Blast From the Past

As you’ve probably noticed my blog has a new look. I’ve been tired of the old one for awhile and finally did something about it. One bonus of the facelift is that the process fixed my long broken archives. For the first time in years the links to my old posts actually work. Hooray. To celebrate I’m reposting something from the earliest days of my blog (November 7, 2003 to be precise). I love this story and amusingly enough Jess and I are working together again at Flying Lab.

100 Bullets, No Waiting

I grew up in a suburb of Boston, Peabody to be precise. While guns were something I saw on TV and in movies, they were never part of my real life. The closest I got to an actual gun growing up was an old BB pistol my dad had in his desk drawer and it didn’t work anyway. Nonetheless, I’ve had an abiding interest in military history, and WW2 history in particular, since I was a lad. This is a bit unusual for someone as lefty as I am, which has led to some fairly amusing situations. For example, I’ve been a member of the Military Book Club for years and the MBC has obviously sold my mailing address to a variety of right wing organizations. I get mailings all the time from the likes of the NRA, and occasionally real wacko newsletters from groups that are one step away from blaming ZOG for all America’s troubles. I look at them, chuckle, and dump them in the recycling bin.

Last year I was designing a World War 2 roleplaying game for Polyhedron Magazine, originally titled Dogface but eventually named V For Victory. I was, as is my habit, doing lots of research. I think I easily spent $300 buying books during that period. One of the chapters was all about guns, so I got pretty familiar with the ins and outs of period weapons. When I was in Las Vegas in March, 2002, I heard about a place that had WW2 guns you could rent out and fire on their shooting range. I didn’t have much interest in shooting modern weapons, but this was intriguing. That September I was back in Vegas, with Nicole and our friends Jess and Kathryn. I had told Jess about the gun place and he was curious as well. The two of us decided to head out there one afternoon and check it out. And hey, I could write it off as research.

I had met Jess when I was working at Wizards of the Coast. He worked in the book publishing department, where he was in charge of the Magic: the Gathering novel line. Like me, Jess was (and is) of a lefty bent and we got on famously. As fate would have it, we both got laid off on the same day (along with scores of other folks). We began to joke that we were “layoff brothers.” Could “machinegun brothers” be far behind?

On a hot, bright Vegas day, we took a cab out to the gun shop. It was some way off the Strip, which was no surprise. It was pretty small inside, but nonetheless there were a good six staff members behind the counters. All of them were wearing bulletproof vests and carrying sidearms. One guy had on cowboy boots, an Old West style holster, and was packing a revolver. Interesting.

The deal was pretty simple. After signing a waiver asserting that you aren’t insane (yes, really), you pick a weapon and choose either 50 or 100 shots. They had a nice variety of WW2 era guns, like the British Sten, the American Thompson, the German MP40, and the American M3 Grease Gun. If you’ve ever seen a WW2 movie, you’ve seen an MP40. They are the German submachineguns that are usually (erroneously) called Schmeissers. Any Nazi villain worth his jackboots carries one in war movies. I decided it was so iconic I had to try it.

Jess hemmed and hawed a bit. He was drawn to the M16, which was big and black. I tried to convince him to try the Thompson (we were already planning on swapping weapons, so we could try two each). “Come on,” I said, “This is a classic. Designed as a trench sweeper for WWI, it arrived too late to see combat. Gangsters loved it, and it went on to serve in WW2.” Jess was not convinced. “There’s something about that M16,” he said.

“So you want the big, black cock of death then,” I said.

Jess smiled. “Yes I do.”

Our helper rang us up, and gave us each 4 magazines of ammo for our guns. Then he pointed to some targets and asked us each to pick one. On most days, you could choose from a tombstone, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden. Seems there had been a run on bin Laden, so they were fresh out. I opted for the more neutral tombstone, and Jess tried to get in the spirit of the place by choosing Saddam Hussein.

Then we got safety goggles and glasses and were led back to the shooting range. It was a spare affair, a small room with three stalls for shooting. When we entered, there were several young Asian guys with pistols finishing up. They were firing them sideways, “gangsta” style. It looked more like Lorezno Lamas on his lame old show Renegade but I kept that observation to myself.

