Monday, September 17, 2012

freelancer aspirations: superior implements

This particular entry has a long and winding history, and represents my first attempt at trying to get a gaming-related article published. Back in the fall of 2010, I contacted James Auwaerter about possibly collaborating on a pitch and article to Wizards of the Coast for D&D Insider. That spring, the Player's Handbook 3 had included the first rules for superior implements, and although it was suggested that the keywords used could be used to homebrew varieties not present, there weren't many examples shown. I had several mechanical examples that I thought were good possibilities, but wasn't as comfortable with the story side of what made for a good D&D article.

Jim was reasonably receptive to the idea of working together, and contributed several ideas. The Common/Uncommon/Rare system was just being applied to magic items at the time I originally contacted him, and he suggested that we might also want to come up with several Common magic item enchantments that could be applied to the implements we developed. He also did a lot of work on the story development in the article (below). In fact, it's probably fair to say that Jim did all of the flavor text in the article along with helping polish the mechanics.

Along with a lot of notes about proposed mechanics, the original pitch I sent Jim for some review read as follows:

This crunch-heavy article would expand on the superior implements currently available by both defining two new superior implement keywords and presenting roughly a dozen new superior implements of all types that both take advantage of the new keywords defined and present new combinations of implements and keywords. Our best estimate of the word count is approximately 1500 words.

Jim rewrote the pitch, based on the following general principles:
  1. Don't come in too high. It's easier to come in low and have them ask for more, or (in an article like this) write more than you originally pitched and ask them to pick the best of the selection.
  2. At the time, the magic item rarity rules had just been introduced, and there was a massive gap in what items were considered to be Common. Adding the magic items was a way to help make the article appeal to more possible players.
  3. At the time, the Grifnar's Arms article was only a couple months old, and was one of the best-received short articles in a long time. So, it was an attempt to link the article we were proposing to something else that was recently well-liked. In addition, the word count was boosted to match the length of Grifnar's Arms article, which had lacked any new rules content.
Bazaar of the Bizarre: Tools of the Spellcaster’s Trade
This article would present new superior implements for the discerning spellcaster. It would be in a style similar to the Bazaar of the Bizarre article "Grifnar's Arms" from Dragon 391, introducing Grifnar's elven counterpart, Aldanian. Aldanian would offer several kinds of superior implements as well as some more common magic items.
We intend to define two new superior implement keywords (enduring, to help spellcasters that summon creatures, and expansive, to help spellcasters who favor area effect spells) and present roughly a half-dozen new superior implements for all implement-using classes. We would also provide two or three common magic item enchantments that could be used with multiple types of implements. We estimate this article will be approximately 2000 words. This article is being jointly submitted by Jim Auwaerter and Jeff Dougan.
At the time, Wizards of the Coast didn't guarantee a response to every pitch submitted, and we went our requisite 60 days without hearing anything. We did both think the general idea still had legs, and ended up sending a query (pitch) to Wolfgang Bauer of Kobold Press for possible use in Kobold Quarterly magazine. He liked the general idea enough to let us write up a full manuscript (PDF version here), and sent us some notes about the Midgard campaign setting (used by KQ for a number of their articles). Wolfgang also ended up passing on buying the full article, which we figured out from seeing the tables of contents for the two issues of KQ we might have been considered for & learning that manuscripts didn't remain in the submissions pile from one issue to the next.

Some time in here, the second period in which Wizards of the Coast guaranteed responses to everybody opened up. I got a hold of Jim again and asked him if he felt like it was worth giving it one more go, since this time we'd get some guaranteed feedback. I sent it in along with a few other pitches (it ended up in my second batch of pitches in that window), and waited. For reasons unknown to me, feedback on this particular pitch was missed in the initial pass. However, I ended up following up on its status at the same time as the project that they eventually did pick up, and learned the following reasons for its rejection:
  • At the time we sent this, they had a number of Bazaar of the Bizarre articles (the series under which this would have appeared) in various stages of work, so they didn't want to add more to that series.
  • The mechanics we'd proposed were functional, but the design team didn't want to add more keywords or other new mechanics unless they addressed something vitally needed. There were also some concerns about our new introductions adding an element of "power creep" into the game.
Although I understand the concerns about the number of Bazaar of the Bizarre articles & the potential for power creep, this is one article that I have to admit I'm still disappointed didn't get commissioned for further review.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Freelancer aspirations: the Cryomancer

Preface: Those who don't have any interest in gaming generally, and role-playing games in particular, will probably want to ignore this post since it talks about my recent experiences in a freelance project submitted to Wizards of the Coast for the Dungeons & Dragons game. I'll do my best to keep jargon out of the article as much as possible if you decide to keep reading, but you've been warned.

