Thursday 29 September 2016

NPC descriptions: what to include?

So while writing the Magonium Mine Murders, I am trying to find the (for me) ideal balance between detail and waste in character and place descriptions. I think it is rather tricky to find!

Let's start with the worst possible NPC description, because that's fun. Here is the description of a "Sales Clerk" from the World of Darkness 1st ed. rulebook (2004):

Sales Clerk

Really, they should just have included this picture and nothing else. 
Quote: "Let's see ... four stakes, a mallet and a mirror. Wasn't Halloween, like, last month?"
Background: They are the faceless masses that man every counter at every store and institution across the world. Most are young men and women earning minimum wage and working long hours while going to school, or trying to make ends meet with a second job. Frequently sullen and sarcastic, these characters have seen all manner of strangeness while working the graveyard shift at the local Mini-Mart.
Description: Sales clerks come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, largely depending on the kind of store or institution at which they work. Late-night convenience store clerks are usually young men or women with pasty skin and red-rimmed eyes. A car salesman might be artificially tanned, with bleached-white teeth and an off-the-rack business suit.
Storytelling Hints: Sales clerks can be sullen and sarcastic, distant and withdrawn, or outgoing chatterboxes eager to share the latest bizarre episode of their workaday lives. Longtime clerks are often keen observers, able to tell a lot about the people who come into their stores just by watching. Clerks can be a useful source of information with the right kind of motivation.
Awareness (dice pool 4) -- Sales clerks spend a lot of time watching people and gauging their moods. They can often discern a great deal about a person's intentions by observing what she wears and how she acts.
Empathy (dice pool 5) -- Successful clerks are adept at reading a customer's mood and manipulating it to make a sale.

I mean ... where to begin? It spends 250 words saying absolutely nothing. Sales clerks work in shops and don't earn very much? Some of them are quiet but others are talkative? Well, I'll be damned. And here I thought they were battle-hardened paramilitary killers. It repeats itself, suggesting that sales clerks are sharp-eyed twice. It even uses the exact same phrase, "sullen and sarcastic," twice. And weirdly, it ignores the fact that the people working a late-night shift at a Mini-Mart are, at least in the part of America I grew up in, pretty unlikely to be "pasty." Mechanically, it tells us nothing: sales clerks have slightly above-average pools in the stuff that you would assume they would have slightly above-average pools in. Half a column spent on providing absolutely no value to the reader at all.

I'm not suggesting that this is uniquely a White-Wolf-ism: I just think that once you get going it's hard to stop, and that this is the kind of writing that looks thorough, but which no one actually reads so no one cares. It doesn't really give us anything, a trend that you get a lot of in descriptions of NPCs from many publishers: Bryce Lynch (I think) summarised this as two pages of detailed backstory that explains why an NPC attacks on sight, fights to the death and can't be negotiated with. Here, we learn nothing other than "maybe something happened at a store and the clerk has some clues," a level of reasoning without which you can't be playing a mystery game in the first place.

Mind you, I'm more interested in descriptions of specific NPCs. Here's one from Escape from Innsmouth (1992):

Joseph Averill

Joseph Averill is a quiet, unassuming man. A friend of hybrid Warren Billingham's since childhood, Joseph was able to get a job driving a truck for Billingham's fishpacking house. Averill and Billingham have, over the years, grown apart as the latter becomes progressively less and less human. Averill likes driving the truck, however; it gets him out of Innsmouth. He would like to move is family out of town, but his father is too proud to leave and Joseph fears to leave the old man alone in this town.

(Snip nine lines of stat block)

OK, so the stat block is a bit useless (Averill has perfectly average stats, nothing above 14 or below 11, and, what do you know, is good at driving and truck-related skills), but the description is less than 100 words long and provides a little context to this guy. He becomes a tool the investigators can use: if they persuade his dad to move, maybe he'll flip on Billingham and implicate him in the conspiracy. Maybe they can borrow his truck. And he provides an example of why there are any normal people left in Innsmouth at all. He's not exciting, but he's fine and he's not too long. Some people don't like the over-descriptive style of the Lovecraft Country books, with every cabbie and coffee shop detailed, but in a mystery-focused game I think it works.