At this point, Jess seemed a bit on edge. He confessed to our drawling assistant that he had never fired a gun before.

“Whut?!” he said, shocked. “Are you from California?”

“Uh, no,” Jess replied. “I’m from Seattle.”

“Oh, well that’s alright.”

The guy turns to me. He had heard me rattling off about the Thompson earlier, so he assumed I was a gun guy. “You’ve fired a gun before, right?” he asked confidently.

“Actually, no,” I said. “This is my first time.”

“Whut?! Are YOU from California?”

“Nope, I’m also from Seattle.”

This seemed to satisfy him, though I’m not sure why. He ran through the basics. Pretty simple really. Then he sent Jess’s target down to the end of the range and handed him the M16.

Jess took it a bit gingerly, put it up to his shoulder, and sighted it down the range. He fired off a tentative first burst.

“You hear that?” our assistant said, pointing down to Saddam, “He’s calling you a sissy boy!”

Jess laid into it and got more comfortable. In no time at all, he had fired off his two magazines and shot up Saddam real good. Our assistant reloaded the M16 and handed it to me. I started with a short burst, to get a feel for it. Had more kick than I expected. Loud too, even with the ear protection. The target was all of 30 feet away, so it was easy even for a rank amateur to hit. I’m sure that was no coincidence.

After I finished with that, it was on the MP40. Compared to the M16, this was like butter. Barely any kick, easy to control for short bursts. I could see why these guns were so handy in street fighting. However, this one was having some trouble with the trigger sticking. While firing my second magazine, the gun just rattled on and on, shooting out sparks near my head. When Jess tried it, he had the same difficulty. Guess that’s what happens to 50 year old guns.

Afterwards, they gave us our targets, and stamped each one with the gun we had fired at it. The shooting hadn’t taken longer than 10 minutes, even with controlled bursts and 200 shots between us. I spent a few minutes looking around the store, checking out their book section in particular. Jess was antsy and clearly wanted to go. Later, over drinks, he told me that he felt like we were imposters in a strange and foreign land. He worried that at any minute, they’d discover that we were pinko, anti-war bastards that had voted against Bush. Maybe he thought they had a special graveyard in the basement for the likes of us!

We got back to the absurdity of the Strip an hour later. The whole thing was a bit surreal, though it made for a good story. So much so that come the next GAMA Trade Show, I ended up back there with Nicole and Hal, who wanted to give it a try. Our version of company bonding, I guess. This time I got to shoot that Thompson and a Sten gun (though they ruined this vintage weapon by sticking a laser scope on it for some strange reason). The Thompson turned out to be the best of the bunch. Sometimes, you’ve got to go with the classics.

The Sea Be Burning

Since I came onboard at Flying Lab last year the company has always been agonizingly close to securing a publishing deal for Pirates of the Burning Sea. When I was hired, the release date was June (as in, now). Several times we were on the verge of signing a deal and then there’d be some issue or other. Well, today a press release has finally gone out. Pirates of the Burning Sea will be published by SOE (Sony Online Entertainment). You can read the PR here:

It’s a good deal for Flying Lab. The company gets to control the game itself, the community, customer support, and the servers, while SOE handles billing, marketing, retail distribution, and localization. Most importantly Flying Lab retains ownership of the game. This is way better than a lot of the deals the company has been offered. Many MMO fans, of course, do not have kindly feelings towards SOE so naturally the internet has been ablaze all day. There are many differences between the tabletop gaming industry and the computer game industry, but in this way they are exactly the same. Gamers will be gamers I guess. I can say that my boss Rusty is completely serious when he asserts the following: “If Pirates isn’t good, if you don’t like how the game is designed, or how the servers are operated, or how we interact with our community, it’ll be our fault, not SOE’s. We own the game and the buck stops here.”

SOE needs a hit MMO and Flying Lab needs to get boxes onto retail shelves. Time to hoist the black flag of commerce.

