to further Melissa's ends. Others are probably going to help the Pious Flea. It will probably be lots of fun....

...but it's not collective. It's not collaborative. People now know secrets can be more powerful than sharing. People now know that the other players might do things they absolutely disagree with and there's nothing they can do about it, so they'd better do it first. And people now know that their contributions by their very nature are less than the contributions others put in.

The game goes on, but the Collective Detective has cancer of the massmind. And I don't think there's a cure for it. When the next big ARG goes live, people will go into it with these lessons burnt into them.

Like I said, Cloudmakers.org was missing when I went to go looking for it, this morning.

Maybe that's just as well.

September 15, 2004

Unqualified gushing about Dead Inside. Just deal with it.

So. You already know I have a serious love on for Chad Underkoffler's Dead Inside. This is a role playing game that manages the hat trick of "easy to play, compelling background, and horror-based without being hopeless" with a scosh of "actual decency is rewarded and bastard-like behavior is penalized" that is the kosher salt that just turns the flavor up.

But I'm not here to cook. I'm here to gush. Specifically, about Cold, Hard World.

Cold, Hard World is a real world supplement for Dead Inside, which itself largely takes place in the Spirit World. And CHW fills in the gaps nicely. You can believe it, on the surface -- there are soulless people in the world. Some of them yearn to be whole. Others use their hollowness as justification for doing horrible things. Underkoffler gives people real motivations and real things they can do. In fact, it becomes possible to play Dead Inside without the Spirit World at all, which some people will prefer.

I playtested CHW, and liked it then. And Chad improved it based on playtest. This is just plain worthy.

And it's eight bucks for the PDF. Eight bucks! It's just thirteen for the PDF version of the core rules, too.

If you like horror with hope, if you like magic realism, if you like RPGs where tactical situations aren't the point of the whole thing, or if you like Neil Gaiman or Sean Stewart, you'll like this stuff. (And the dead tree version of the core rules is just twenty-five bucks, which is competitive with RPGs these days.)

Check out the Dead Inside Demo for more info. It's just worthy, damn it.

August 26, 2004

Coincidence? HAH! I scoff at coincidence!

gg20040721.jpgFrom Gaming Guardians.

So... EDG is vacationing in City of Heroes. But one of the recurring menaces the Gaming Guardians face is the threat of Shane Hensley, the founder of Pinnacle, creator and designer of Deadlands, and fair shot with a pistol.

And now... Cryptic Studios has announced that Shane Hensley has become Senior Writer for City of Villains.

I wonder if Graveyard Greg's going to latch onto this....

August 23, 2004

Undead Inside:Why Vampire Doesn't Excite Me

guy.gif (Taken from Dead Inside, by Atomic Sock Monkey Press. No, this has nothing to do with webcomics. Did anything in the masthead say I'd only be snarky about webcomics?)

I pay a certain amount of attention to the world of Role Playing Games. I kind of have to -- I make money off of words contributed to those games. So, I'm interested in how the industry develops, and naturally I get excited about innovation.

Well, this was a big weekend for the RPG community. Not only was it Gencon weekend, but White Wolf was putting out is super-huge-big-ultra-event of the year. After destroying its collective Worlds of Darkness last year, in a huge event that took months to complete (ending Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocolypse, Mage: The Ascension and bunches of other games that often were better but didn't get as much press), White Wolf spent much of this year developing the replacement games that would clear away the cruft and launch anew -- with the mistakes of their heavily plot-arc-dependent lines wiped clean and true innovation in storytelling stepping forward. Yadda yadda yadda. Subtextual in all this was the boatloads of money White Wolf stood to make in selling the "End of the World" supplements and then selling entirely new games now. In RPG terms, this is called "pulling a Wizards of the Coast 520 with a Mage Revised extension." And this was the weekend the first two new books: World of Darkness and Vampire: The Requiem were released.

I have friends writing on the new books, and I want to be supportive of them, but it's hard to be when I care so utterly little about the whole thing. See, White Wolf's brand of storytelling did get a monumental shot in the arm -- a tremendous lift, a massively innovative approach, a hugely cool thing in all ways -- over the last year. Only White Wolf didn't write it. Chad Underkoffler did, and published it through his Atomic Sock Monkey Press. It's called Dead Inside, and it so desperately kicks the ass of modern horror roleplaying that repackaging Vampire seems like limp celery next to steak in comparison.

I have no doubt that Vampire: The Requiem is good. Hell, it'll no doubt be a better entry level game than Vampire: The Masquerade has been for years. But it's not going to begin to touch the thematic beauty of Dead Inside. In Dead Inside, the main character has lost his soul. Perhaps he sold it, wittingly or unwittingly. Perhaps it was stolen. Perhaps it just got neglected. But one way or another, the character has become empty. A cracked shell with the yolk poured out. A nothing. The world is dimmer, food doesn't taste as good, sex doesn't feel as good, and minus his spiritual heart he's slowly declining into nothingness. But he figures this out, and has to work to either get his soul back or find some way to replace it... and having had his tough outer spiritual shell cracked, he's able to perceive a much broader world than ever before.

How do you get soul back if you can't find yours? Simple. You do good things. You affirm other people. You help. That's right -- a Role Playing Game where power comes from being decent. Someone call the Christian Right and the Secular Left-- their game has arrived.

This has all the angst that a good White Wolf game would have, only there's point to it. This has all the wonder of Mage or Changeling, but with simpler mechanics. The mechanics (Underkoffler's Prose Descriptive Qualities, or PDQ system) are sublime -- easy to grasp. Good roleplaying is rewarded. And intent is more important than big dice rolls.

But damn few people know about Dead Inside. It's small-press published, available electronically and through Print on Demand. There were no midnight parties at local game stores for its release. There were no massive (and expensive) events at Gen Con for it. All it has going for it is sheer quality and inexpensive cost. And people like me shouting about it from the roof of my building.

I don't think the Vampire/World of Darkness release was quite as epic as White Wolf hoped, truth be told. I happened to be in Pandemonium Books this weekend -- this is one of the best-positioned game stores... well, in the world, living in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, with huge college age traffic. Vampire and WoD were sitting on the shelf in two places, with several copies of each. For the hour I was there (on Saturday, in the heart of the day), a grand total of one couple came in, looked over the books, and bought Vampire -- but not WoD. Contrasted with the frenzy for Gehenna, the rulebook that presented the end of the world for Vampire: The Masquerade (Gehenna sold out pretty much worldwide, almost immediately, when it was released), this seems to be... well, just another RPG release. But I'm sure it's selling well and that's not a bad thing. I do have friends working on it, as I said, and I want them to do well. And I want people to have fun playing games.

But while someday I'm sure I'll pick these books up, to keep current if nothing else, they don't excite me the way Dead Inside did and does. And I'm forced to wonder if the rank and file are ever going to pick up on what's really changing, out there, or if they're just going to let it pass them by.