21 October 2017

Fantastic Maps: How To Design A Town

Absolutely love this style of design, and love how concise the steps are. Always remember that pre-Industrial Revolution people are living on the land and along the land's contours. Moving earth is hard and slow and won't happen without a great need, and that means that people will mostly just deal with what's there.

Again, love it.


14 October 2017

Mundane Zen

So one of the habits I've picked up in the last couple of years is reading Zen literature. Specifically Zen literature, mind you- I'm not a religious man and I don't really intend on becoming one, so I don't particularly enjoy Buddhist literature.

The main difference between Buddhism and Zen, as far as I can see it, is that Buddhism is a religion and Zen is not. Buddhism very firmly tells you what you should and should not be doing, and what rituals you should perform to receive enlightenment. There are priests and temples and scriptures, and if you don't follow all of those things you're not really a Buddhist. There are all sorts of magical powers that Buddhists apparently can do- according to Namkhai Norbu, it is possible for a follower of Dzogchen Buddhism to shed their mortal form and turn directly into light. He even claims to have seen this! Daehang Kun Sunim claims to have been able to cure diseases with her mind.

I have a hard time taking these claims seriously, which means I have a hard time taking these people seriously. I am as uninterested in the claims of people who have claimed to gain super powers by wandering around in the wilderness as I am in the claims of people who claim to cure blindness by shouting the name of Jesus. I believe that a man can turn into light about as much as I believe that all of our earthly ills are caused by the ghosts of aliens.

I think I'm in good company. The Zen Master Wumen Huikai said:

Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word "Mu."
Carry it continuously day and night. Do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of "has" or "has not."
It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try.
All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated, and when the time comes, internal and external will be spontaneously united. You will know this, but for yourself only, like a dumb man who has had a dream.
Then all of a sudden an explosive conversion will occur, and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth.

That other stuff, that's religion. To quote the Zen Master Killer Mike:
If God really exists, I tell you like this: It resides inside.
And anybody tell you different,
Just selling you religion,
Tryin' to keep your ass in line.
Namkhai and Daehang are, by all accounts, wonderful and beautiful people. They have spent their lives trying to make the world a better place. But look- Mother Theresa spent her life trying to make the world a better place, too, and that doesn't mean I'm going to sign up to join the Catholic Church.

It also means that I'm going to be wary of her when she tries to shift the conversation towards religion. She sure has a lot to say about empathy, but what she believes is based on church teachings. What she believes is based on a religion I don't follow. It's the same with these Buddhists, and that means that I have to be very careful what it is that I'm listening to. Insightful passages about clarity are right next to the passages about how meditation can solve cancer. How am I supposed to know which part is bullshit?

It might be less exciting, but I'll take mundane Zen any day. At least those folks aren't trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Any Zen master worth his shit will tell you there are no super powers, there's no special messages, there's no supernatural insight. All of the stuff they're telling you is shit that you could have figure out on your own. Of course, you didn't, and that's part of the problem. Zen masters tend to look at you like you're an idiot, because they literally don't have a message for you but you seem to be following them around anyways. Why is that? Why do people keep copying down the words of these weirdos with no message, no external goal, no superpowers, no nothing?

Isn't it obvious? Mundane Zen.

08 October 2017

Video Games Are the Worst Take

David Shimomura's article The Game Take is the Worst Take is short and to the point. It is saying "quit shoehorning video games into other kinds of writing."

In this particular article, he was talking about being able to relate to people outside of video games. It's really honestly obnoxious to read half-baked pandering articles about how thing Y is important because video games. I can relate to the real world through normal people ideas, thanks.

This reminded me of a very sad, strange article I'd read earlier but never had the time to discuss. Entitled "A dog has turned my life into an rpg," we discover that the author, Christian Donlan, has discovered that you can't take your dog into stores, and that you can talk to people. Just like in your favorite RPG! Did you know that passersby (what you and I, fellow gamer, might call NPCs,) are fully fledged humans with their own unique life stories? That's right- just like in RPGs. Isn't that interesting? Did you know that you can do repetitive things in real life? You can grind IRL!

Christian: get out more. I know it's a cliche but if you find yourself experiencing life through the filter of video games, you know that's not healthy. Talking to people and walking about town with a dog shouldn't inspire you to write a video games related article where you talk about how real life is just like a JRPG.

At its core, the article is a Facebook post or two worth of information. "Today, I walked my dog and met an old man who told me his life story! Super interesting! Good luck (Man's name)." or "Bringing a dog with you is a good way to meet people who like to pet dogs."

Not every article needs to be video-game related. I promise you. Try writing an article that doesn't mention video games once in a while. Try experiencing some media that isn't video games, even! [1]

I don't really mean to single out Christian, because this exact thing is basically what "writing about video games" is. If it's not just marketing, that is.

I don't know, I'm genuinely not trying to be mean. This sort of thing makes me a little sad. Can you imagine a life where you have conversations so seldom, where you walk so little, that the first thing you think of when you step outside to walk your dog is to think about sitting at home looking at a computer screen?

Wow! This looks just like video games!

[1] Can you imagine a film critic writing about how talking to people is just like dialog scenes in movies? Can you imagine a book reviewer doing something like that?

16 September 2017

An Illustrated Guide to Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle.

An Illustrated Guide to Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle.

Instead of writing tabletop games or kludging together an rpg-making software system into a form that I find usable, I have been reading about philosophy. The best thing I've read today is a summary of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, an incredibly influential and important work written when I was a child, and now summarized for your reading convenience here. I haven't read the actual book, either, but I enjoyed the article.

04 September 2017

Dragoncon 2017!

I've lived in Atlanta for the past couple of years and I always meant to go to Dragoncon but I always manage to talk myself out of it. Not this year, though!

I went with my good friend Alex, and we saw a lot of cool stuff. A couple of her friends were there (including one of the designers of a game called Legion,) and it was neat. My highlights:

1) Keith Baker held a panel, and it was kind of cool. I'm a respectful admirer of Eberron, and it was interesting hearing him speak about the things he'd made, why he made them, and the ideas that were behind them. He intentionally made Eberron kind of different [1], but what was really interesting was hearing him talk about Gloom. One day, so he was saying, he saw a deck of transparent playing cards and he thought to himself "I didn't know you could print on transparent plastic!" So he took a bunch of those overhead projector sheets and set about making a game with them. He basically went around asking a bunch of companies if they could make this into a game, and so they kind of did. That sort of process is enormously inspiring to somebody like me- it's not that he had some grand idea, it was just sort of a process of building successive prototypes of game and then trying to figure out afterwards if it could be made. [2]

2) The panel "Board games! Board games! Board games!" We were actually late to this one (we met some friends and so we had to traverse the streets while the parade was setting up [3]. As a result, I have no idea who the speaker was- we arrived after he introduced himself, plus we left before he was finished (I had to go see Keith Baker, which meant walking a couple of blocks through the super crowded streets), plus the Dragoncon app doesn't actually list anybody as a speaker? But anyways, this was a guy who spoke at length about, basically, how to make board games. He spoke about the process at Fantasy Flight, about how many games there are out there, how many are coming out, and what it takes to be a success. Mostly in business terms- he seemed to assume that everybody there knew how to design a decent game, and honestly, if you don't then nobody will publish your game. He did talk about the elevator pitch idea, and how the board game community is learning different skills- like how deckbuilders have sort of progressed since Dominion came out [4]. I thought that was interesting. Sometimes I fantasize about designing board games instead of just writing roleplaying rules in my head all day and so now that fantasy is a little stronger.

3) Creativity 101 on Sunday was interesting, if vague. The best thing, honestly, was being in a room full of writers, if that makes sense. I had forgotten what that was like! I spend most of my waking hours either by myself or alongside tradespeople, and while I get along quite well with electricians and plumbers and framers, they're a different type of person. This panel actually kind of sucked, but in fairness, it was labelled as a "101" style class. They'd ask questions about their process, and literally every time somebody said something that worked for them, somebody else would say they did the exact opposite. One guy stops in the middle of sentences so he's got something to finish up tomorrow morning and once he's writing, he gets right back where he was. Another lady doesn't stop until she's finished the chapter or paragraph and when she leaves her writing area, she's done. One person starts with the characters and builds a world to challenge them, another thinks of a situation that's interesting and works backwards to figure out who the people involved in it are. And so on, and so on. But it was fun, anyways. This is the panel where Alex and I decided it was time to get serious about writing, and so we both decided to do national novel writing month this year for real, and that we were going to meet up and talk about writing more often because even though we're both busy as shit with our real lives, if you don't make time for the things that are important to you then you'll never do it. And I know that as for me, personally, writing is part of who I am.

4) The best panel by far was the panel "Historical Influences in High Fantasy," which features Micheal Livingston, Van Allen Plexico, and Constance G. J. Wagner. The highlight for me was Micheal Livingston who I don't actually think I've ever mentioned on this blog but who is a person I highly admire and respect and he always had some extremely interesting things to say about whatever the topic was. Not to diminish the other panelists, of course- Constance is clearly a knowledgeable scholar in her own right, and Van (?) seemed like a pretty cool dude. I think Constance is a philosophical idealist, but I think that's common for Tolkien scholars and especially students of folklore and mythology- she seemed to think that the Game of Thrones TV show somehow spawned a movement towards grimdark, death, intrigue as a step away from Tolkien, whereas I'd argue that the fans of that show existed before the show came out, and that there's a pessimistic and cynical thread in storytelling in general that's very in vogue right now and has been popular for a while. [5]

Anyways, it was a very good panel and now I know a little more about what I need to do.

5) I missed out on seeing Alton Brown live (the line wrapped around the hotel for probably a mile, but I should have expected that) and so instead I went to hang out with Alex to talk to a write for the show Warehouse 13, which I'd never heard of but seemed pretty cool. She explained it to me over dinner, although we also both had some fairly strong drinks so my memory is a little fuzzy. But it's basically "what if a magical warehouse full of artifacts?" and I'm into that.

6) I love seeing artists and I bought some beautiful prints at the show from people that I thought were very cool. I'll probably write more about this later (I know I will,) but long story short, I have a bunch of beautiful art for my walls and I desperately need to get some frames. And one art book, by the very interesting Naomi Vandoren, who I am very jealous of. I tried not to seem to jealous in person when I was looking at her beautiful art and listening to how she painted all of this stuff while cruising across central Europe and Ireland and all of these other places but it was also inspiring. It made me feel like could, and should, be a better person. And that's what art is about! The things she paints and the landscapes she creates are so inviting. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said that art is a conversation across time, and it's honestly wonderful. I did my best not to take up too much of her time at the convention but there is something genuinely inspiring about talking to certain people. I didn't mean for this to turn into a short essay about why I love art, but there you go. Best part of Dragoncon was seeing the artists. [6]

7) The guy who makes the Legion game is actually very nice and even though a military science fiction wargame based on the d20 system is literally the last thing I'd ever design, I do have a soft spot for that kind of system. I don't know if I'd go as far as trying to find out a way to get a place at his table, but it's certainly something I'll try and keep flexible on. In the meantime, if you do like that sort of thing, please check out Legion and see if you care for it, because it seems reasonably well made and I can assure you on a personal level that its creators are decent people.

[1] I don't really like things that are different for the sake of being different, but the thing about Keith Baker is that even if I don't necessarily agree with the things he says / thinks, he's a fairly intelligent man and an accomplished creative and I strongly respect his creative vision.

[2] It was like looking at how the sausage was made- he basically said that he had no idea if what he was trying to do was possible but he wanted to do it anyways, and also that he sort of made up the game based off what works when you're stacking transparent cards, which I thought was great.

[3] The streets were absolutely packed and it turns out the people of Atlanta walk a lot like they drive- distracted as shit and not paying attention to hardly anybody but themselves. There were multiple occasions where somebody would be walking through a narrow path about as wide as their shoulders and then just sort of stop where they were standing, which boggled my mind. At one point, there was about enough space for a single person to pass but people were trying to go in both directions, so I rubbed bellies / asses with quite a few of my fellow con-goers as we all crammed our bodies sideways and tried to make the best of it.

[4] He didn't like Dominion, which is almost heresy in my eyes. Not that he's wrong- some sets of kingdom cards are kind of boring (especially the base set, with duds like the Chancellor, a card which is both weak and boring... although to the designer's credit, he did end up removing quite a few of the most boring cards in the second edition.)

[5] Breaking Bad, for example, is a show about a sociopath and it was huge before Game of Thrones came out, and not to mention that GRRM's books have been out at least a decade before the TV show came out and they have been fairly popular throughout their entire run... Leaving aside the fact that Warhammer Fantasy has been a mainstay of the "grimdark" style of fantasy since the late 90s (where it began transitioning from goofy parody fantasy to over the top violent fantasy).

[6] I have mixed feelings about it sometimes because some artists have built up this big cage and it's just like, their face poking through so they can talk to people through this cage. One artist who I was very impressed by, Sam Guay (and who I bought art from, and will buy art from again), had almost a wall that she stood behind and I remember she looked at me with the strangest look in her eyes. I have learned over my lifetime that I am extremely good at reading people but a convention is not the place for me to try and spark a conversation with an artist at a convention booth when she probably just wants me to buy her art and go. But still. I hope she is ok.

01 September 2017

Imperial Quest Elements

Water conducts electricity.
Fire is quenched by water.
Earth is burned by fire.
Thunder is grounded by earth.

In gameplay terms, that means that you want to use lightning attacks on watery foes, water attacks on flaming monsters, fire attacks on earthen beasts, and earth attacks on air-type enemies. [1]

In addition, elemental effects affect your vulnerability to other elements. [2] If you have a fire blessing on you, you take extra damage from water attacks. If you have an air mage granting you haste, you might want to be careful that you don't get slammed by an earth attack. Since the RPG Maker AI is fairly primitive, it might not matter too much- but it's extra important for player characters, since they'll probably need to take advantage of these kinds of openings to make the most of their spells and abilities.

On the other hand, a fire blessing gives you resistance to earth attacks, so putting a quick fire shield on an ally is a good way to make sure they don't get ravaged by earth elementals.

In addition, there's a second "primal" wheel that's completely unconnected from the first- the cycle of light, darkness, and void.

Light banishes darkness.
Darkness fills the void.
The void consumes light.

These have the same effects, but within their own limited scope- if a monster has a magical void effect on them, they'll take extra damage from a darkness attack. Dark-type monsters take extra damage from light attacks.

It's very possible for monsters to have one elemental type and one primal type. Candice the witch, for example, is a void spellcaster who also dabbles in water magic.

Anyways, that's the basics. I haven't had much time to work on anything super interesting due to long work hours, but I'm doing my best. Watch this space!

[1] In this schema, earth is wood, dirt, stone, and it's all equally vulnerable to fire. Similarly, air is lightning, wind, and flying-type beasties. This means that you can use root-based attacks on flying creatures, which if this was a Pokemon game would be a big no-no but in this case, I simply don't care. Maybe it deals extra damage because the magical roots reach up super high and slam you down, or because air creatures are fragile and therefore vulnerable to being bashed by rocks- I don't care. Pokemon has too many types and abilities and interactions and it's a giant pain in the ass to keep track of it.

Similarly, I know that ice doesn't conduct electricity, but it doesn't matter. Keep it simple, silly.

[2] ;)

[3] This mostly matters in terms of what kinds of abilities they get- human beings (and human-type characters) are balanced both primally and elementally, and are equally vulnerable to all magical effects.

29 August 2017

Imperial Quest: Dialog

I don't really have any artistic skills, so I'm mostly just saving art from the internet and using it wherever I can. Since I'm not drawing any of this stuff (and I don't particularly want to use the default tilesets or character art or whatever) it means that I have to take a couple of measures to try and maximize what I do have.

Dialog screens, so far, look a lot like this. The characters who are talking stand over top of a scene, and then the messages display below.  I've actually got a bit of branching dialog going already.

A lot of this stuff is pretty simple. I've been DMing for a long time and I used to write for money, so this sort of thing comes pretty easily.

In this scene, Andol (the warrior on the right) is meeting Thalia (on the left) for the first time. Andol is still injured from the introduction battle, so you'll get an opportunity to rest. This is still basically the tutorial. Andol is a Captain, which means that she's got party buffs and decent physical damage. Thalia is a Rogue, so she's got both damage and utility. They're designed to work together- Thalia can spend TP to do a double attack, and Andol can spend TP to buff the entire party's Attack and Defense. So a good strategy is to save up your TP and have Andol shout and Thalia go to town double attacking. Andol can also just Power Attack if she needs to do damage, and Thalia can Throat Punch to silence annoying casters.

After you rest, Andol will gain experience, and then Thalia joins the party. I think that you'll also gain some items, but I haven't implemented that. It makes sense that Thalia might have some potions or something that she'll share with the party (such as it is.) I haven't decided what Andol gets at level two, other than stat point increases. I actually wrote a pretty simple script that lets you (the player) decide what she gets as she levels up. I'm not sure if that's something I'll let you do for every character, or just for Andol (who is basically your avatar.) [1]

The party continues on after this, and will go towards the tomb where Cawain is busy disturbing the dead and searching for forbidden artifacts. You know how wizards are. This is also where you'll meet the next member of the party- a sorcerer named Bevior. As a spellcaster, Bevior interacts with a couple of systems that we haven't touched on yet, so that should be fairly interesting.

[1] I'd like to add Dragon Age inspired conversational options to the characters throughout the game, and some sort of stat tracker to see how well you're getting along with your fellow party members, because I think that sort of thing is a lot of fun. Social systems are pretty cool, even if Bioware tends to make them pretty weird. I don't plan on having the characters sleep with you if you give them enough gifts or anything.

27 August 2017

Imperial Quest

I got my hands on RPG Maker MV and I've been having a little bit of fun with it.

By default, it's set up to let you make a fairly traditional JRPG, but honestly I've never been much of a JRPG fan. I get lost wandering around their big sprite worlds, and I don't really like random battles. [1]

But I do like game engines, and RPG Maker MV has quite a lot of plugins that let you redefine pretty much anything. Javascript is apparently easy to code in, not that I would know. But it does mean that I can assemble the game I want and then keep on rolling forwards.

In this case, I've been borrowing still images I found on the internet and using the magic of the game engine to paste things together. As an example, you can see that Andol and company have started a battle with a Manticore. You can't see it from this screen, but they all have unique items equipped, and a variety of skills. Andol can Shout, giving her entire party an attack and defense buff for a couple of turns. Thalia is a Rogue with double attack- for a mere 5 TP she can attack twice in a row.

Bevior is the Sorcerer, and he knows a fire spell that applies a damage-over-time burn effect sometimes. Since he's level 5 (something else you can't see on this menu screen), he also knows Thunder Storm (multi-target air element damage spell), Cauterize, and Energize.

Randal is an Elvish Cleric, and he knows Sunbeam and Armor of Light, and he can spend 5 TP to cast Prayer, which heals the whole team.

The Manticore, for its part, is pretty dangerous. It can actually take multiple actions per round and has two attacks- Double Attack (the mirror image of Thalia), and Spike Volley, which launches three attacks at random enemies. Each attack deals damage and has a chance to poison. Oh, and it can also Howl, which is an Air element attack that also lowers its enemy's damage.

I plan on continuing to tinker with the game- what I have so far is the product of my screwing around with it after work and on the weekends. Once I have the battle system nailed down, my next step is to figure out a way to move the party from location to location. I don't want to use the standard JRPG convention of moving a little walking figure around, so I'm thinking a location menu? I haven't gotten that far yet.

My current sticking point is the lackluster item investigation screen, which only shows a handful of stats and is hideous, to boot. I need a system that lets me show the traits that I've given to items, if nothing else.

[1] Too much ludonarrative dissonance, plus the idea that violence is something that anybody can stumble on (and that even intelligent foes fight to the death) is really weird.