Here's an example of an even briefer narrative-focused description, from the scenario Star of Darkness (White Dwarf 68, August 1985):

Olmehir, the innkeeper, was a captain in the guard before retiring and is disgusted with the way Prebeh is now doing the job. Firne, his young wife, is involved in an affair with Prebeh, although it would be a foolish man who told Olmehir since he has a quick temper.

(A paragraph of rumours players might hear at the inn, than a three-line stat block for Olmehir, including the fact that he has a +1 Longsword! He's Level 4, which is about the typical PC level for this scenario.)

Again, not a bad resource. Olmehir is not a very important character, but he's a fun little moving part. He could be turned against Prebeh (who might need someone turned against him, depending on the PCs' agenda), and his personality, although hastily sketched, is pretty clear: a grumpy old hardass, envious and suspicious. He is just a smidgen above "Innkeeper," but in a way that adds fun for a minimal added number of words.

I am just thinking about this in terms of character descriptions in The Magonium Mine Murders. I worry that they're not detailed enough, or not detailed in an interesting way, but I don't want to go over the top. Here are a few that are currently at the level I'm happy with:

Rogin Hyland, an alchemist and conspirator. Killed Alba. An educated man from a good family, but without the money to maintain his social position. Joined the counterfeiting scheme to make money, but was discovered by Alba and killed her. Polite, witty and urbane, with a hint of desperation.

Lumicent Pulver, disillusioned veteran and guard captain. Wounded in battle, she got this job as a sinecure. She longs for action and purpose.

Livia Cherm, disgraced and bitter former mine engineer. She believes that nothing natural caused the cave-ins, but was fired for being unable to stop them. She now drowns her resentment in drink. She was completely right.

Bellows, Alba's overworked former assistant. Indecisive and easily manipulated.
I think those are OK. They should probably include more about what each character knows, but clues might be a separate segment.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

If you're going to steal, steal from the worst

OK, maybe not the worst.

One of the things that I really like about gaming is the omnivorous way it takes inspiration from whatever sources it finds and just mashes them up all willy-nilly. My D&D campaign, for instance, swipes from all sorts of stuff, from comic books to history (quite a lot of history), music, movies, whatever.

This thing plays quite an important role in the campaign. 
And while I've often stolen from things I love, a lot of the time I'm stealing from things that are only OK, because even things that are only OK often contain a good idea or two.

Now, maybe you don't have time to read or watch things that are only kind of OK, but I tend to watch inconsequential TV shows while doing other things, and I read quickly, so even in periods of low energy I tend to absorb a fair amount. I used to document these in my Swipe File posts, but I trailed off a bit. Still ...

... so my current inconsequential adventure show is The Librarians, which is very entertaining but not exactly the state of the art in television in terms of either characterisation or ... what do you call filmmaking on TV? But every episode provides at least one good minor-plot gimmick for people running modern fantasy adventure games. And they all go into the mental swipe file.

In fact, one of the negative traits of films or comics or whatever is that they tend to be grab-bags of different influence loosely associated with each other. It's no work to pull out an individual clue or character because they're often less robustly embedded in a particular thematic or narrative framework.

I think I'm going to try to restart the swipe file.

Also, I am probably going to hit this month's Age of Sigmar target. Might run over by a day or two, but no big deal.

Friday 23 September 2016

Accepting crappiness: it's good for you

I have been thinking lately about the prospect of doing badly, and the more I think about it, the more I think that it's probably a valuable thing in role-playing games, at least some of the time.

Now, I'm not talking about the role of character failure. I happen to think that that is a useful thing in some games; it generates tension, which is good, and it produces unintended results, which is good. I have been guilty in some of my games of padding character failure, which I think ultimately leads to fewer opportunities for players to be quick-thinking and creative. But every game is different, and there are times when room for certain kinds of character failure isn't relevant to what those games are about.