Words and Ideas

I had gotten really sick of the stuff on my I-tunes at work, so I’ve gone down the hill to Easy Street Records a couple of times lately to get some new music. Before I rip the CDs I always go in and change the genre entry. Most of the stuff I listen to is tagged “alternative & punk”. The thing is I’ve hated the term “alternative” since it first came into use in the 80s. It was this catch-all term for about anything that wasn’t on the radio and as such it was nearly useless. Saying something is alternative is only slightly more informative than saying it is music. Instead I change the genre entry to something more specific. This is most often punk but I also use psychobilly, postpunk, hardcore, ska, reggae, celtic punk, and a few others. This allows me to sort by genres that actually mean something instead of having one big morass.

It’s for similar reasons I don’t use the term “indie” in relation to roleplaying games. I mean sure, certain pedants have proved that you can define it so narrowly that only their anointed games and special exceptions “count”, but who are they trying to kid? By any reasonable definition 99% of all the RPGs ever published are “independent” and pretending otherwise creates a false dichotomy. If what people really mean is “small press” and/or “creator owned”, or if they want to identify themselves with a particularly community of designers, they should just say that. Right now saying something is indie is only slightly more informative than saying it’s a roleplaying game.

That Bad Mofo Named Stagger Lee

I read a graphic novel called Stagger Lee this week. On one level the book attempts to tell the story of a man who became a reoccurring character in American folklore. What really makes it interesting though is that it also traces the development of the legend through song, showing how the story changed decade after decade as hundreds of different musicians made it their own. The root of the story is a shooting that took place in St. Louis in the 1890s. A man named Lee Shelton shot one Billy Lyons, supposedly over a Stetson hat. Some nameless musician wrote a song about it and it spread from city to city. Songs about Stagger Lee, Stag O Lee, Stackolee, and so one are all about this same guy, and over the years the countless variations of the story have appeared. In most Stag shoots Billy but in some it’s the other way round. Sometimes Stag meets the devil, in others he’s hung. Almost all versions agree that he was a bad, bad man. The first Stagger Lee song I heard was The Clash’s Wrong ‘em Boyo, though my favorite is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Stagger Lee. The graphic novel, by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, is a clever mix of history, speculation, and fiction. Although focusing on Stag and Billy, it also tells several other murder stories that become folkloric songs. All of them took in St. Louis in the same neighborhood and within five years of each other. If you have any interest in American folklore, music, or history, I recommend checking out Stagger Lee.

Going Beyond Freeport

I wrote this for the Freeport blog today. Since I’m out of blogging time, I’m reposting it here for those who need further encouragement to check out the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport. Enjoy.

Beyond Freeport

I don’t even think it took a week after the release of Death in Freeport for people to start asking if I was going to blow Freeport out into a full campaign setting. I resisted the urge for many, many years. Part of Freeport’s appeal, after all, was that you could drop it into any campaign setting, and the feedback I got from gamers told me they were doing just that. Nonetheless, I started keeping notes on what I’d do if ever the time came to detail the world beyond Freeport. Whenever I had a random idea, I’d jot it down or write up a little something and save it. One of these days, I told myself, I’ll do something with all these ideas.

That day came last year when work began on the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport. Since one of our stated goals was to make the book as deluxe as possible, I decided to dedicate a chapter to the larger world. Before I go on, let me point out that this entire chapter is optional. If you want to use Freeport with the setting of your choice, that’s just what the Pirate’s Guide is designed for and you need have no worries. References to the Continent and the gods are still generic throughout the book. However, the Beyond Freeport chapter is there for you if you are in the market for a larger campaign setting.

The chapter starts with a bit of cosmic history and then zooms in to focus on the Continent. The basic idea is that Yig created the world in the time before time and the serpent people were his chosen champions. Yig sent his power and his followers out into the cosmic soup, conquered other realities, and made them part of his world. When the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign summoned the Unspeakable One, however, it was a complete disaster for Yig and his followers. The serpent person empire of Valossa was destroyed and Yig sent into a torpor from which he has not recovered. The spot where Freeport stands is the center of Yig’s former domains. The further one gets from the center, the more difficult it is to navigate the waters. Getting to the Continent is easy but getting to a distant realm like Hamunaptra is hard and requires the skills of a “mystic navigator”.

