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K. Newton
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17th-Jun-2009 06:52 pm - Samson Vs.
calvin, gusto
Sometimes I forget that the original point of this journal was to post random scribblings that I don't care to polish. Here's one of them.

I called it "Samson Vs." I don"t know why.Collapse )
25th-May-2009 03:13 pm - How I GM, Part 1: Plot-Writing
As a pretty good GM and an incorrigible navel-gazer, I've come up with some thoughts about the art of gamemastering, so I decided to write a series of articles describing my own methods and the advice that I'd give to other GMs. The series has three parts, one for each of the primary responsibilities of the GM: Plot-Writing, Character-Building and Session-Managing. To avoid the scattershot of ideas that plague most primers on this subject, I've decided to tighten my focus to GMs of moderate experience; that is, those who have already been GMs long enough to run a session with confidence, or those who are GMing for the first time but have substantial experience as players. In other words, these articles won't mean much to the poor bastard who's just purchased his first copies of the DMG and PHB and is stuck trying to learn the game while simultaneously DMing for his reluctant friends.

Chronologically, the first task of a GM is Plot-Writing, so let's start down the path (10-foot pole extended before us, of course):

How to Write a Plot

Step 1: Find the FunCollapse )
Step 2: Make an OutlineCollapse )
Step 3: The Evil Overlord GameCollapse )
Step 4: Make ConnectionsCollapse )
Step 5: Master the MaterialCollapse )

That's it for plot-writing. In the next installment, I'll discuss my methods of creating NPCs (and using them to cheat).
14th-Sep-2008 03:23 pm - The Transfiguration of Kurtzberg
Today is for posting things that I've had kicking around for a while. This thing isn't quite as incomprehensible to the uninitiated as most of my posts, but the reader will benefit from familiarity with:

Jack Kirby and his works.
The Transfiguration of Christ and Raphael's painting of same.
The Bible in general, especially the Torah. If you're unfamiliar with this one, no link to Wikipedia can help you.

The Transfiguration of KurtzbergCollapse )
14th-Sep-2008 12:55 pm - The Amber Visor
calvin, gusto
I'm going to explain this entry. Because when I don't explain entries like this, no one understand them, and they just sit there.

This is something a little different. It's sort of a science-fiction piece, but it's written in the form of an entry in a Wikipedia-like online encyclopedia called "Demos." Basically, it's a retrospective written in the mid-2040's about the rise and fall of PND technology, which permitted the real-time analysis of neurological activities so that people could tell, for example, when they were letting emotions cloud their judgment or what kind of attraction they were feeling toward others at any given moment.

The *article* is about PNDs, but this *project* is about both the sci-fi premise and about the way discourse works in our culture. The Demos article (which is user-generated, just like a Wikipedia article) both describes and is shaped by the public discourse over PNDs. So to guess at the real events behind the Demos article, one has to think about the motives and knowledge of the contributing editors. For example, note that certain assertions in the article go unsupported and unchallenged, while other bits of it are completely stuffed with citations and counter-arguments; this reflects which topics are of greatest public interest and which ones are most fiercely debated. The article is most notably shaped by the political framing of the PND debate as a matter of public safety. The rhetoric of politicians leading up to the STOP Act deeply influenced public thinking about PNDs and the Demos article can't help but respond to this very successful issue-framing.

Anyway, fair warning: This is meant for close reading. If you don't dig in, it's kind of dry. Unless you're the kind of person who likes reading random wikipedia article, like I am, in which case it might be right up your alley.

Here's the link. Note: The in-text citations link to a list of references at the end of the article, but the off-site links are dead; they just link back to the main page of this LJ.
3rd-Aug-2008 01:57 pm - College Boy Blues
HM > We Fight With Jazz
Some days you just feel like writing something. This often happens when you have dishes or laundry to do. That's what happened to me today.

College Boy BluesCollapse )
30th-Jul-2008 08:21 pm - Half-orcs, half-orcs, half-orcs!
Okay, this one needs a little explanation. My very patient and talented wife, Sheila, has certain limitations as an artist. One of them is that she can only draw ugly things by making them impossibly cute. That is why these half-orcs, the Penguin Tribe, depart a little from the hairiness, coarseness and uninhibited belching that one normally associates with their race. They are cute. Really cute. Like, cuter than ten puppies piled in front of some kind of cuteness-reflecting parabolic dish. That said, these guys turned out pretty awesome, even if they are awesome in a way that's atypical for half-orcs. A reminder of the rules:

  1. I've created these parties at 1st level, then leveled them up to 6th to take a snapshot of their progress.
  2. Each party is composed of four members, each of whom fills one of the traditional D&D roles. Each team has a fighter (note the lower-case "f"), a divine-magic-user, an arcane-magic-user and somebody who can deal with traps and locks.
  3. Each race's favored class is represented in its party.