But in this case I'm talking about creative failure on the part of the game's participants, whether players or GMs or what have you. I feel like a lot of the discourse around story games, which often constrain player option, is about preventing certain failure modes, stopping people from doing things that are not ... appropriate(?) ... to the game being played. And I'm certainly not against rules relating to creativity -- constraints promote invention, at least for me, and it doesn't usually matter too much what the constraints are.

And yet ...

And yet ... I do feel that a lot of the times I've succeeded in running a game are times where what I was doing could have fallen pretty flat. I turned a low-key horror-investigation game into a weird dimension-hopping sci-fi game, and people seemed to like it. I've added all kinds of nonsense to my D&D game, and people engage with it happily. Overall, I feel like it's been successful. But there are certainly times when I've put an element in a game and the players have just looked at it and shrugged, or clearly not wanted to engage with it. And that has, sometimes, made me too cautious in what I introduce.

I think that one of the best things about RPGs is the way in which unexpected creative elements -- indeed, even elements that seem obviously to be in conflict with each other -- interact in unexpected ways. And I don't know how you do this without exposing yourself to creating mixtures that don't work.

But I don't think that either the culture of gaming on the internet, the culture that surrounds live gaming, or the general experience of being old make these very easy. It's like character lethality in OSR games -- high lethality went with low character-gen time. But in 90s-style games, character gen can take a good hour and integrating a character into the group can be very tricky.

What I mean is that ... well, take me, for instance. I run my D&D game every other week, and I run my Requiem game and play Lost once a month. I play a miniatures game about once a month, and every once in a while I drop in to one-shots. I guess that's not bad -- an average of slightly over a game a week. But those games are in separate boxes for the most part, and they're often quite short. My D&D game might often be as short as two and a half hours, because it's on a weeknight. Players are investing scarce time in it, too -- I'm in competition with a lot of other entertainment opportunities and a lot of other responsibilities. And if we're talking about big LARP events, we're talking about games that players might end up paying quite a lot of money for. I have people who come up from London or Kent to play my game, a significant investment of time and expense.

And that means that I always feel the voice that says "don't fuck around, stick to things you know will work" in my head. Which I think is a shame.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

System proliferation: threat or menace?

So, back in the early 2000s I went through a period of buying a lot of new RPGs. It was the first flowering of the indie game movement, and every new game I bought had some cool new idea or premise -- or at least that's the way it seemed to me at the time. I kind of slacked off over the next few years as the flood of new releases became too much for my wallet and time to keep up with. These days, although my collection is still pretty extensive, the truth is that I only regularly play a handful of games, and I don't even own all that many books for them. I seldom buy new RPG books, exclusive of things like the new Unknown Armies kickstarter.

And that's good, right? Got the ol' game collection down to a manageable size, only buying things I'm going to actually use! That's both good time management and good money management.

Heh. Well, sort of. Y'see, when I said I don't buy a lot of new RPGs any more, I meant RPGs. Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, they got these miniatures games. I don't own a lot of minis games I don't actually play, but here's a list of ones I do sometimes play (although in some cases it's been a year or two).

So you gotcher Strange Aeons, the Lovecraftian skirmish game with a fun asymmetrical setup. I would love to get back into this again; I have a pretty decent model collection.

Then, of course, there's Frostgrave, which I have been playing with regular opponent Buzz. This is a good game, and I will continue to buy supplements and stuff for it, although I'm being good about it since it's been an expensive couple of months. I have built up a reasonably good minis collection for this, although of course a lot of D&D models can be used for both.

And I seem to be getting into Age of Sigmar with fellow blogger The Responsible One.

And then of course I'm enjoying Wasteman and hoping to play it again soon -- this week, even!

And there's always Rogue Trader ...

So as much as I want to buy Dragon Rampant, it might be a while. The good news is that I'm playing most of these games with minis I already have, but to be honest I mainly use wargames as a structure to help organise my minis-purchasing habits in the first place.

Sunday 18 September 2016

The Magonium Mine Murders: Things have slowed down

It's the start of the new school year, and I have a number of other projects on the go, so unfortunately I haven't had time to work on the Magonium Mine Murders project much. I'm hoping to push on and get at least a basic draft done within a few months, but at present it's something I'm struggling to fit in around other gigs. However, I haven't abandoned it, and I will try to update semi-regularly.

In the meantime, here's something I painted the other day: another Ramshackle Games miscast, in this case a simple barricade. I'll be using it in my upcoming Wasteman game!

Thursday 15 September 2016

Frugal gaming: bits and pieces

It's been a busy week, but I have been out and about running some errands, and I did get the opportunity to stop into some local charity shops.

This gate is a Mega Bloks toy I got for 30p. Apparently it's a Mag Warriors Dark Portal, although those look greyer than this is. Perhaps it's a different kind of portal? I don't know, but it looks nice, especially for 30p. It even lights up and plays a sort of wub-wub-wub-wub building-up sound, so that'll be useful. I'll have to be careful when I paint it not to cover over the light-up areas. Still, I'm pretty pleased with it. Where's yer Baleful Realmgates now? (Costing 50 times as much is the answer.)

During last night's D&D game.
That Predator doesn't quiiiite fit, but pretty close. 

This miniature isn't a charity shop find or anything, but he was free so I'm including him here as a catchall. He is an Essex Miniatures ... something-or-other, and he is apparently stabbing himself right in the beard. It looks a bit daft, but actually I think he came out not badly with a simple paint scheme. That's a common theme with the Essex models for me.

Similarly, this guy is an Essex model, for whom I have written a longer backstory. He's part of a group of minis who will feature in a little miniscenario I will post up here when I've done them all, which will be ... well. A while.

I think he came out quite well!

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Age of Sigmar challenge: The Chosen of Chaos

Hey, it's about time for another update in my ongoing slow-build Age of Sigmar challenge with Tim of The Responsible One's Wargaming Blog! He's got a recent post on finding alternative models for the unit of 10 Chaos Warriors he's fielding as part of his army. I have a similar issue on my mind this month, although I have only five Chosen to field. Chosen are basically elite Warriors armed with heavy two-handed weapons. I didn't have any good models lying around to represent them, so I looked about for a budget alternative. I had recently sold some models, which meant I had a few quid earmarked for minis spending.

I settled on some models originally sculpted by Mark Copplestone for Grenadier but now available through Forlorn Hope Games. These are "medieval foot knights" or maybe "evil knights," and I've always liked the sculpts. I got four of them to go with a champion I already had on hand.

The champion is a bit of an odd figure. He's an unreleased Citadel model -- Foundry, who recently put him back into production for BOYL 2016, call him a wizard, but that's obviously not the case. He's a medieval Russian type, maybe a proto-Kislevite? That's not important for my purpose; he has a suitably wicked-looking axe. I took advantage of Kev Adams' charity sculpting fundraiser to get a new face sculpted on him. I just asked for a leering, demonic face, and I wasn't disappointed. I like the idea that this is a sort of samurai mask, but given how I eventually painted it it looks a little more organic. Perhaps it's a chaos gift; who knows?. He's a little different from the rest of the unit, but then he is the champion, and the backstory is sufficiently cool that I don't want to leave him out.

Now, as you can see from the photo, the Forlorn Hope models took a bit of work to clean up. They're new casts from presumably quite old moulds, and there was a fair amount of flash. They're also ever so slightly smaller than their champion, but I guess he is a champion after all.

I mounted them on old-fashioned 25mm slottabases to help add bulk and stature compared to the Marauders, who are on flat bases. I wanted to keep their colour scheme stark and simple, so I gave them black armour and grey-white cloaks with natural accents and the occasional bit of livid green. As usual, I primed them grey, then I washed the armour with a mix of Army Painter Dark Tone and Black Paint to give it a bit of shade; I then highlighted armour edges and so on with VMC German Grey and then the same colour mixed with VMC London Grey. I washed the blades of the weapons with a mix of black and green ink to give it a slightly odd tint, but they're pretty simple paint jobs.

Here are the champion and a member of the unit; I have a few weeks to get the remaining three done. No musician or standard for these guys, although if I expand the unit up to 10 they will get them.

I suppose he looks rather goblin-y or hobgoblin-y, particularly with the vest, but eh. I like the model enough that I'm going to use him, even if he is a leeetle incongruous. Perhaps something else will suggest itself, but he will do very well for now.

Anyway, I think I'm steadily on track for month two. I think for October I may just shoot for the Chimera and defer the problem of finding some Chaos Knights until November.

Friday 9 September 2016

Meltymen acquired and completed!

I found myself, for reasons too complex to explain here, with some money that I was honour-bound only to spend on miniatures. And then, as if by some cosmic convergence, ThunderChild Miniatures released some models I had been looking forward to. I sent off the order over the weekend and by Wednesday they were here: 

These are Meltymen, for the game Wasteman. I don't know what their backstory is, but in my mind they are people who fell into the toxic ooze that occurs here and there in the post-apocalyptic landscape and, while their flesh dissolved, their consciousness imbued the muck and gave it a semblance of life, sort of like the Swamp Thing in a brighter colour scheme. 

You get two resin models in the pack, together with 25mm round bases and stat cards for the game. I cleaned up the models (although they're quite textured sculpts, and as a result I missed some bits. Still, I don't think they're noticeable), stuck 'em on their bases and textured around the integral bases. Normally I put sand over integral bases, but these are sculpted as puddles of goo, which I thought was quite cool and wanted to leave on. 

I primed them grey and drybrushed up to white, as is my wont. I then washed the eye pits and facial detail in black. Once that dried, I gave the figures a wash of green wash mixed with acrylic medium and cheapo fluorescent green craft paint. I wanted them to look a little different from each other, so for one of them I added a little yellow ink to the mix. 

I then highlighted both up, first with fluorescent green, then with VMC Yellow Green, and finally with cheapo craft paint fluorescent yellow, went back and picked out the eyes in pure yellow and dotted in the teeth. I think they look OK, although overall I'm happier with the lighter one. 

I like Wasteman, but I understand that some people have concerns with the height of the models, which are rather taller than most figures. In this case, though, it doesn't matter -- how tall is a goo monster? I certainly intend to use them for my Wasteman game next month, but they could also be monsters in my D&D campaign or a Strange Aeons game. 

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Frugal gaming: more pound store monsters?

I was in London last weekend, and while waiting for the film I was going to see (Beyond the Gates, which my podcast co-host Jesse is in -- it's coming out in the US later this year and in the UK early next, so keep your eyes open) to start, I popped into a Poundworld (which I assume is a larger store composed of many smaller Poundlands). And I got some of these:

Ah, pound store toys. I got the Crashlings mainly because I thought I could do something with the meteors, but the little monsters are cool too. I thought the wrestlers might make a good source of parts for conversions. And I was happy to wager £2.

So here's what I got for my couple of quid:

These are the wrestlers. They are randomly packed, although I believe you can tell from the one on the front what faction the others in the pack will belong to. I think these ones are mutants, but there are also robots, insects, aliens etc.

They come in interchangeable parts, and I think the heads are particularly promising for conversions. I think that sludgey guy might actually wind up more or less unchanged in a game of Wasteman, which has that kind of horror-cartoon aesthetic already. And I do like models made of translucent plastic.

Here's one next to an em4 trooper -- as you can see, they're pretty big. I think they might have potential, particularly that sludge dude. Their backs aren't solid (because of the way they stick together) but I can probably putty them closed.

These are the asteroids. Sorry about the lighting, but you get the impression. The larger one is kind of rubbery and probably won't take paint well, but I think the little ones should be fine. I think they'll make fun terrain for Wasteman (again) or even Age of Sigmar, which has a crashed-meteor scenario. They're a little too cartoony for most space games, although I guess they might fit with the aesthetic of a game like War Rocket, which I don't play because I'm the kind of person who makes frugal gaming posts. If I ever win the lottery, though.

And here are the Crashlings. I think they look pretty OK, but I probably won't get much use out of most of them. I might use them as base decoration on Wasteman or Ork models (I guess some would be pretty nice squigs!). I will probably use the little king guy and the snail to his right, plus the meteors, so even though I don't want them all, that's still pretty good for a quid.

Monday 5 September 2016

A few new painted models

So, in addition to progress on my Age of Sigmar project, I've been painting a few extra models, including some minis from that big haul I received in early August.

This wereboar is from Grenadier, and is shown here with other models of the same era. Compared to more modern/British-influenced models, it is titchy, so I will probably not use it as a big, terrifying monster in games. Instead, it's gonna be more of a pathetic mutant type.

These prisoners come from Ramshackle Games and will make excellent objectives for rescue-type missions.

This hideous axe-wielding mutant is also from Ramshackle, and will wind up leading the assault squad of my Chaos cultists or serving as a general baddie in post-apocalyptic games. I love Ramshackle's whole aesthetic, and I'm really pleased by how this guy came out after a super-quick paint job.

Another Ramshackle model, this is a giveaway figure from BOYL 2016. I may have already shown him, but whatever.

The fair Gwendolyn is a lovely 1980s Grenadier model -- like a lot of that range, she is a lovely portrayal of a female character, not super sexualised and just generally useful. However, like other Grenadier models of the era she's tiny.

This massive brute in rusty armour comes from, you guessed it, Ramshackle, and is going to serve either as a generic wasteland baddie or as a champion of Nurgle. If he's going to be in the Nurgle army I should probably add a contrasting purple element to his paint scheme, but I'm not sure where it would go. The colours look a bit washed out in the photo, but oh well.

Thursday 1 September 2016

Age of Sigmar project: first month complete!

As I have mentioned, I'm doing an Age of Sigmar slow-build project using the "matched play" points rules presented in the General's Handbook. Together with Tim of The Responsible One's Wargaming Blog, I'm trying to complete a 1,000-point force by the end of the year, which means 200 points a month. This month, my 200 points are a sorcerer (100 points), two familiars (40 points) and a unit of 10 Marauders (60 points).

And here they are:

When the plague struck the city, none were spared. The wise died with the foolish, the brave with the cowardly, the poor alongside the rich. Scheltorius was the most learned of physicians and astronomers, but no medicine could prevail against the illness. When his colleagues sickened and died, he applied all the teachings of physic, but to no avail. When his love, the fair Clorinda, began to cough and spit blood, he poured out his fortune to the temples of Sigmar, but no help came. When his children took sick, he sought spells and incantations in forgotten tomes, but they were powerless. But when he himself began to show signs of the disease, then in desperation he called upon the forbidden name of Nurgle. And this time, his prayer was answered. 

For his devotion, the plague lord gave Scheltorius his life -- but for his cowardice he gave him life imprisoned in a hideous fleshless form, a cruel mockery of his former self. Chastened by his master's lesson, the sage devoted himself to the unclean one. Now, as a sorcerer of Chaos, he leads a band of wretched survivors on his lord's work. 

Speaking of wretched survivors, here are that first unit of Marauders:

They're a mix of GW Flagellants, zombies (Mantic?), GW Mordheim militia, Frostgrave cultists, Gripping Beast Dark Age warriors, Wargames Factory vikings and a Reaper Bones barbarian. The standard is a mix of quotes from Boccaccio's description of the plague in Florence on some aged paper, with a stylised Nurgle rune. They're going to get their muddy bases tufted up a little, but otherwise they are all done. They represent plague survivors maddened by their experience into the worship of Nurgle, led by the kind of guy who aspires to be a Warrior of Chaos.

Next month I'm doing another infantry unit, but this one is smaller: a five-man unit of Chosen, who are Chaos Warriors armed with two-handed weapons. I have the models picked out, so this should be a nice easy one compared to August, which is good news, seeing as it's the start of the school year again.