This project has only just reached a point where I can openly discuss it, thanks to some bad news received about it yesterday afternoon. Some background:

Wizards of the Coast currently runs two open submission periods every year for those who aspire to write freelance projects for Dungeons & Dragons Insider, the online version of what used to be Dragon and Dungeon magazines. Over the last year (two cycles), I've submitted roughly 20 pitches (two with co-authors attached) and had three projects commissioned to the state of a first draft. I got more-or-less final verdicts on two of those three projects yesterday, one of which will result in a paycheck and one of which was a rejection without request for further revision. I'm not at liberty to discuss the former project until it comes out, but I figure I'll put some lessons here on the other project.

For those who aren't gamers or otherwise into fantasy genre fiction, a cryomancer is a kind of magician whose abilities are all focused on cold. Here's the original pitch:

Class Acts: Wizard: The Cryomancer

Fire mages are flamboyant and hard to avoid noticing; wizards who specialize in cold magic are rarer. Calculating, implacable, and unforgiving, those who command the glacial ices are rare and worthy of attention. Their comparative rarity is attested by the lack of a singular figure associated with cold magic, although many famous archmages have included magical cold within their eponymous spells (including both Bigby’s Freezing Grasp and Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere).

 The pitch I sent included a little bit more, like some details on estimated word count and particular mechanical elements. In the initial response, I was given two directives to consider: first, that elemental specialists needed to have some way to deal with creatures that were resistant or immune to their element of choice. For example here, a cryomancer needs a way to cope with meeting a frost giant or a white dragon. the other directive I got was to focus more on the story side of the article than the mechanics. This PDF represents the draft I submitted, minus some internal notes to the produced & development teams on certain elements of story, credits, and the art order.

One challenge for me was that the lore of D&D doesn't really have any famous wizards who are known primarily for their use of cold magic. There are a number of D&D wizards who have used cold in some of their famous spells (Bigby's Icy Grasp made it into the 4th Edition Player's Handbook; Otiluke's Freezing Sphere was present in all of the first 3 editions of the game), but I didn't have a single wizard around whom I could build the story. I ended up dividing it up among three wizards, two of whom have lore that goes way back in the game and one of whom was my first 4th Edition character.

The discussion of "naturalist" vs. "elementalist" varieties of cryomancy came about rather late in the writing process as I wrestled with balancing not creating large quantities of new story elements out of  whole cloth
with the directive to focus more on the story elements of the article. I was also trying very hard not to make the whole thing "pyromancers are like X, cryomancers are like Y," although a little bit of that still slips through.

I heard back yesterday with the article's rejection, and I'm actually not surprised. The mechanics were OK, but not inspiring, and I did got a bit too far with the story elements. It's been said by Wizards of the Coast staff in previous public places that, if a draft has promise but just isn't quite there, they'll work with you to make the work the best it can be. (From the project that will result in a paycheck, I can say that's true. I can't elaborate more right now, but will probably try to write something like this about that project when it becomes public.) Overall, this article just didn't have anything they could point to as being fixable.

I'm still very new at the RPG-freelancer thing, but I agree that the article definitely didn't deserve to get bought as-is. I think I was hoping that there would be a little more guidance on ways to help the story become more cohesive, perhaps because I think the idea of a winter wizard still has lots of potential. I just wasn't the person to get it there -- at least, not with my current degree of skill. Maybe I'll come back and revisit this idea someday, after I've got some more design experience. If I do, I'll be sure to let people know.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Preparing for September 25th - #TrueLove

Trigger warning: link to a post describing what should be considered sexual assault

On September 25th, 1987, one of the most important movies of my generation premiered. It's had tremendous influence on geek culture, although not as blatantly as (for example) Star Wars. That movie is a wonderful ode to action, adventure, and True Love. It is, in a title, The Princess Bride.