The remainder of the Beyond Freeport chapter provides full details (and a gorgeous map by Andy Law) of the Continent. The rest of the world is left mysterious. This was done for two reasons. First, it allows GMs to run games that really are voyages of discovery. Who knows what might be beyond the horizon? Second, it allows the easy integration of other setting material. If you want to create another continent of your own, it’s easy to fit into this framework. If you want a region that is largely unknown to the people of Freeport, you can place it on the borders of Yig’s domains. The idea is that the most distant realms where never conquered by the serpent people because of the Valossan apocalypse, so it’s easy to have distant lands that have never even heard of Yig. Settings that already have some ties to Freeport, like Mindshadows and Hamunaptra, can also be used at your option. In a sense this setup is similar to the way we treat Freeport and the Serpent’s Teeth in the rest of the book, but the detailed area is much larger.

The big reveal for longtime Freeport fans is the Continent itself. This is the core of the campaign setting. Putting this together was tricky because I felt like it had to have classic fantasy elements, but I also wanted to play up aspects that made the City of Adventure unique. Freeport, of course, began as a D&D; campaign setting, so the Continent needed to be recognizable as such. However, there are also had to be plenty of room for Lovecraftian elements, piracy, and swashbuckling. As I was putting my notes together, I made a list of features I wanted for the Continent. These included:

1. A history and feel that would integrate well with existing Freeport lore. In Black Sails Over Freeport, for example, barbarians attack Freeport. Well, who are those barbarians and where did they come from?
2. Multiple places for good adventuring. This included border regions, monster-haunted wastelands, and regions unexplored by the civilized races. If this was going to be a fantasy campaign setting, there had to be room for adventures, right?
3. Ancient empires and epochs of history about which little is recorded. Again, this is great adventure fodder. With Freeport it was pretty easy to do because there was such chaos after the fall of Valossa. That’s not the only anarchic period though.
4. A lot of seafaring nations. This was pretty much a must; otherwise Freeport made little sense. In particular, I wanted some outward looking realms that were heavily dependent on the sea. The best example is the Ivory Ports, a collection of city states that not only rely on seaborne trade but also have colonies in other parts of the world.
5. Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
6. Plenty of conflict amongst the various nations. I also didn’t want too many nations that were clearly “evil”.
7. A strong framework for GMs that would still leave room for their creativity.

This last point in particular was important to me. There are some campaign settings that are overly detailed and I think this actually makes them harder to use. I wanted this chapter to feel more like the original Greyhawk folio (though those looking for the exact amount of heavy cavalry that each nation has will be disappointed). I wanted to give GMs plenty of material to work with and then let them fill in the blanks and really make the setting their own. One feature of the text and the map, for example, is Important Landmarks. They are listed but not detailed, so the GM can use them as seeds for adventures or just as bits of flavor to help evoke the world. This sort of customization is in the best spirit of Freeport and roleplaying in general.

Late in the process I had a final brainstorm. I thought it’d be fun to give Freeport a rival city. I wanted it to be a commercial and military rival, but more than that I wanted it to represent an opposing ethos. And what do Freeporters hate above all else? That’s right, slavery. There’s nothing worse to the free spirited sons and daughters of Freeport than the denial of liberty. Thus I created the city-state of Mazin. I placed it in the distant south and modeled it on the Barbary states of the Mediterranean. Mazin’s galleys prey on the shipping lanes, so the city’s giant slave markets can be fed. In the past Freeport and Mazin went to war and Freeport won the first round. Since it is some distance away, there has not been a second clash . . . yet.

So that’s a little taste of the world beyond Freeport. If you want to read more about what the World of Freeport has to offer, check out the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, which is coming soon. The book is at print for a July release and we’ll be releasing the PDF next week. Not long now until all is revealed.

