Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ant Vomit and Pocket Plutonium - Running Games at Pegcon

So this is a post (written at 5am so the typos are totally features and not bugs) that'll show how I live in two completely different worlds, as it's all about RPGs and not about sports at all. I guess that makes me like Chris Klewe, except I can't punt all that well, aren't famous, and am not the hated foe of the Gamergate losers. So, friends and family who don't share my gaming passion, feel free to scratch your head in bewilderment or make 'Big Bang Theory' jokes. It's okay. I accept and embrace the duality of my nature.


This past weekend I attended Pegcon, a gathering of 50 or so wonderful gamers at a big ole house in Newton, MA. The couple that runs it decided long ago that the best way to celebrate their wedding anniversary was to fill their home with their friends and play games, and damned if they're not on to something. It's the sort of event wherein the structural integrity of the building is threatened by the constant rumbling of laughter, and your ribs are in danger of being cracked by the hugs of people you don't see often enough. At a 3.5 hour ride from NJ we're only a middling commute - we have folks from Maryland, Las Vegas, California, and even England. Sometimes Canadians, but not this time, I think. Regardless, let me get back to the matter at hand, in which I embraced lunacy and decided to run games in two systems that were brand new to me.

The first was Robin D. Law's Hillfolk from Pelgrane Press. I'm not going to lie, it took me several readthroughs of the rules before I could grasp what was going on and what needed to happen for the game to work. It's a little like Fiasco is that the game is driven by conflicts and conversations between the players, but  intended to be a bit more serious. The suggested starter game is as a tribe of, well, Hillfolk, in Iron Age era Palestine. Using a well-crafted mod designed to ease a group into play was far too logical for me, of course, so instead I made things extra weird by picking a different mod by John Scott Tynes that made the players . . . ants. I used his castes and the threat of a zombifying fungus, but chose to have the players be ants that were suddenly Awakened with human-level intelligence. I was concerned that this game was going to flop on its face. I am happy to report that it did not.

My players were superb, overcoming my initial moment of terror when I cited shows like Sons of Anarchy, the Sopranos, and Justified as examples of what we were trying to make and was met with blank stares from everyone but the Emmy-winning writer at the table (all tables should have one of those, BTW She's awesome). Our game wasn't as gritty and dark as the sample campaign in the book, but we had plenty of conflict along with our humor. The Assassin was trying to come to terms with the sensation of new feelings and his extreme ineptitude at expressing them. In addition, he was addicted to the healing vomit of the Honeypot. The Honeypot, who completely broke the table by spending the first 30 seconds screaming in horror as he realized why they kept giving him so much food (they become immobile larders for the colony), was trying to find a different role in life. The Soldier, who had seen all of his fellow soldier ants die around him countless times while he somehow lived on, decided that there was a Ant God and that he was blessed with immortality. In trying to convert the Communications ant on this he didn't skip a beat when she admitted she had awakened them via a chemical mistake, first saying she was the instrument of the Ant God and then later anointing her as the actual Ant God, a title she accepted after a while. The Assassin and his Tank brother sparred constantly. The Engineer clashed with the Soldier over the replacement limb she'd made for him when the Assassin had torn it off in a berserk rage . . . there was so much delicious and hysterical conflict. Drama tokens, given to the person who loses the discussion, were a nice way to be rewarded for conceding an argument and allowed the Honeypot to shoehorn his way into a conversation in a much more cinematic manner. At the end we went back and decided whether or not the characters had each achieved the desire they'd written down during character creation, and it gave a nice coda to the session. The procedural system used for resolving outside conflicts is interesting but had a bit of a flaw (unless I misread the rules about it, which is entirely possible). There's a clever red-yellow-green system that's used which forces the players and the GM to either be strong, middling, or weak in a conflict - all three have to be used before you get them back again. A deck of cards is employed as well. On the GM side, for the PCs to win a easy fight they have to match the color of the GMs up card (they may or may not know the difficulty, based on what's gone on before). If it's a middling fight, they have to match the suit. For a difficult fight, they have to match or beat the value of the card, and that was our issue. I understand the math behind it - for easy you have 25 cards you can draw to win; for middling, 12. If I draw an Ace or a King there's only 3 to 7 cards that can beat me - BUT - in four difficult level fights I drew 4, 4, 5, and a Jack. Aside from the face card, the other fights were too easy. Maybe let the GM draw 2 cards in secret and play the best one? I would consider house ruling it like that next time. That being said, it was an absurd amount of fun. Not for shy, quiet players, though. Your PCs need to be invested and involved in Hillfolk, which mine were. Good time.