    The PartyCollapse )


    K"rplunk, BarbarianCollapse )
    "Stormy" Kromer, AnarchCollapse )
    Squee the Fair, WitchCollapse )
    Oogle, Spirit ShamanCollapse )

    The Half-Orc Party Overall: Pros and Cons

    Making a party full of half-orcs would have been tough enough, but circumstances left me with the even thornier problem of making them cute. Fortunately, Sheila's illustrations provided plenty of inspiration, and I found that the mechanics really supported what I was trying to do. Unlike the gnomes and half-elves, half-orcs have a definite thematic bias that is reinforced by their mechanical features. That made it much easier to envision and create a distinctively half-orc party. Penguin Tribe is full of rough, focused characters who accomplish a lot through brute force (either literal physical strength or, in Squee's case, magical power). While they aren't the most versatile party ever created, they can hold their own in a fight and crash through just about any other kind of encounter with the wonderful lack of subtlety that we all expect from orcs.

    The mechanical advantages of the half-orc are surprisingly few. Half-orcs have been called the second-weakest race next to half-elves, which is probably true, but at least they're good at what they're supposed to be good at, unlike gnomes. Half-orcs get +2 to Strength, which is extremely useful at low levels. It improves melee accuracy and damage, obviously, but more subtly it helps to make non-martial characters decent in a fight. This is important at 1st-3rd levels, where casters tend to run out of spells and have to switch to physical combat. Half-orcs also get Darkvision, which is always handy and helps orcs to retain their scummy nocturnal image. Finally, half-orcs have Barbarian as a favored class. Barbarian is a pretty good dip class and multiclasses well. It also lends itself to the half-orc gimmick, giving orcs of other classes a chance to pick up rage on the side.

    Half-orcs have lots of weaknesses, starting with Abilities and continuing right on down the line. -2 to Intelligence and Charisma doesn't seem too harsh at first level, but these penalties show their severity over time. The -2 to Intelligence limits Feat selection even for martial characters and costs a skill point each level; it keeps hurting long after the +2 to Strength has stopped helping. The -2 to Cha is less damaging, but it hurts a wide variety of classes: Bard, Paladin and Sorcerer, obviously, but also Cleric and some kinds of Rogue. Between the two penalties, it's just about impossible to optimize a half-orc arcane caster. With Squee I just gave up and made an interesting character with a very specific niche; there was no way this party was going to end up with a mighty wizard, which is a major blow to any D&D group. The half-orc favored class also multiclasses really poorly with arcane classes, further discouraging half-orc wizards and sorcerers. Furthermore, given the dubious trade-off of Int and Cha for Str, one would expect half-orcs to have lots more racial features, but other than darkvision, they don't get anything else. This isn't exactly a weakness, it just further directs half-orcs toward a few specific niches. Since Strength is all that half-orcs have to set them apart, they have to either pick a class that emphasizes Strength or suck compared to similar characters of other races. This is in contrast to, say, elves, who have lots of little features such that any character class or concept can benefit from at least a couple of them.

    Overall, Penguin Tribe is a fun party with enough mechanical strength to adventure recklessly, the way that half-orcs should. They're not the strongest team I've developed nor the most versatile, but they'd provide many hours of enjoyable mayhem for a group of gamists out to pick fights and piss off the town guard. If you want more depth than that, might I suggest elves?
In this final entry, we'll look at the miscellaneous quests that players can take on in the final hours of Chrono Trigger, as well as the final battle against Lavos and a few of the game's dozen-of-so endings. Because this part of the game is non-linear, I've decided to format this entry differently from the others. Instead of a single synopsis, I've given each important quest its own sub-section. This is a more accurate representation of the game, because these end-game events can be performed in almost any order or skipped entirely.

"The Fated Hour", "The Final Battle" and endingsCollapse )

So that's it for this series. All that remains is to credit Chrono Compendium, a great site and an invaluable resource for these articles. The recently-maligned retranslation hosted there was a particularly important source for me, teaching me many new things about a game I've played countless times in English.

Coming Soon: A five-month backlog of non-Chrono Trigger ideas. Or possibly a conversion of Chrono Trigger to 4e D&D. We'll see.
4th-Jul-2008 11:02 pm - Top Five Fictional Women
HM > I Breathe Into 'Em
Premise: I'm collaborating with my wife to do an article on the top five fictional women I'd like to woo. Because we are strange, strange people. You can find her top five fictional men here.

When my wife suggested this project, I knew instantly that it would be tougher for me than for her. As a life-long connoisseur of fictional femininity, I've got high standards. Sure, I could have just picked a quintet of women based merely on crazy proportions (Lara Croft), hipness (Liz Lemon) or adolescent sex nostalgia (Black Widow, post hair-puff and pre-Daredevil). Ironically, though, the legions of supersexy womanoids created by male authors over the years aren't good matches for a real-life man. What the hell would I talk about with Black Widow? As for Liz Lemon and her ilk... fully realized female characters raise the question of what I would have to offer them. It would be fun to shoot the shit with Liz for a couple of hours, but then what?

So I set a higher bar for the fictional women in this article: They had to be women that I'd want a romance with, not just a fulfillment of masturbatory fantasy. Here they are:

The Top FiveCollapse )
26th-Jun-2008 06:55 pm - Half-elves, half-elves, etc.
HM > We Fight With Jazz
Good God, it's finally half-elves! After careful deliberation, here's Party #3: The crew of the Orca. Keep the rules in mind:

  1. I've created these parties at 1st level, then leveled them up to 6th to take a snapshot of their progress.
  2. Each party is composed of four members, each of whom fills one of the traditional D&D roles. Each team has a fighter (note the lower-case "f"), a divine-magic-user, an arcane-magic-user and somebody who can deal with traps and locks.
  3. Each race's favored class is represented in its party.

    The PartyCollapse )


    Abelard, SwashbucklerCollapse )
    Sabah, SpellthiefCollapse )
    Seline, WarmageCollapse )
    Kaito, Water ShugenjaCollapse )

    The Half-Elf Party Overall: Pros and Cons

    This project has become sort of a bittersweet farewell to 3.5 D&D for me. This entry puts the "sweet" in "bittersweet." While 4th edition half-elves are perfectly workable, 3.5 half-elves outright suck. They don't have much of a thematic niche to fill, and their only distinguishing mechanical features are small bonuses to Diplomacy and Gather Information. It's not much to work with, but I did my best. I created a seafaring group that is likely to run into lots of different cultures (and thus lots of opportunities for high-stakes Diplomacy and Gather Information). Half-elves share with humanity a lack of Ability modifiers, so I decided to emphasize cultural diversity within the group as well. The half-elf race, for all its faults, can support just about any character type, so I decided to make this crew even motlier than most adventuring parties. In the end, though, there's only so much one can do with a race so lacking in distinctive features.

    The half-elves' lack of Ability modifiers proved somewhat useful for this party. Three of the four characters are spellcasters, and spellcasters tend to be hurt more than helped by Ability modifiers. These half-elves have mostly moderate scores in Str, Dex and Con, which is much better than having a high score in one of those abilities at the expense of a low score in another. The racial bonuses to Diplomacy and Gather Information synergize well with Charisma, which turns out to work well with the half-elf archetype of Dashing Dabbler. Weirdly, every member of this team favors Charisma. This isn't a social team in the way that the Wild Hares of Campingstone are, but every member of the team can get by in a social situation, a boast that not many D&D parties can make. Finally, the ability to favor any class is a nice benefit that sees only a little use in the party I've built. Only Abelard takes advantage of it at 6th level, but Sabah might dip into Rogue later.

    Weaknesses... where to begin. First of all, the same lack of Ability modifiers that helps out spellcasters cripples martial characters. It would be bad enough that the lack of a single high Ability prevents half-elf warriors and martial rogues from excelling at anything, but it also limits Feat selection. To add insult to injury, the Feats that a half-elf can take are less effective because Abilities aren't min-maxed. Weapon Finesse, for example, is great for a halfling because it synergizes with a build that emphasizes Dex at the expense of Strength. For a half-elf who's got 14 in Dex and 12 in Strength, though, that Feat yields only an extra +1 to hit. The miscellaneous bonuses of the half-elf race become irrelevant quickly, too, giving the character designer little to build on for any class or character type. Immunity to sleep effects is pretty much useless after 4th level; +1 to Listen, Search and Spot is both a ridiculously tiny bonus and one totally overshadowed by class and Ability considerations; and the +2 bonus to Diplomacy and Gather Information, while potentially handy, is useful only for social characters who would be better served by special abilities than by skills. The +2 bonus versus Enchantments is the only minor half-elf bonus of any regular use, and one can hardly build a character around a small, situational savings throw bonus.

    Overall, the half-elves of the Orca take advantage of the only real advantage that half-elves have: the capacity to support many different character types. From Abelard's Wolfpack-powered knock-backs to Kaito's water-based magic, each member of the team is adapted for a seagoing campaign in a way that would be more difficult with focused races like dwarf or half-orc. The class versatility of the half-elf also leads to a team with lots of utility and tactical options; this party consists of four niche characters whose niches are surprisingly complementary. While I like the Orca's crew from a character perspective, though, I couldn't overcome the inherent mechanical inferiority of half-elves. For this one race, at least, I welcome 4th edition's changes whole-heartedly.

    (But you can't make Brawnstro at all with the 4th Edition PHB. Who cares about half-elves at a time like this?)
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