Saturday, May 22, 2010

Freak Angels

Superboyprime at Scans Daily posted a link to Warren Ellis' Freak Angels. Freak Angels is an online free comic I have been following for a few months now. I just thought I would mention it. This week would be an excellent time to jump on, although to really enjoy the story I would highly recommend starting at the beginning.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frank Frazetta, RIP

When I was very young, my Dad would sometimes take me to work with him. He worked for the advertising firm Campbell and Ewald (you may have heard of them in the news recently, they lost the Chevrolet account) as a graphic artist. Going to work with my Dad was an awesome experience. He had every single color imaginable in magic markers and colored pencils. It was my first exposure to a Xerox machine and I would spend all day making dozens of copies of my drawings and sitting in some corner of his office coloring all day long.

In his office my Dad had some choice art framed on the walls. He had a print from Erte of the alphabet, and he had two works from artist Frank Frazetta. It was my first exposure to the man’s art and both were very dark and almost disturbing. One was of a demonic centaur-type creature with a nude woman riding on his back (for a kid in single digit years this was probably my first exposure to a nude woman. If you are wondering how Dad could get away with hanging such a thing on his office wall, well, all I can say is the seventies was a very different time).

The second print was The Death Dealer, a menacing figure whose face was hidden in the dark depths of his helm, eyes glowing a demonic red, sitting astride a war horse, his huge axe dripping gore. This, to me, was awesome stuff. Of course it was far, far cooler than the nude chick.

A couple years later I found my Dad’s collection of Conan paperbacks, and on them were the works of Mister Frazetta. I have Frank Frazetta (and my Dad) to thank for my first forays into fantasy literature. While kids these days first cut their teeth on Harry Potter and his adventures reciting bad Latin, I was reading the tales of a brooding Cimmerian as he cut a bloody swath across the page.

I am not exaggerating when I say when Frank Frazetta died part of my childhood died with him.

Thank you, Mister Frazetta, for haunting my imagination with your dark imagery, and for your in part inspiring me to enter the realms of Robert E. Howard. You are much appreciated and you will be missed.

If you wish to see some of Frazetta's work, head over to this link.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Making your pitch, setting your tone

One important aspect of your game is the tone. Is it a light hearted comedy? Four colored comic book action? Batman style gritty realism? Generating a tone and adhering to it are both very important, and equally important is conveying to potential players up front what that tone will be.

Personally, I think the worst tone possible is a depressing, post-apocalyptic setting, or one in which the players are up against unwinnable odds, or playing in some other environment that is horrifically depressing. The best example of this that I can think of are the White Wolf games Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc. In them you play characters who are either in terrible situations (i.e. undead) or are fighting against opponents that cannot be beaten. In Mage, for example, your primary opponent is The Technocracy. The Technocracy rules the world behind the scenes, there is no beating them. Nothing you can do in the long run can overwhelm The Technocracy because they employ a kind of magic called Science that is powered upon a fundamental belief that science works. The more people who believe in Science, the more powerful it is. So guess what, mage; you live in a world that cannot possibly be changed in any meaningful way.

If you play Werewolf do you think you are going to be able to defeat The Wyrm? Think again. Vampire? Well, Vampire has a sort of cult following all its own. At least it did when I was in college when LARPers took it over and got to dress up in black and role play the undead making and breaking political alliances. Vampire might be the one exception in the White Wolf series because instead of their being an obvious major villain, the players themselves were villains (you know, for being undead blood suckers).

The point is, though, that when players are confronted with a world where they are pitted against an unbeatable foe, it can be pretty daunting. It is like my dislike of X-Men games. With X-Men games the opponent is the Federal government, mutant hunting agencies, racist groups, mutant terrorists, etc. There is no winning here. Your character is trapped in a nightmare world and the best they can hope for is to have a mattress to sleep on underground somewhere, hiding from hoards of racists bastards out to kill them because they are prettier than they are (ninety nine out of a hundred mutants are beautiful. It is the rare player willing to run the sort of freak of nature that would cause riots).

Your game does not always have to maintain the same tone. Perhaps you want to run a series of adventures with a humorous bent, or you wish to introduce more romantic elements. The tone is in part inspired by the players themselves as you strive to keep them entertained. For example, a player may wish his character to form a romantic bond with an NPC, if so then role play that out with them. Even if your game is not romance based it certainly does not hurt to have a romantic element to it, provided it is done in a tasteful manner and adheres to the rating system you and your players are comfortable with (I have always gone for a PG-13 rating in my games, although when it comes to gory elements I have slipped into "R" territory. But when it comes to sex, fading to black works best for both myself and my players). Sometimes a game needs to be shaken up a bit to keep it fresh, keep players interested. Do not be afraid to change up the tone a bit if you or your players are getting bored. Just bear in mind that if your players signed up for one sort of game and you start delivering another they may quit on you. Discuss dramatic changes with your players before you initiate them.

What about humor, you may ask? Funny is hard, and I cannot imagine any game that can be long sustained on it. All the same, I think a little humor never hurts. Some of Star Trek's greatest moments were funny ones (The Trouble With Tribbles, Trials and Tribbleations are just two examples). Just don't be surprised if your jokes fall flat, and do not take it personally if your players do not find them funny.

So when you design your game, think long and hard about the world you are creating. Do you really want to deliver an environment in which your PCs can have no impact whatsoever? A world where they are against unstoppable forces? A place where they are at best government stooges, at worst outlaw vigilantes with a price on their heads? Consider carefully what you deliver. My game has lasted over eight years in part because the tone I have provided is at times gritty, other times humorous. A place where sometimes the heroes do come across larger than life and make a difference in the world.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Just a note...

Kate Bush is on the cover of the June issue of Britain's Uncut magazine. A substantial part of the article is focused on Kate's fifth album, Hounds of Love, as it's 25th anniversary approaches.

And Jesus Christ I suddenly feel old.

Hounds of Love is my favorite album, edging out Styx's Pieces of Eight, Rob Zombie's Hillbilly Deluxe, Garbage's debut album, Billy Squire's Don't Say No, Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes and the soundtrack to Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan (I am not necessarily huge fans of these artists. I just think those are some awesome albums, with a terrific collection of songs), I keep coming back to it. It is comprised of two parts. Side A contains four marketable hit songs: Running Up That Hill, Hounds of Love, The Big Sky and Cloudbusting, along with Mother Stands For Comfort. Side B is called The Ninth Wave, essentially a concept album chronicling the tale of a woman stranded, floating in the ocean, drifting in and out of consciousness. The album showed that Kate had learned from the errors made on her fourth album, that to succeed as an artist you must make compromises between the sometimes hard to understand, possibly even unapproachable art that only hardcore fans might appreciate with the demands of the market that allow an artist to thrive. Hounds Of Love's hit singles are by no means bad songs (I love all four) but in recording them along with her concept album Kate showed a very clear understanding of the market and the realities by which she had to live.

Also of note, at the time Kate was recording the fourth album The Dreaming she had to rent time from various studios, which meant she could not always record when she felt like it. Deciding that lack of freedom curtailed her creative energies, she invested in building her own studio, which allowed her near complete freedom. In the end Hounds of Love is a stronger album than The Dreaming, both commercially and creatively (some Kate Bush fans argue The Dreaming is the better album. I respectfully disagree.).

Creatively, I think Hounds of Love is Kate's high water mark, creatively. I still love her later albums (The Sensual World, The Red Shoes, Aerial) but Hounds is better than all three. If you are interested in getting to know Kate's work, I suggest you start with The Whole Story, her greatest hits album, or Hounds. And if you are damn lucky (like me), purchase the Hounds of Love EMI 100th anniversary edition with all the extra B sides.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A question for Harry Potter fans...

I admit I am not a big fan of the Potterverse so I am not well versed in the intricacies of the seven books. I have seen the six movies so I have some idea what is going on. One question plagues me about the whole thing:

Why doesn't anyone just shoot Voldemort?

I mean really, with all the bad latin and spell casting going around I would think you could unload a couple rounds into the bad guy's head before he got his first wand-wave off. Is there some sort of mystic code preventing wizards from being practical? Is it just a British thing and only American children would consider the advantages of packing heat? Are sorcerers incapable of figuring out how a trigger mechanism works?

I am no great fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files but at least the principle character often tries to have a smoke wagon on hand in the event his power reserves are low or he is without wand and staff. Harry Dresden is practical like that.

I just think the Death Eaters would be a lot less scary in the face of Armalites and AKs, thassall...