Returning to the internet after a holiday-weekend absence, I was appalled to read about something that happened during a party connected to PAX Prime (which is rapidly becoming one of the biggest geek-culture conventions). [Edit: In looking up the link for the post describing the event in question, the victim makes it clear that party had no kind of official connection to either the convention] A woman was, in effect, sexually assaulted by another attendee at the party, and the security guard her friends tried to get involved gave a reaction along the lines of, "What do you expect me to do?"

There's a connection between these two things, I promise. It's this: as somebody who's been happily married for 14 years, I know that not all geeks are socially maladjusted. I know that we have the ability to be in stable, reasonably healthy relationships, and that many of us appreciate just exactly what True Love can be.

So, I propose to the geek community that on September 25th, we all tweet, post, and otherwise put onto all of our social media sites of choice our appreciations of True Love, in an effort to make it the top trend of the day across the Internet. Who's with me?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Preview: Race to Adventure!

Last weekend was the monthly board game event at my local library, and the Grasshopper & I got to go for the first time in several months. I've been pretty excited about the forthcoming game Race to Adventure! from Evil Hat Productions. It's a pulp fiction-themed scavenger hunt that spans the globe of the late 1920s, including a stops in Antarctica, Atlantis, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Nepal, and the United Kingdom. I haven't been in a position to back the game on Kickstarter, but I did get a hold of the guys at the Hat, and they sent me a print-and-play kit in exchange for writing up my experiences afterward.

Background, for those who don't want to watch the intro videos at the Kickstarter page: The target audience is ages 8+; the game should take 20-30 minutes to play once everybody knows what they're doing, and involves moving your piece to the various locations around the globe and carrying out certain tasks to collect stamps on their passport. The board is modular (for the non-gamers, this means that you can rearrange the board from one game to another), and in the full game all of the locations will have two sides, so that the replayability increases even more. The Grasshopper is 6-almost-7 and a budding gamer, so I figured playing Race to Adventure! might be a good test of how well the game could scale down.

I got to play 2 games during the time we were there -- a 4-player game that had two adults, the Grasshopper, and one other kid who looked to be about nine (I didn't ask), and later a 2-player game that was 2 adults. For the 4-player game, we made one modification suggested in the rules, and made rescuing the prisoner from Atlantis "show up with the lightning gun and get the stamp," removing the timed aspect of the mission.

I enjoyed the game a lot, and I think the Grasshopper did, too. (There's a possibility that he might have a couple friends over later today, and we might end up playing then if it happens. If more plays get in before the Kickstarter campaign ends, I'll try to update the post accordingly.) Both games finished with the second-place player having 7 of 9 stamps, and I think that in the 4-player game the farthest person behind had 5. (That was one of the two kids, although I don't recall which.) The game did move quickly both times, taking maybe 40 minutes for the first game and about 20 for the 2-player one.

This is definitely on my long-term acquisition list, either funding the campaign if something changes in the next week, or as a strong request for a Christmas present. Besides, how can you not love a game that has an intelligent gorilla flying a jet pack on its cover?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sure-fire charcoal lighting: a tutorial

Pun intended, incidentally.

Last week, the News-Gazette posted a blog post about the fact that they sell end rolls and some possible uses for them. I mentioned that I use newspaper to light a charcoal grill, which was seized upon by the staffer. She's mentioning it today or tomorrow, and although I've sent her pictures, I figured I'd do a step-by-step tutorial here.

So, let's meet the tools you'll need for this:

A chimney starter, one and one-half sheets of newsprint, cooking spray, and your lighter of choice
 Use the cooking spray to liberally douse the newsprint. Crumple it, and stuff into the bottom part of the chimney starter. You don't want it so soaked that you can use it for a window, but you want it pretty well sprayed.

Pour in enough charcoal to fill the top part of the chimney starter. Although it's really better for your grill to light the coals on the ground, I have two kids and one of them doesn't know enough to be able to keep away. I've got a preference for lump charcoal when I can find it, but had briquettes on hand this weekend, so that's what you see.

Use your lighter, matches, or whatnot to light the newspaper in three or four places around the bottom of the chimney starter. Do you see those slit-like holes? (If you don't see them well above, there's a better view in the next picture.) That's what they're for. In a couple minutes, you should have something that looks kind of like this:

Now, you really shouldn't walk away while the coals are lighting, just in case the unexpected happens. How long it takes them to really get lit will depend a lot on how fresh they are -- charcoal is very absorbent, and if you store it for any length of time it will suck water out of the air. This makes it burn a bit smokier and slows down how quickly the coals light. The charcoal I had dates back to last fall, so it took about half an hour to reach this point:

The coals aren't really lit all the way yet - you want them all to have that coating of light gray you can see on the couple in the middle. It happened to take these another 20 minutes or so before they were really ready, but fresher charcoal will light faster.

There you have it. Please note, I do not take credit for coming up with this myself - the chimney starter has been around at least since the '70s. I learned the trick of spraying the newspaper with cooking spray from Alton Brown, host of Good Eats - the single best explainer of why you (should) do things in the kitchen that ever appeared on film.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Summer Vacation Predictions

It's the beginning of the Grasshopper's first real summer vacation (I don't count last year because he only spent a half-year in kindergarten), and he'll be spending most of it home with the Munchkin and me. I'm going to make the following predictions about the remaining 84 days.

There will not be:
  • Building a rocket (he's too young)
  • Fighting a mummy (though we might visit the one at the local museum)
  • Climbing up the Eiffel Tower (it's too far away)
  • Giving a monkey a shower (no zoo in town)
  • Surfing tidal waves (we're pretty landlocked)
  • Creating nanobots
  • Locating Frankenstein's brain, 
  • Finding a dodo bird (unless there's one at a museum I can't remember), or
  • Painting a continent

There probably will be:
  • Discovering something that doesn't exist (probably pretty often), and plenty of
  • Driving his sister insane.
  • (Keanu Reaves voice): Reading. Lots and lots of reading.

It's also likely to include his first visit to a gaming convention (Gen Con, no less -- day trip for an exhibit hall-only pass), plenty of board games, seeing his friends from school, and maybe -- just maybe, if the potential obstacles all get worked out -- becoming the youngest official D&D Next playtester.

As for reading: in the space of less than a week, he's wiped out most of the original sequence of Erin Hunter's Warriors books. He'll be a second-grader reading at an almost-4th grade level. Suggestions welcome.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A long overdue review: The Fiendish Primer

Many, many, many months back, J. Snyder mentioned over Twitter that she was working on an alphabet primer that used a bunch of classic D&D monsters for the various letters. Having a pair of kids, one of whom is (now) old enough to start to get into ABC books, I'd asked about whether the artwork was really kid-friendly, or if this was really being targeted at older gamers for a nostalgic feeling. She answered that she thought it was OK for kids, but I'd probably have to decide for myself.  We eventually worked out that I'd get a complimentary PDF copy in exchange for a review. This is that review.

First off, if you read through and decide you like it, you should know where to get yourself a copy. The answer is here, for the price of $1.99.

The PDF is short and two the point -- a cover page, a copyright page, 26 pages for the actual letters, and an about-the-author page. The illustrations are pretty cartoony, and there are none that I'd have a problem with showing a 3-year-old in my family. The poems to go with the letters are all pretty cute, although parents would be able to tell that Ms. Snyder isn't a full-time children's author. My issue isn't with the vocabulary, since as a PDF-only book it's not something that a kid would be reading all by themselves -- at least, not in my house. There are several words that are likely to provoke a "What does that mean?" although they could be pretty quickly answered by the parent who's reading the book to the kid.  However, the meter has uneven patches, and the rhymes between consecutive letters are sometimes more approximate than exact. The uneven meter won't stand out to a kid, but the uneven rhyming could. I think that within the realm of fair use I can quote the first four letters, especially because the purchase page shows the first two:

"A is for Aboleth, it's you he despises..
B is for Basilisk who gaze petrifies.
C is for Catoblepas who kills with a stare.
D is for Doppelganger, a double affair."

I'd say that it's at least worth a look, and Ms. Snyder has done good stuff elsewhere, so I don't have any problems with giving this a 4-star (out of 5) assessment.

Friday, January 20, 2012

very minor update

It's been called to my attention that, back in October when I was hosting the RPG Blog Carnival,I wrote up one of the entries, but didn't actually provide a link to it. I'm fixing that now. My apologies to Chris, and although I've updated the original main post, I'm giving an extra link here to make up for it.