Always on a Sunday

I made a real effort to get some work done today and was largely successful. I worked for three hours this morning, and then took a break for a few hours so Nik and I could see our last movie of the Seattle International Film Festival. It was an amusing and dark comedy called Little Book of Revenge. After some of the so-so films we had seen this year, we were relieved that the last one was thoroughly enjoyable. As soon as I saw the title in the preview guide, I knew Nik had to see it. The director was on hand and he introduced the film by saying, “Thank you for choosing to celebrate revenge instead of Father’s Day.” Indeed, sir, indeed.

Once home it was back to work until 11. I was able to cross seven items off my to-do list, including the long-delayed revision of my Hobby Games: the 100 Best essay. I was hoping to get ten items off the list today but seven is not bad. All this did preclude me from writing up the Herbfarm experience, but Nicole has done so on her blog. I will try to follow-up later this week. Hopefully, that won’t fall into the same black hole as the post about ABC No Rio I meant to make after my visit to NYC back in February.

Oh, and my friend Rob is a daddy, so congrats to him and his family. And in continuing the month o’ Green Ronin birthdays, it’s Hal’s on Monday so here’s to him. Now falling unconscious sounds good!

Still Full

Last night Nicole took me out for a birthday dinner at the Herbfarm, a beloved institution of Seattle foodies. Although we’ve lived here for ten years, this was our first time there. I will write it about more when I have a chance, but let me just say three things. First, the meal was fantastic and catapulted into our top three dinners ever list. Second, it was not just a meal but an experience, beginning with tours of their gardens and ending five and a half hours and nine courses later. Lastly, I am still full after a night’s sleep. Damn, that great. Cheers to my awesome wife for making it happen.

Rethinking Game Night

Our Tuesday night roleplaying group has been hit or miss for quite some time now. Many people in the group are frequent business travelers and particularly during the summer convention season getting together can be difficult. And yet we continue trying to keep RPG campaigns going with predictable results. One guy misses one session and someone else the next. Then we don’t play for two weeks and forget half of what’s going on the adventure. Last week we said to hell with it and played Walk the Plank and Ticket to Ride instead. The result was one of the best game nights in a long time. Over the weekend I started thinking about our dogged insistence on clinging to RPGs when it hasn’t really been working out. Why not take a break and just play some board and card games for awhile? Those can be played with whoever shows up and finished in a night. Turns out other folks in the group were having similar thoughts and we played Ticket to Ride again last night. I think we’ll probably continue the trend until we’re ready to start playtesting the A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. I’m betting the result will be us actually gaming more on a weekly basis, and I’ll still get some roleplaying in with my bi-weekly Spirit of the Century game.

Of course having said all that, I’ve been pondering how fun it would be to run a game set in the world of the comic Fables. For those who haven’t read it, Fables is about faery tale characters living in the modern world. They were driven from their homelands by a mysterious bad guy called the Adversary and now have to live among us. The comic has a lot of fun with classic characters like the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Prince Charming, Goldilocks, etc. I think I could run a cool game in which players picked real world fables to play and then worked out living here has changed them. Maybe the trick would be planning out one story arc and just running it for 4-6 sessions and calling it good. The open-ended campaigns have not been working for us.

Weekend in Brief

Friday night I got home from work a bit early. Since Nik and Kate were out at a school play, I took the opportunity to watch Once Were Warriors (domestic violence amongst the Maori) and Letters from Iwo Jim (the companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers that shows the battle from the Japanese POV). So yeah, a real cheery night of entertainment. I was pleased I finally had a chance to see Letters, as both my attempts to see it in the theater were abortive.

