Aug 17, 2014

Gencon 2014

I'm back from Gencon 2014.  There was some bad and a whole lot of good going on this year.  Let's get the bad out of the way first, shall we?  The biggest bummer was that I had to drop the first game I was running.  If you are one of five players scheduled for my Thursday game of Pilz, I apologize.  In return for your wasted time, I'm offering you three of my games free of charge via RPGNow.  All you have to do is email me at hartwell602 at gmail dot com and I'll get those to you within 24 hours.

Another bummer was the lack of program books for the majority of Thursday.  I expected the crowds, I expected the many full parking garages, and I expected that a lot of the freebies would be gone by Thursday, but I was very surprised to find only empty carrels for program books on Thursday.  The next shipment didn't come in until the evening.  I was also a little bummed to be unable to imbibe any beer as I had to drive out of town each evening, but this probably saved me money and headache (literally) in the long-run.

Finally, I don't like the system for turning in tickets after you've run a late game.  For example, I ran my Savage Worlds game from six until nearly eight thirty, then went directly to GM headquarters where I found the door locked and no hours listed on the door.  I then waited in the customer service line to drop my tickets off, only to discover that they (customer service) couldn't take them and couldn't tell me what to do with them since I was not coming back the next day.  They called down to someone in command who also asserted "I don't know what you can do."  So, I ended up leaving my hundred dollars worth of tickets on the ground in front of the GM headquarters door, hoping someone wouldn't take them or trash them.

The majority of my time at Gencon 2014 was extremely pleasant.  The weather was perfect; clear and warm, with blue skies.  Even though I had to park a mile away, the downtown walk was enjoyable.  I found several cool bars, a comic store, went up to the municipal building's observatory, and meandered around the city center, all before reaching the convention center.
My daughter in Indianapolis.

Because I elected to have my badge shipped, I didn't have to wait in the massive (several blocks long) line to get my badge; I could go straight in.  And straight in I went.  I hit the dealer's hall and lifted my five-year old daughter onto my shoulders.  That way she wouldn't get lost, I would get some exercise, and I could also meander where I wanted.  We bought some dice, played a few card games, took some pictures, got some free badges, and colored a picture of R2D2 in the family resource center (also in the dealer's hall).  I also bought some Dwarven drinking games, a bunch of Adventure Time stuff, and a few Yugioh characters for my daughter.  We skimmed the D&D 5e area and watched some people painting miniatures and playing Pathfinder.  We hiked back to the car, then made the hour drive to my dad's house.  We both fell asleep quickly and deeply with smiles on our faces.  It was a great day!

The next day I left my daughter with dad and drove into Indy, loaded with materials for my game.  I'm happy to report that both my Labyrinth Lord and Savage Worlds games were very well received.  Both filled up and I even had an extra player for Savage Worlds.  Everyone had good comments and I was able to create a dramatic ending on time.  Every player had a chance to shine and I applied the rules fairly, quickly, and -for the most part- accurately.  I felt very satisfied, but tired, as I drove out of Indy Friday night.

I bought the Gencon packet of Iron & Ale.
I'm not too much into the whole buying bit.  Most of the stuff I find in the dealer's hall I can get online cheaper if I wait a few months, plus I don't have it lug it around a downtown metropolis.  That said, there was quite a bit of gamer eye candy.  I noticed a lot of super cool card games that weren't the traditional CCG-type of thing.  I bought some Adventure Time and Iron & Ale cards.  I played some Mice & Mystics, but balked at the steep price tag.  I swung by Upper Deck, but wasn't impressed with the Alien game.  Not nearly as much as their life-sized Xenomorph, anyway.  That's too bad, as I'm hoping to create and run a new Alien-themed Savage Worlds game soon.  A good Alien game could have inspired or helped me in such a process.

I was sad to see that Palladium, even with their Robotech Kickstarter fiasco, was unable to get their product to Gencon.  Apparently, several truckloads of Robotech Tactics were held up in customs in California, having only recently arrived from China.  In other words, THE big Palladium product for Gencon was a near-complete no-show.  I've always been a fan of both the Palladium system and Robotech.  I won't likely buy the expensive miniatures, but I still wish the company well.

Here's some more gamer porn for you:
The Super Dungeon Explorer minis were awesome!

I want to buy this, but need to find it cheaper online.

Palladium's Robotech Tactical Mini Game

I love the Xenomorph design!

My daughter's D2.

Oh my Glob!  I can't believe I bought this!

Will I go to Gencon 2015?  Probably.  By charging for my games and staying with my dad I was able to attend Gencon 2014 for a total of about twenty bucks (not including the games I bought).  That includes food, badge, parking, and gas.  Not too shabby, eh?  More important, I liked challenging myself by running games for complete strangers.  I may even run more games next year.  I found that running two games back-to-back was tiring.  I may spread the love a bit more next year.

What will I run next year?  Definitely one or two the Blasphemous Brewery of Pilz and at least one Miami Vice game.  I may also write and run an Aliens vs. Predator game using Savage Worlds rules.  We'll see, won't we, Constant Reader?

Aug 13, 2014

Orc Alert at Gencon 2014!

Wish me luck Constant Reader; I'm off to Gencon 2014!  If you happen to see an exceedingly handsome guy walking around in a shirt that looks like this:

Be sure to say hi!  I hope to do a write-up of the trouble I get into over the course of the next four days.  I'm running two old-school dungeon crawls using Labyrinth Lord rules and one modern detective game using Savage Worlds rules.  I also hope to walk the dealer's room, crash a friend's party, bid on stupid stuff I don't need at the auction, and walk my legs off.  If I'm lucky, I'll get a chance to try some Froth of Khan and talk with gamers I've only known online.  Stay tuned!

Aug 6, 2014

First Playtest Finished

I studied Savage Worlds rules.  I wrote an adventure and made pregenerated characters.  I made maps and minis and gathered all extraneous materials.  On Monday, two of my friends in my regular gaming group agreed to an hour-long playtest.  The main point was to see if I could apply the rules coherently and if I had missed any important game aspects.  In other words, was I prepared to run a Savage Worlds game at Gencon in two weeks?  The short answer?  Yes.  For the longer version, see below.

One of my gamer friends who was in on the playtest has decades of RPG experience, the other has only been playing for a few years and only plays because he wants to spend time with his brother.  In other words, one hard core gamer and one very casual gamer sat in on the playtest.  At the end of the playtest both said the game was fun and the rules were applied well.  They mentioned that my photocopied pictures weren't very clear and the Wild Die (an extra D6) was sometimes a little confusing because they kept wanting to add up their results.  These are small problems easily fixed.  First, I reprinted the pregens with a better ink quality.  Second, I printed a cheat sheet to cover basic mechanics to include with the pregenerated characters.  Both playtesters positively commented on the little extra things I had done such as using real sea shells as bennies, painting the miniatures in pastels, and having appropriate Hot Wheels cars on the table.

So, what happened in the course of the playtest?  Let's start with a little character backstory.  My two friends choose Crockett and Tubbs as their pregens; two detectives going undercover as big-time drug dealers and runners.  They were meeting a drug dealer named Carlos Andejo in a nightclub in South Beach circa 1985.  Their goal was to convince the dealer to sell them large amounts of cocaine, at which point they would arrest and attempt to turn him into an informant.

They decided to take Tubb's Coupe deVille and parked right off Ocean Boulevard in front of the night club.  At the entrance, Tubbs made a successful Streetwise roll to convince the doorman to let them in.  In other words, they didn't have to flash their badges.  Inside, Billy Idol's "Flesh for Fantasy" was booming as a Cuban band was setting up on stage.  The place was packed.  Women in big shoulder padded dresses twirled on the dancefloor.  Every other person leaving the bathroom was wiping their noses rapidly.

Crockett failed a Notice roll, but Tubbs made it; he was able to spot Carlos sitting in a dark corner.  One of Carlos henchmen walked up from behind the detectives and escorted them to chairs next to Carlos.  After some small talk, Carlos offered a price of $120k per kilo.  Crockett attempted to negotiate a lower price with a Persuade roll, but failed.  Just as they were going to shake hands, gunfire sounds in the night club.  Neither Crockett nor Tubbs had made a Notice check to see the two men behind them, pull pistols from their jackets and fire towards Carlos.

Both gunmen hit Carlos for a total of three wounds.  Carlos rolled his D6 Vigor and, rolling a 1, bled to death on the floor.  Tubbs gained initiative next round and, having quick draw, fired a round from his Ithica 37 sawed-off shotgun toward the a gunman.  He rolled 2D6; one Wild Die and one D6 for his Shooting skill.  His result was snake eyes!  He shoots a young woman in the arm who happened to run in front of him at the wrong moment.  Uncannily, something extremely similar happened during my self-run test!  The young woman's date grabs her by her good arm, and pulls her out of the club.  Crockett drops to a crouch and fires at the second gunman, dropping him with one wound.  The first gunman defensively backs behind a corner.

Next round Tubbs gets initiative again and moves forward until the gunman is in sight, then fires a second round.  He hits, and gets a couple raises on his damage doing more than four wounds!  The poor gunman is pasted against wall adjacent to the girl's bathroom.  Blood sprays onto panicking clubbers who scream as the gore splatters across their glittering dresses.

Quickly Crockett and Tubbs check on Carlos.  Crockett holsters his pistol and presses his hand under Carlos' chin.  "He's dead," says Sonny as Tubbs reloads his shotgun.  The club is half empty, but still chaotic when two gunmen in flak vests and M-16s run in from the side exit.

The gunmen gain the initiative.  One lays down suppressing fire and the other targets a single round towards Sonny.  Both are successful.  Tubbs spends a bennie to remove his shaken status, but Crockett takes a wound.  Tubbs grabs one of Carlo's stunned goons, and drags him behind a half height wall.  Crockett is shaken, and so loses any major action ability.

In the next round, the gunmen go first again.  One moves onto the stage to get a better view of Crockett and fires another round, hitting him.  Crockett fails a Vigor roll and takes two more damage.  He spends a bennie, removes his Shaken status and is able to remove two wounds with a lucky roll.  The other gunman sprays bullets into the wall, trying to hit Tubbs, but misses.  Tubbs jumps up and fires two rounds into one of the gunmen.  Even with a recoil penalty (-2) he hits and does massive damage, punching through the armor and killing one of the gunmen.  Sonny crouches and fires a shot at the other gunman on the stage.  He hits, but can't penetrate the flak jacket armor.

In the next round Sonny gets to go first, so he fires again, this time getting several raises on his damage roll.  He's able to hit a vital location and kill the gunmen.  The nightclub is now empty, but classic 80s hits continue to scream from the speakers.  Crockett calls an ambulance, hoping one of the gunmen survives so that they can pump him for information.  Tubbs hurries Carlos' henchmen out a side exit, hoping to cement a possibly fruitful relationship in the future.

The playtest ends there.  I found the gameplay remarkably similar to my own self-run playtests.  That's a good thing.  If they had been significantly different, that would indicate I wasn't adjudicating rules properly.  So that mean at this point, I'm ready for Gencon!  I have one more playtest scheduled for this Sunday, but that's just icing on the cake.

Aug 3, 2014

Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

I'm running three games at Gencon in a couple of weeks; 2 Labyrinth Lord crawls through my blasphemous brewery of Pilz and one Savage Worlds detective game set in the world of Miami Vice.  I'm comfortable with Pilz because I've ran it five or six times with a large variety of gamers.  Savage Worlds, on the other hand, is totally new.  As in, I've never ran a single encounter ever, let alone a full game.  That means I need to prepare.

I've done a lot to make sure I'm prepared to run my Miami Vice game.  I made 9 different pre-generated characters, each of whom have a special ability they bring to the table.  I made a 24" x 36" map of the opening encounter and laminated it.  I bought and hand-painted over 25 different miniatures for all the Wild Cards and extras.  I researched Miami, Florida in 1985 by reading back issues of Time magazine, Playboy (not just the articles!), and DEA reports.  When my wife asked me why I was purchasing a bunch of Playboy back issues from the mid 80s I was able to honestly answer 'for game research'.  I made my own GM screen, wrote up the adventure ideas, made criminal reports on some extras, bought some shells as bennies, and bought a new extra large faced deck of playing cards for establishing initiative.  I even burnt a CD to give all of my players.  It's filled with 80s hits from '85 and pieces from the Miami Vice Jan Hammer soundtrack.

The leg work is done, now it's time for boots to hit the ground.  A few days ago, I ran a single one-on-one combat sequence to get a taste for the rules.  Today, I broke out ten miniatures, pregen character sheets, maps, models, die, bennies... the whole shebang.  I then played out the entire first act of the adventure and took four pages of notes.  All told, it took me around 45 minutes.  Tomorrow, I'm playtesting the same scene with friends who aren't afraid to pull punches.  If I can get my wife on board, I'd love to get her non-gamer perspective, too.

I won't go into explicit note-taking details here, but I'll summarize my findings.  First thing I noticed was that
combat was smooth and exciting and fast.  In 45 minutes I got through seven rounds of combat involving up to eleven characters and four Wild Cards.  Each round was unique, but exciting.  The setting was a night club off Ocean Boulevard in South Beach.  Crockett and Tubbs are going in for a meet and greet with a drug dealer.  Zito and Switek are providing surveillance from their van, parked in the corner alley.  A rival gang is hoping to kill the dealer Crockett and Tubbs are meeting.  In the first round, the two bad guys inside the club got the jump on our players, but missed their target.  Panic ensues.

Second round, Tubbs (who has quick draw) pulls his sawed-off shotgun and fires toward a bad guy.  His very first roll (d6 shooting skill along with a d6 Wild Die) comes up snake eyes!  In other words, he shoots an innocent bystander as they run, screaming for an exit.  Crockett fires, but without Quick Draw, he incurs a -2 to his shooting and the baddies are behind partial cover (corner), so he misses.  Outside, Zito makes his Notice check, and sees two strange guys with M-16A1s taking position around the alley exit.  Zito and Switek get out and move towards the

In the third round, the baddies inside the nightclub go first and both hit their target (the drug dealer) and both do damage.  The drug dealer rolls a 1 on his vigor and dies immediately.  Tubbs blows one baddie away with his shotgun and Crockett shakes the other baddie with his own gunfire.  Outside, Zito and Switek order the baddies to drop their weapons, but they refuse, so everyone opens fire.  Zito hits, but doesn't penetrate the flak vests the baddies are wearing.  Switek misses entirely.  Baddies return fire, hitting Zito in the leg, putting him down Shaken with two Wounds (-2).  Inside, Crockett and Tubbs kill the remaining baddie, while noticing what sounds like gunshots coming from the alley exit.  Outside Zito gets initiative, crawls behind the van and spends a bennie to remove his shaken status, but misses a Vigor roll, so he stays wounded -2.  Switek, jumps in the van to access the M-16A1 stored inside.  Both baddies riddle the van with bullets.

Inside, Crockett cautiously approaches the two fallen baddies to make sure they're dead and Tubbs runs for the side exit, but because of obstructions and a panicking nightclub crowd, his distance (6+1d6) is halved, so it ends up taking him two full rounds to reach the door.  Outside, Zito returns fire, but can't penetrate the bad guy's armor.  Switek, now armed with the M-16A1, leans out a busted window and lays down a suppressing fire (-2 penalty for recoil).  He's successful, and both baddies are Shaken.  They fall prone under a hail of bullets, but aren't injured yet.  Both baddies spend a bennie to remove their shaken status.  Next round, Tubbs makes it to the door and fires his shotgun on the prone (-2) bad guys outside.  He hits with a raise, penetrates his armor, then rolls several aces on his damage, blowing one of the bad guys away.

The remaining bad guy decides to defensively (-2) run away, giving Tubbs, Zito, and Switek attacks of opportunity.  Switek misses with a single fire of his M-16A1 and Tubbs misses with his shotgun.  Zito, wounded and crouched in pain on the ground, however, scores a raise and aces his damage, getting through the bad guy's armor and bringing him down before he's able to round the corner.  Crockett arrives at the door behind Tubbs, breathing heavy and holding his gun towards the ground with both hands.  Scene ends abruptly and "Executive Producer Michael Mann" appears on the screen.

Looking over my notes, I think I made a few mechanical errors, but very small ones without much impact.  I like how the combat flowed and made sense.  It was all very theatrical, but intense.  I learned that I'm going to have to have a good method for keeping track of modifiers, because sometimes they add up from a
variety of sources.  For example, because the nightclub is very dim, I applied a -1 to shooting.  Crouching halves movement, but applies a -1 to anyone trying to shoot them.  Going prone is a simple action and incurs a -2 to anyone trying to shoot that target.  Each and every wound also count as a -1 to any action.  I also learned that bennies are a great thing.  They can completely change a situation in a heartbeat.

The initiative system worked very well.  I really liked how easy to use it was.  I found myself looking and looking for a Joker (+2), knowing it was in there somewhere.  I also liked having a piece of paper with everyone's basic attributes, edges, and weaknesses.  It was a single place I could go to get the big picture of where everyone was standing.  I think in gameplay with real people, it'll help me allocate bennies when players role play well.

I was also struck by the importance of armor.  Kevlar flak jackets can make a huge difference.  The two bad guys inside the nightclub were unarmored and were taken down very quickly.  It took three cops multiple rounds and lots of gunfire to take down two baddies in kevlar jackets and armed with M-16A1s out in the alley.  It took good tactics like suppressing fire along with a lucky roll (Tubbs acing) to address the threat.

So, Constant Reader, I feel as if I'm all set to playtest with *gasp* real life human beings tomorrow.  That will give me the data I need to fine tune and tweak the adventure and my materials.  We'll see.

Aug 1, 2014

Artwork Old and New

I was digging through some old gaming files when I came across a couple of NPC sketches I did for a Vampire:  The Masquerade game I GM'd in the mid 90s.

I don't remember much of the game details except that it was set in Cleveland and the primary plot points rotated around a huge influx of Gangrel from Mexico.  Like I said, I ran this game back in my college years, 1994-1999.  It's ironic that I ended up moving to Cleveland more than a decade later.  If you had asked me then, I never would have thought I'd end up in Cleveland of all places!

Anyway, I still do a lot of pencil sketching today and my skill level hasn't improved all that much.  This was also before I used computer-aided drawing with any sort of consistency.  For comparison, here is a piece I completed for Tim Short's The Manor #6 just a few short months ago:

In this case, I'm trying to mimic the early D&D style.  I started with a brief pencil sketch, fleshed it out and erased my edits, then scanned it into my drawing program.  Then I did outline and fill work.

At the same time, I've been doing some goofy cartoon sketches for a possible project.  Here are a few examples:

I get equal pleasure from executing both styles.  I like the cartoon style because it's so dang easy and quick to capture whatever it is I want to express from the game.  When I was laboring over more realistic art in Verloren, for example, I had a difficult time getting the look right.  In the end, I wasn't 100% happy, but wanted to get the darn thing done.  With cartoons, like those above, I sketch out three or four items in as many minutes.  Plus, it's a lot less stressful.  I don't get worried about anatomical veracity or logic of perspective.  It's kind of freeing, even if it does resemble something my 5-year daughter might do.  Oh well.

I've done the cartoon approach before.  For example, here is the Dungeon Master from a poem I wrote about Dungeons & Dragons in the style of Doctor Seuss.
I've generally stayed away from color because I tend to print my stuff and, frankly, color is too expensive.  Plus, a lot of people that buy my PDFs also choose to print.  However, that doesn't stop me from bringing in the occasional bit of color from time to time.  Here is a favorite monster of mine that I made for an adventure that I never got around to publishing.  It's called the Golym Zul-Duk:

I did the Golym almost entirely on computer.  I made it in the very early days of the Digital Orc, somewhere around 2010.  I did this color piece around the same time:

Here is a Cyberpunk piece I did when I was in high school.  I think I finished it sometime around 1993, but I used it for some of my more recent sci-fi gaming:

I have a few drawings that, for one reason or another, I really like.  This solitary monster from my Heap game, for example, really captured the mood I was seeking:

For this NPC drawing, I used my best friend and long time fellow-gamer as my model.  It also captured precisely the mood I was looking for in my Veiled Invocation game:

This is a monster I made for my Extra Stout game, which I happen to be running in a couple of weeks at Gencon 2014.  It also captured the essence I sought for the Barrel Beast:

I also have to admit that this one kind of freaked me out.  It's from my Tombstones of Terror adventure:

I've even made a few t-shirts based on my artwork.  Here is the shirt I wear when I run Extra Stout:

And just when you thought my ego couldn't gain any mass, below is a piece I did for Verloren in which I used myself as the model.  I've actually done this a few times.  If you've purchased Tim Short's Manor #6 and look at the severed head in my second illustration, you may also find a likeness to myself.

One of my favorite pieces is the cover I made for Extra Stout.  Not only did it capture the mood I was looking for, but it brought a lot of the game elements into play.

I don't think I'm a particularly talented artist, but there is something wholly satisfying about, not only writing your own games, but illustrating them as well.  Even if I sometimes (some might even venture to say often) miss the mark, at the end of the day I can point to a product and say 'that's mine, for better or worse, it's what I did without compromise'.

Well.  I shouldn't say 'without compromise'.  Those of you who are Constant Readers know that I've managed to anger more than the occasional reader with some fantasy cheesecake.  I've sketched a few naked elves and scantily clad barmaids.  I've shaded a few nude statues and manacled clerics.  I've toned it down the past few years, but I still pursue this kind of art from time to time.  It's mainly only for my gaming group, though, so I guess you could say I have compromised, publically, some of the art I share.

Anyway, thanks for hanging out, Constant Reader.  I hope it hasn't been too boring or that I haven't come across as too egotistic.  See you at the table.

Jul 27, 2014

Dreams of Distraction

Maybe I need a new direction for my creativity to get out of this gamer funk in which I've been mucking about for the past few weeks.  I like booklet/fanzine products like Tim Short's Manor series.  I also love writing adventures and supplements for my homebrew Labyrinth Lord adventures.  Why not merge the two?  I'm also thinking about being a little more explicit (ahem, let me finish you perv) about putting all my work into a single world.

At this point I've published seven fantasy adventures; The Big Book of Spiders, Verloren, Tombstones of Terror, Menagerie of the Ice Lord, Extra Stout, The Veiled Invocation, and The Horrendous Heap of Sixteen Cities (if you'd like a preview or, heaven forbid, actually buy a copy, you can find them linked on the left-hand side of this blog).  I've already included a lot of linkage between the adventures, giving GMs a sense of cohesion, but I'd like to take that a step farther.  Instead of having an adventure seed be the heart of each future publication, I'd like it be more of a fanzine approach.  Kind of like a variety show.

What would I include?  I'm not totally sure.  Off the top of my head, I'd like to pop in an adventure seed, monster, and map at the very least.  However, I'd also like to include some fluffier stuff.  By "fluffier" I don't mean cute - well, sometimes I do- I mean simple game flavor-adding items like quotes, poems, and histories.

I don't know.

Maybe I'll never get around to it, but the idea is sure cool in my head.  Of course, I'd also include a lot of my own art.  I'll certainly include my traditional realistic approach.  Stuff like this:
And this:
And maybe even like this:

However, I'm also thinking about bringing in a flippant cartoony style, too.  Why?  Because it's fun and reminds me not to take myself, or my game, too serious.  I never cared for Snarfquest, but maybe I could make my own D&D cartoon, too.  I'm talking about stuff like this:
And this:

What do you think, Constant Reader?  I know that I've got to do something to get out of this rut I'm in and I suspect taking a new approach to self-publishing may be just what the cleric ordered.

So, I'm back to the desk.  First, I gotta hammer out a spider for Boric that I'm way too late in creating.  I hope he finds it in his heart to forgive my excessive tardiness.  If he doesn't, I have something on my desk for him that might salve the wound.

After that, I've got to survive the games I'm running at Gencon, one of which is in Savage Worlds, a system I've never run (yes, I'm crazy, but it's a good gamer type of crazy).  Once that's over, I'll start hashing out some rough draft ideas and, maybe a month later or so, I'l release some new Labyrinth Lord materials on to the unsuspecting public.  I've already decided not to buy any 5e stuff.  In fact, I'm in the process of dumping a lot of my "gamer plaque".  You know what I'm talking about; the books you buy with good intentions, but never get around to playing or employing in any function other than pleasure reading (and sometimes, it's not even that).

Anyway, I'll keep my fingers crossed and my dice at the ready.  I did, by the way, jump back into my regular gaming night on Mondays.  That's a good thing.  

Good Night, Constant Reader.