The second game I ran was the brand-spanking new Katanas and Trenchcoats by Ryan Macklin. This one is based on the glorious cheesiness of Highlander and I spent most of my time laughing while reading the rules. I had a tough time deciding whether to pre-gen the characters or have the players make them up on the spot, but in the end I settled for a hybrid and gave them skeletons to drape clothes on. For my part generation was easy and FUN - the inspiration for Batman; an actress so good one of her many roles was Jesus Christ ('Oops.'); an ancient warrior trying to come to term with SO MANY DAMN GUNS; and so on. They wrote up even more great background stuff and terrific Thrones of Comfort - things special to them that the SM would never mess with except for when we do because of course we're going to (although in this instance I didn't have to because the PCs kept moving the plot along). Overall, the session went well, I think. Saturday night is a tough slot - everyone has two four-hour sessions already under their belt for the day and energy starts to flag a bit, but my players were great. My wife, suffering from brutal sinus issues, had to bow out during the first fight (of course she's playing the Zulu character who saw her entire village wiped out by the British and she left right before they run into the RMCP Black Ops who are led by a guy in full RMCP regalia) which left me with 6 PCs, still a big number for this system. Still, I felt it worked pretty well. The PCs, Immortals all, were at the mansion of another Immortal. An uneasy agreement to abandon killing each other for the possibly non-existent 'Prize' was put into place 50 years ago, so this was just a friendly gathering that got ugly when three of the waiters, who turned out to be Vipers in disguise, used what later proved to be Fey magic in concert with one another to Permakill the host (and my wife's PC, since she was leaving anyway). After a good fight they questioned one and discovered they were hired by the Twins, a pair of Twilight-influenced Hungarian vampires. At the airport they were surrounded by the RMCP Black ops and I expected a big fight but the doctor made good use of her Always Another Pocket/Pouch ability to produce some weapon-grade plutonium, which made the RMCP back down. They flew to labs in San Fransisco to determine the makeup of the death balls, then went to the Vampires, where through careful negotiation  (and some brooding) they found out another Immortal had hired the Vipers through the Twins (another scene that could have been a fight, but wasn't). They jetted to confront the Immortal, who welcomed them with open arms and was shocked that 2 Immortals had been killed - he thought it was a joke. After talking (another expected fight that didn't happen - I had were-jaguars, were-rheas, were-poison-dart-frogs, were-giantbirdkiller spiders, and a were-badger!) the PCs found out who had contacted him to hire out the job - an Immortal-wannabe in Australia  who, when confronted in the final scene, revealed that he had made a deal with the Fey and transformed into a massive dragon that could Permakill Immortals, which is exactly what happened to the NPC one who went with them. If we hadn't been running late and close to midnight I would tossed in a few more Vipers with death balls (they had to be in a triangle around the Immortal and all squish the balls at the same time) but it was about time to let them succeed like the badasses they were. The players had a few quibbles with the system but I kind of liked it as it really encouraged them to describe what they were doing. All in all, a pair of great sessions, at least for me.

On Sunday I was part of the scariest horror game EVER. It was set at Fenway. THE HORROR, THE HORROR oh god the Sox are terrible this year. Okay, sports friends, all the geeky stuff is over for now. Let's talk save percentage and VORP.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Three Headed Monster

I've been bad about writing lately, both here and in a creative sense. My morning writing time has been gobbled up as I prep two games for a house con , both are new to me and thus tossing up a learning curve to deal with. Kobolds, I know. Dramasystem with fractious ants as PCs? Not so much. In the meantime my novel waits for me, finished and ready for an agent . . . or is it?

I had three beta readers make it through the entire thing. Having never had beta readers before I don't know if that's a good or bad number, but as I didn't bother too many people to try in the first place I think it's fair amount. A few people started and dropped off - that's okay too. I'm not so enamored of my work that I think it beyond reproach, like this guy with the best meltdown since the woman and the Greek Seamen. Seaman. Semen. Whatever. *  One reader got a few chapters in and pegged it as a 'dog book,' and wasn't interested. It's not a dog book - I mean yeah, it has dogs and all - but the fact that he felt that it was is more of a failing on my part than on his. I can't please everyone, but I do need to have as broad an appeal as possible. So, tinker tinker tinker.

The three who made it (survived?) are all people I respect, wildly talented in their own arenas of both work and creativity. All three are artists/creators in their own right. They came away with pretty much a stoplight of opinions; one loved it, one liked it with a few reservations, and one pretty much hated it. Obviously the one I need to focus on is the latter, who for the sake of clarity here we'll refer to as Red. Red sent me a very positive email after the first 6 chapters, which made his complete reversal all the more shocking in the detailed mauling he gave me later. Note I'm not saying he was wrong or out of line. He was very forthright and honest, which is what I'm looking for in a beta reader. I'm not the type to get huffy or angry when someone critiques my work - hell, I refrained from responding to someone who, in writing a 'review' of the story I had in Machine of Death, a) admitted she only read the first paragraph; b) got three details wrong from that brief bit of reading; and c) GOT THE TITLE WRONG. But I digress.

The question is, what to do now? Do I agree with some of his points? Absolutely. I know it takes too long to get going in a traditional sense. I was trying for a long, slow build, but may well have overdone it. Also, the minor character based on The Practice Wife could and should be excised at this point. Back when I wrote the first draft that split was fresh and raw, and there was a lot of projecting going on. It's not that we're bestest buddies now - I haven't spoken to her in 15+ years and I'm just fine with that - but it just seems kinda petty at this point. Those two examples are just the beginning of the salient points and concerns Red raised.

Other things, though, aren't as clear cut and clash with the comments from Green and Yellow. The first one that comes to mind is Henny, the male best friend. Red found him non-important and unworthy of interest, while Yellow flat out loved him and thought he needed more screen time, so to speak. Green understands and empathizes with the lead character's desire to keep his powers a secret, while Red blasts him as a selfish coward who isn't thinking about anyone but himself. They're both right, which makes deciding on a course of action difficult. The book isn't an origin story for a new superhero, but maybe I need to put more into why he isn't zipping around in spandex. Again, I'd been foolish not to pay heed to thoughtful advice.

In other words, I type with a wry grin and a weary shake of my head, I'm a lot less done than I thought I was. I am eternally grateful to my betas because not only is it awesome to read a raw work, it's something special to take the time to offer thoughtful feedback. Much appreciated, Green, Yellow, and Red.

* I cannot recommend enough that you click on that link and read the lunatic rantings of the biggest ego you may ever encounter. The 'author's' basic argument is that his getting a 1 star review is indicative of society collapsing and the rise of evil. You may thing I'm exaggerating. I assure you I am not.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Time Between the Pipes: The Old Man Learns Goalie, Part 3

Don't think, Meat

It figured that for my second game as a goalie I'd catch the league-leading, undefeated Rubber Duckies as my opponent. We'd been warned that they were young and brash, cocky and talented, showboats and hotdogs. To further complicate matters the match had a 10:45pm start time last night and we ended up going in with only 10 skaters. When I'm playing D that makes me happy, because I'm going to play every other shift.  But against a fast and young team, we were going to get slowly ground down.

I started by getting my leg pads three-quarters of the way on before realizing that, despite paying attention to what I needed to do, I'd put them on the wrong legs. Well, they were the correct legs - mine - but reversed. The pads, not my legs. As each pad consists of six straps, a shoelace threaded through the skate blade bracket, and a velcro strap or two this isn't a quick and easy process. Finally ready, I clomped out to the rink and slipped my hand inside my glove, only to discover the little no-stink ball I'd put in there. Argh. Back to the locker room to drop that off. Back to the ice, where the zamboni was nearly done. Take a drink of water. Realize that I've left on the cap - which at this point is a cap from one of my daughter's markers, and since I've lost a bunch before possibly the only one left I can steal which fits - and head back to the locker room to drop it off. Lumber back out, sweat already pouring down my face. One of teammates notes I still have my bright yellow skate guards on. Hell, I managed to TIE IT IN PLACE with the toe lace. I managed to get them off without removing pads, and said teammate was nice enough to save me yet another trip back to the locker room.

Quite the auspicious beginning.

The game started, and so did the goals. I'd put my pads on correctly this time - well, the second time anyway - and they were loose enough to allow me to properly butterfly. I noticed, during warm-ups, that as opposed to last week when I just stayed on my feet and played the angles, I was now more inclined to drop to a butterfly but questioning when to do so. Given that shots would soon be coming in excess of 60mph having a moment of hesitation was not optimal. More troubling was the ache that had already started in my right elbow, the weight of the goalie stick aggravating my tennis elbow.

Wait. There has to be a better term for that. I don't even play tennis and dammit, this thing hurts but that's such a wussy name. Lateral epicondylitis sounds much more impressive, no? Kinda sounds like a sex move, though. "He thought he knew what pleasure was before she blew that away by shifting him to a lateral epicondylitis." Yeah, that's hot all right.

Anyway, it only took a minute and a half for them to score, although to be fair there was a giveaway maybe 10 feet in front of me and I didn't have a chance. Despite my flailing it was only 2-1 after one period, but then I started the second period by making a good save on a partial breakaway but then not realizing the puck was at my feet. It's tough to keep track of the puck, and at least one more went in the same way. I gave up a bunch of goals on breakaways - there were a LOT of breakaways - which I don't get upset about, and then 2 or 3 that just beat me and those I am upset about, because that's just crappy goaltending on my part. One right through my legs. Right through my legs. Some were because I was getting caught in the middle of my warm-up plight - to drop or not to drop? I was also not butterflying correctly, especially on a slide - it's drop and slide, not slide and drop. Sliding doesn't work well if, you know, you're not on the ice. And so I gave up goals. The final was 10-1, which is not the worst score I've been part of. While there had been a bit of chippy play we didn't see much of the hot-doggery we'd been warned of - they were just very good. In the post-game handshake one of the kids - ye gods, they all looked like they were in high school - apologized for juking me so badly on a goal that my hip ended up in Essex County. When I waved it off he said they should have been playing a division or two higher, a sort of honesty that is surprising to hear in this league. When I told him this was my second game in goal he seemed shocked and said I'd made 33 saves - why he knew this, I don't know. Maybe he kept track. Maybe he made up a number to make me feel good. Either way, it works.

So last Spring we went 0-8 and didn't even come close to winning a game. This Spring we went 2-6 and  were at least competitive in almost all of them, including this one. My regular goalie will be back for Summer and I'll hit some clinics to keep learning while shifting back to defense. Giving up 16 goals in two games isn't great but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

(The quote up top is from Bull Durham, which I shouldn't have to tell you. If you haven't seen it you should. I will not, however, accept the nickname 'Nuke.' You may call me Ebby Calvin, though).

Monday, June 1, 2015

Time Between the Pipes - The Old Man Learns Goalie, Part 2

The distinctive smell of gasoline hit me as soon as I opened the garage door, and with a sigh I noted that within the increasingly cramped quarters the one gallon container I use for my lawnmower's supply was tipped over. Well, a couple of days with the door open would get rid of that, right? It's not like it all spilled onto, say, my hockey bag.

Not all of it.

Our goalie had discovered he needed to check into his vacation spot today as opposed to tomorrow, so my career was going to start 5 nights earlier than planned. I was nervous but excited, and by the time I'd gotten into my pads (only one redo) I was pumped to be out there, although maybe part of that was being high from huffing fumes. Despite the best efforts of Febreze I still smelled like the inside of a carburetor because, as Lola put it, 'You can take the goalie out of the junkyard but you can't take the junkyard out of the goalie.' So, reeking of boneyard cologne, I headed out to do battle. I even remembered to stretch a little while the zamboni cut the ice.

We lost 24-1. By the end of the second period we switched from a puck to a beach ball and they covered me with double-sided tape but I still couldn't stop anything. To keep it from getting any worse the other team used 3rd graders in the last period but they still lit me up . . . these were my fears about how it was going to go. I was worried about whiffing on a soft dump-in from center ice, or an easy wrister, my teammates looking down at the ice as they muttered about missing Game of Thrones for this. By some miracle, none of that happened. Aided by my team playing tenacious D, I craned my neck around to see that 7 minutes in the score was still 0-0. What? Shut-out hockey during my first game! Amazing! Remarkable!

They scored on me 14 seconds later. It was a breakaway, as they learned my ability to butterfly was a questionable thing at best. At the 13 minute mark I gave up one of the ones I'd want back, a low wrister on a partial breakaway that I should have dropped or butterflied on instead of letting it take me short side. Off the faceoff they dumped, chased, and fired a pass from behind the net that a better goalie would have kept from going to the open guy cruising the slot. We got one back before the buzzer, so at the end of one period it was 3-1. Not terrible. I could handle averaging this and keeping it from double digits.

Note: my recollection of when and how these goals scored is sketchy at best and possibly made to look much more competent than I really was. It probably looked really impressive when I'd let a shot from the point whiz by wide without flinching, but more often than not it was because I didn't react in time. I'm old and inexperienced. At the after-game beer stop one of the guys said he'd graduated high school in 2003. 2003. I almost hit him with my cane.

There was another long stretch of me not coughing up a goal in the second, for whatever reason. I managed to stop a breakaway before the guy decided that if the puck wasn't going to go in he and I should instead. The bubble burst at the 7 minute mark - again - when I made a decent save by butterflying - I know, right? - and then just looked at the rebound sitting about five feet in front of me as if I'd just propositioned it and was waiting to see if it was going to go home with me. Someone on the other team played the role of stalker ex-boyfriend and took it away from me. Goal. Let the deluge start.

But it didn't. We (it's we, believe me. My teammates blocked a lot of shots) played well, even when we were pressuring them in their zone and I was freaking right the hell out because we only had 4 skaters on the ice but nobody could hear me yelling because it was the second period and the bench was far away. My stupid tennis elbow made it difficult to smack my stick on the ice. Ye gods, I'm a mess.

The 3rd period featured more goals via breakaway, which I would definitely classify as an issue and great news considering the team we're playing Thursday is supposed to be a bunch of cocky jerkweed kids who skate like the wind, but whatever. As the final seconds wound down and flat-out oceans of sweat drained down my face one of their players zoomed in on a breakaway (they never let up. with 2 minutes left they had 3 forecheckers deep, and with a minute left one jerk was hanging on our blueline. It's okay if that sounds like gibberish. Just say 'okay hockey yah' and read on). I'd stopped him earlier and I really don't know what happened this time - I want to say I pokechecked as he shot, but I have no idea - but the puck deflected over the net as time expired. Behind me, the final score read 6-1. A goals-against average of 6 isn't going to land me in the Garden anytime soon, but . . . I have friends who are wonderful singers, skilled illustrators, amazing writers. The feeling I got when I made a kick save off the end of my toe (so what if it was probably going wide they can't see that from the bench shut up), or took a hard slap shot off my stick and deflected it into the corner, or snapped a shot out of the air with my glove, it has to be what it feels like for them to hit that difficult note and nail it, or sketch Lady MacBeth and be able to see that mixture of ambition and insanity on the page in her eyes, or cranking out a phrase that you know is going to resonate with the reader. Or maybe not. Those are things that last, while this game is in the books, soon to be forgotten by most. But not by me, not just yet.