Saturday I played Spirit of the Century in the afternoon. It was largely a bridge session that set up the big climactic fight for next time, when we face off against the evil Russian scientist in a battle above an active volcano. From the game I went right to the Family Fun Center in Renton for Kate’s delayed birthday party. She has some nice friends, but even so keeping track of eight kids in a massively crowded and incredibly loud arcade and mini-amusement park was not exactly relaxing. Kate and the kids had a great time though and I think it was easily her best birthday party to date. I could have gone to bed after that, but at 10 I went down to Studio Seven to catch Iron Cross. They were a DC skinhead band from the early 80s and singer Sab Grey has brought them back in a new incarnation. The band was a bit stiff to start but once they got warmed up they gave a good performance. I expected the show to be packed with every skinhead in a 300 mile radius, but the promotion of the show was shit and there were maybe 120 people there. I only found out about it by accident myself. Ex-WotC staffer John Dunn was in Iron Cross in the early 80s and he was on hand to check them out. Sab brought him up on stage to play Criminal Minds with them, which was cool. I caught up with John in the bar after the show for a bit before finally heading home and falling unconscious.

Sunday I did GR work in the morning and early afternoon. Then it was off with Nik to see Japanese psychological thriller Retribution as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. I gave it a 3 of 5 in the voting. It was interesting but slow-paced and not quite as thrilling as we had hoped. We ran into John, Jenny, and Jim at the movie and had dinner with them at Trader Vic’s, which I doubt I’ll ever go back to. Then it was off to pick up Kate and go see another SIFF film, the anime TEKKONKINKREET. This visually beautiful film was better than Retribution (I gave it 4 of 5) but pretty wacky. It was a little to dark in spots for Miss Kate, who said it wasn’t her kind of anime.

Woke up this morning to read the news about Gleemax. This is pretty much what I expected and is an interesting idea, but the name is godawful. If this site is so important, picking something more accessible than an old inside joke would have been a much better idea in my opinion.

Worst D&D Game Ever!

During college I had this terrible job one summer at the national headquarters of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, right across the street from the UN in NYC. I was hired as a file clerk. I thought there might be some variety in the job, but after the first week it was clear that I was mistaken. I was expected to file 8 hours a day and the obsessive woman I worked for made sure there was always more to file. She kept every note, invitation, memo, and brochure that crossed her desk. The day I started, there was a pile of papers about 3 feet high on my desk to be filed. When I quit 3 months later the pile was about the same size despite endless hours of work.

One day I ran across a series of articles from the Washington Post about the not so stellar record that various youth groups had in dealing with pedophiles. They talked about how pedophiles were attracted to groups like the Boy Scouts because it gave them easy access to young people and put them in positions of control. For decades most youth organizations not only ignored the problem, they swept countless incidents under the rug. This allowed some predators to leave one area, move to a new location, and start a new youth group or troop and do it all again. The Boy Scouts didn’t start doing background checks on adult volunteers until 2003.

I remembered those articles today when reading the Seattle Weekly, one the city’s free newspapers. It had a big article about the trials and tribulations of a poor guy who was repeatedly raped by his Boy Scout troop leader (and this after his sister was murdered by the Green River killer). The twist was that both victimizer and victim were members of the Mormon Church. Apparently the Boy Scouts are an officially program within the church and the Mormons are now one of the largest chartering groups of scouts in the US.

The article talked about how the Mormon Church is perceived to have a better handle on the problems of child abuse than the Roman Catholic Church, but suggested that the picture isn’t as rosy as it might seem. While relating the story of one victim in detail, it also touches on other similar cases. Imagine my surprise when I read this one:

“In one of the most bizarre cases, a Mormon Scoutmaster in Sierra Vista, Ariz., David James Borg, invented a Dungeons & Dragons game to entice at least five prepubescent boys into having sex during spelunking expeditions. ‘His characters used enlarged penises as weapons, and sometimes the boys’ characters had to cut off the penis of opposing characters, eat it, etc,’ wrote a Scouts official in a 1988 internal report. ‘In other words, what other pedophiles do with pornography, in tearing down in inhibitions, Borg did with D&D.;’ The official noted that Borg had previously been caught in bed with an underage boy in New Jersey, but because at the time ‘the church apparently [had] no ‘Confidential File’ it was easy for him to move to Sierra Vista and become involved with the youth program in that new ward.'”

Wow. Worst D&D; Game Ever! And how weird is it that the guy’s name was Borg? Did he tell the kids that they would be assimilated? In any case something tells me this anecdote did not make it into 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons.