Monday, May 20, 2013

The Grasshopper's gaming education

Over the weekend, the topic(s) of games with kids, ages of kids, and what the Grasshopper (age 7) plays and likes all came up several different times. I've been meaning to write something like this for a while in connection with the writing I do for ChambanaMoms, but that would have to stand along here as being a little less directly relevant to what I do for them.

The first thing I really started playing with him was when he was a few months shy of 4 years old. It's a card game called Coloretto, where the goal is to collect cards with chameleons in different colors (but not too many different colors). Normally, you can either draw a card and add it to a row that has fewer than 3 cards, OR take a row. We just made the modification that the rows had to get filled completely before taking rows. I then made him grab the container of crayons and help count out his points.

His sister was born when he was about 4.5. The summer after that, he had a knack for asking for attention just as she was getting fed/changed/put down for a nap but not yet asleep. This is when the Grasshopper moniker was acquired (patience, Grasshopper). That summer, we worked on a slightly modified version of Carcassonne. He was able to do the tile-drawing and matching part of the game; we modified scoring to be that completing a road, city, or cloister scored one point per tile in the feature. This last fall, I've finally taught him something closer to the real rules (still leaving out farmers); he beats me about half the time in a two-player game but doesn't far as well in multiplayer games.

I've played Pente with him several times, although that doesn't hold his attention as well. One of the next things we started on were the two Blokus games I own (Trigon and 3D). At first I just let; him play with the games, he was over 5 before we started trying to play by the rules. Similar to those, he's played Ingenious a few times, but I think doing well at it is still a bit over his head.

A favorite of his is Battleball. I acquired both this and Forbidden Island the summer before he turned 6, if memory correctly serves. My only complaints about Battleball at the moment are that it's a strictly 2-player game that I can't figure out how to hack to accommodate more people, and his 3-year-old sister would be all over the pieces in such a way as to mess up the game. Despite Forbidden Island claiming to be ages 10+, he does a really good job of running his own turn, with only occasional suggestions about re-sequencing actions, especially if he has the Diver (one of his favorite roles).

His birthday present last October was Dungeon!, and we're finally to where it'll play pretty quickly if the Munchkin doesn't mess things up. He's also played Attika (and does surprisingly well if it's 2-player), Roll Through the Ages, and Race to Adventure! more than once each. There have to be other things he's played more than once, but I can't recall them all right now. He'll play almost anything at least once - those include Dominion, King of Tokyo, Rattus, Guillotine, RoboRally, Castle Panic, and Monopoly (I own the original Star Wars edition) that I can quickly remember. Sorry and Battleship factor in there too, although I can't get them into the sequence.

I'm publishing this now without links because I anticipate getting called back to a recovery room to see my wife pretty soon, but I'll gradually add in the links over the next couple days.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Preparing the menu for A Holiday Feast of Gaming

Although it's not quite May, I have November on the brain because I write a monthly column on playing games with kids for a local parenting blog. as I write, I've found my sanity is best served, and deadlines best met, by working several months ahead. In the first drafts of the column for November, I was trying to write a gift guide, but quickly realized there were two problems:

  • I haven't played nearly enough games published in the last 5 years.
  • If I tried to write it, I was going to blow past my word count before even making it past games for 7-8 year old kids.

Retooling the idea for my personal blog, where I'm more comfortable writing about things I haven't played personally, didn't help much. But the idea spent most of a day taking over my brain, to the point of (nearly) interfering with work. And thus was born the notion of trying to run it as a blog carnival. The theme, and the categories for organizing it, came almost by themselves, although there are a few categories and some miscellaneous areas where I could use some extra help.

So, the basics...

A Holiday Feast of Gaming is a blog carnival whose goal is to create a "menu" of suggestions for those unfamiliar with hobby games and looking to purchase a gift for a loved one, library, or school. The feast theme and categories are inspired by the timing, since this will run from November 1 through November 29 (Black Friday).

The current proposed "menu" categories, and descriptions with examples are:
  • Caterers (reviews of Friendly Local Game Stores -- a good FLGS owner is like a game sommelier)
  • The Kids' Table (games for those ages 5 and under, like Chicken Cha Cha Cha or Loopin' Louie)
  • Appetizers (light games that play in under 30 minutes and cost ~$20 or less). Examples include No Thanks!, Forbidden Island, or any of the Zombie Dice variants
  • Side Dishes (light-to-medium weight games that are too big in time or price to be Appetizers). Examples include Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, or Race to Adventure!
  • Entrees (medium-to-heavy games). Examples include Puerto Rico, Power Grid, or Titan.
  • Salad Bar (party games) - Apples to Apples, Wits & Wagers, Telestrations.
  • Adult Beverages -- game that should not, for reasons of theme or content, be played around pre-teens. The prime example I can think of is Cards Against Humanity.
  • I'd like a category to cover story games and RPGs, but can't think of what to call it.
The main thing where I know I could use help is that I have no skills at logo design or image manipulation. I'm also happy to take suggestion for category names. Otherwise, I"ll start trying to recruit people heavily later in the year, although I'll probably e-mail a few people to specifically request submissions.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Freelancer Aspirations: Thrumbolg Extras Part I

So, Dragon issue 420 got published today, and with it the article I wrote with Tim Eagon titled "Thrumbolg, First Lord of Mag Tureah." I'll post something next week or so about the real source material for the story we told, but in the meantime wanted to give people the following visual guide.

The article includes a table of random destinations for the myriad magical portals in the underground citadel of Mag Tureah. Almost all of these are based off of real-world buildings or geography, and I thought I should do people the courtesy of showing them what we were looking at as we came up with the destinations.

A guide to the visual inspirations for the random portals in Mag Tureah:

1. A ruined castle of glass atop an earthmote, spiral staircase connecting it to the ground.

My inspiration here is the "Castle in the Air" from The Phantom Tollbooth. If you haven't read the book, it's fabulous. Go read it and then come back to read the rest of the post. I'll wait. Shouldn't take you more than an afternoon.

The mouth of a flooded cavern, the beginning
of an undersea road paved with huge stones.
2.  I've known for a long time about the Bimini Road rock formation, but until I saw the picture above, I'd forgotten about how large many of the rocks are.

3. A partially toppled circle of stone menhirs overgrown by jungle vines -- I was thinking primarily of what Stonehenge might look like in a jungle environment.

A gargantuan statue buried in desert sand up
to its monstrous head.

  4. For most of its existence, the body of the Sphinx has been buried until only the head & shoulders are visible. Start here, and swap on your monster's head of choice. (Or, take monstrous to refer to size.)

5. An abandoned dragon’s aerie perched on the lip of an active volcano. Nothing more need be said here, I think.

6. A temple to a long-dead god whose collapsed  ceiling opens to the night sky. (I'm sticking with our original phrasing here because I think it's more poetic).  I haven't been able to re-locate the picture that was the inspiration here, but any number of ruined cathedrals and monasteries could serve as a jumping-off point.

7. A forgotten chamber that opens up to the sewers of the largest city on the continent.  Like the dragon's aerie in number 5, I don't think a lot more need be said. Kudos to Spiderweb Software's "Avernum 2" as a starting point.

A tower overlooking a courtyard filled with petrified soldiers standing in neat rank.

8.  My inspiration here was the famous terracotta army, at the tomb of the first Qin emperor in China. I learned around the time we were writing this section that the army was originally painted!

A deserted priory sprawling across a rocky tidal island
 9. The image above is of Mont St. Michel in France. Until the causeway was built in the 19th century, the monastery was completely cut off from the mainland at high tide.

A crumbling observatory open to the skies above
 10. You might have seen the Caracol thanks to the major "Mayan apocalypse" phenomenon last year. I knew about it long before that, and still love this image.

A covered bridge, woven from the roots of
living trees, over a murky river.
 11. This is a real thing. The bridges take years to create, and can be found in the Khasi Hills of India.

A frozen city built on a terraced mountaintop,
with no trace of its former inhabitants.
 12. The photograph above is of Machu Picchu in Peru; we simply encased it in ice.

Freelancer Aspirations: Battlemind Basics

In the April/May 2012 pitch window for DDI, I submitted roughly a half-dozen pitches for articles. Some of them are things I may still get around to writing on my own (Vestige Pact Hexblade and psionic item sets, I'm looking at you). One of the pitches in that batch represented my most ambitious solo piece of gaming writing to date, an article for the (Class) Basics series on battleminds.

Despite some of the ridicule the class got right after its release, I have a thing for battlemind characters because I like characters who are tough. I also liked the challenge of picking the limited number of powers to deal with a plethora of situations. There are people - including a friend of mine around here - who strongly dislike psionic characters in D&D games, feeling that it mixes science fiction into their fantasy. It's an argument that I'm sympathetic to, and would probably even accept about battleminds if it weren't easy to portray one as somebody who doesn't know they're using psionic abilities.

When this article was rejected, they rightly called me out on a number of grammatical errors that I've since caught & cleaned up. The editorial team's other comments were that this article didn't excite them to play a battlemind, nor did it offer enough strategy and tactics to help play one effectively. They also felt like many of the recommendations were too obvious. It did get noted that the Basics articles are among the hardest to write.

I found it interesting that this would have been the first of the Basics articles that had no new mechanical content. I'd specifically inquired about creating a power or two that could be used as a melee basic attack without the expenditure of a power point, and was told not to.

I think that the piece is solid (especially after cleaning up the grammatical errors that never should have crept through to a final submission), and present it here for your downloading and viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Gaming.

I am occasionally reminded that hobby gamers, like everybody else, can include some of humanity’s best traits and some of humanity’s worst traits. Super Bowl weekend often seems to bring out the latter in droves, perhaps in a misguided effort to give all the sports fans who think it’s acceptable to mock people not interested in sports a proverbial taste of their own medicine. If, at any point in the last couple weeks, you’ve seen a comment somewhere about “sportsball,” you’ve seen one example of this phenomenon.

Unfortunately, “sportsball” posts are a mild example. A couple weeks ago, this came across my radar. (CAUTION: Long thread with some pretty toxic remarks.)  A summary for those who are smart enough to not follow the link: It’s a post where somebody describes a remark heard while in the return line at his local Target. The woman ahead of him was returning several hobby games she’d bought at Christmas for her family, and complaining about them being too difficult. Exhibiting one of the more reprehensible traits of humanity, the readers began to pile in to make fun of the woman, with only a very few wondering whether she might be selling her family short or otherwise trying to do something positive.

Cue the better parts of gamer culture: Rob Donoghue began trying to come up with a list of which 5 games might make up “Boardgaming 101.” His requirements were that the games should be able to be gifts that the recipient could open up the box, not get scared by apparent complexity, and learn to play just be reading through the rules. I was pleased to note that many of the columns I’ve already written here feature on the list generated through the comments on Rob’s post, and I’m probably going to use that list to guide some of my future selections, at least for the ones I’ve played. If you read my columns for reasons other than being related to me, the post I linked is a good one to look at, including its comments, both because of people trying to do something good in the face of others being jerks, and because some comments are from a non-gamer who gives her perspective on some of the particular titles mentioned.

The other person who tried to create a positive response is graphic designer and game designer Daniel Solis. His work actually might be a the usual audience here, because the list he started begins from “mainstream” games that you’ve probably heard of. It could probably stand a clean-up, and the drive seems to have left it, but it’s a good place to start.

I’ll close by giving Mr. Solis credit for something else: he consistently works to make hobby gaming a more inclusive hobby. He’s designed some great games with kids in mind, helped found a project to increase the inclusion of women and people of color in gaming artwork, and frequently offers general advice to people who ask. The same is true of Mr. Donoghue and all of his business partners at Evil Hat productions - although I have never had the pleasure of meeting any of them in person, I’ve followed them online through the better part of a decade, and have to describe them as genuinely Good People. I’ve never seen them say abything bad about anybody, and I hope that I never will.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Freelancer Aspirations: Sentinel Druids of Winter

More gamer-speak ahead (which is mostly what tends to show up there, especially in this series).

When I sat down to write my own drafts of the missing seasons for Sentinel Druids, Winter was easy. I grew up in the Midwest, and have listened to a fair amount of Garrison Keillor talking about how winter builds character as part of his assorted Lake Wobegon monologues. More than that, there's a remark of Nietsche's: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." I wanted the basic point to be that winter Sentinels were survivors.

Taking that as a starting point, the chosen weapons were easy: what things could you use to get the food & shelter you would need in the middle of a winter? Spears, axes, slings. For an animal companion, I chose a wolverine as something that is commonly associated with winter or cold-weather environments. Since wolverines have a reputation as being bloodthirsty, the wolverine powers became high-damage powers (although not as powerful as the bear's). The benefits to the druid itself took the form of things to help the druid and his companions survive, either by avoiding damage or by shrugging off effects that were already affecting them.

As before, I got some feedback from people who read the drafts which I took into account. The big change that resulted from this feedback was an additional boost to the damage dice in chosen weapons, and in allowing the sling to be used as an implement. I'm not positive I got the latter part right, and it would probably need some playtesting to determine whether it needs further refining.

The new and revised version, formatted nicely to print, is available here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Freelancer aspirations: Sentinel Druids of Autumn

Another re-post of work I've done that appeared elsewhere, although this time it's undergone some revision since then. Some of that revision is mechanical, some of it is word choice, and some is simply story.

The work in question this time around is the Sentinel Druid of Autumn. I suppose a bit of explanation might be in order for non-gamers wandering in here (yes, there are a few of you sometimes). Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, which had the original rules for the Sentinel, presented Sentinels associated with spring and summer, with strong implications that rules for autumn and winter Sentinels had either been edited out from the book or would be forthcoming shortly. The same was true for the Cavalier in that rules for valor and sacrifice virtues were detailed, and two others (compassion and justice) mentioned but not present in the book. Having finished writing the Dark Pact Hexblade, and waiting for a verdict on its fate, I wanted something to keep my brain on design in case I was asked for edits.

I like the leader role in 4E Dungeons & Dragons most of the time, as it stretches the part of my brain that likes military history, tactics, and logistics. The Hexblade has a format where the powers must come in certain action types at certain levels, and the same was true for the Sentinel. The number of mechanical pieces for a Sentinel was also smaller than the number of mechanical pieces for either a Hexblade or a Cavalier, so I decided to start here.

I linked the original publication above. I got some comments from the original readers, but also directed it to the attention of a few civilized members of the Character Optimization forum at Wizards of the Coast, looking for critique and advice. I got some, and took most of it to heart. A summary of the most important changes:

  • The animal companion changed from a fox to a cougar.
  • The cougar's aura became something different entirely.
  • The damage boost for using chosen weapons was increased, and now scales by tier.
  • The animal companion's attack gained at level 17 was completely rewritten.
I've since edited my original manuscript, and formatted it to make the stat blocks look pretty. Download it here.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Freelancer Aspirations: the Dark Pact Hexblade

I've detailed a few pieces I've written for D&D's 4th edition rule set in previous posts, and had originally intended to keep going until I'd worked my way through all of my repertoire. However, a fall semester in which I ended up with a lecture to teach for the first time while at Heartland Community College roughly tripled my grading load, and made it a lot harder to keep up with the project. At least for the moment, I'm back on it.

I'll start by noting here that, if you haven't seen it, it's been teased that the one article for which I've received a paycheck will be in February 2013's DDI issues. Although we pitched the article for Dungeon, the tease showed in Dragon, so I won't swear which one is getting it.

I picked up Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms because the warlock has been one of my favorite character classes for 4E D&D, in part because of how wide-open the options are for using the same basic mechanics to drive many, many different stories (through the different pacts and letting a warlock's patron drive parts of your game's story). I ended up waking up really, really early the next morning with parts of the initial pitch just stewing in my brain, and had an original pitch for this sent off to Wizards of the Coast before noon on a Sunday.

It was about a month later that I got a response back, which was along the lines of  "We've just given the hexblade a lot of word count, so we're not doing any new hexblade material for a while." I did write back asking whether it would be received better in a few months, but never got an answer. So, I turned around & pitched it to Kobold Quarterly. (The magazine is no longer in production, although they're still doing daily updates to their website and creating & publishing other print products.) I got a response along the lines of "We'll take this for the web site, but not for the magazine. Are you OK with sending it this way?"  So, I finished writing the whole thing and sending it in.

For length reasons, they split the article into 3 parts. I'll link to the last part, since it contains its own links backward through the series, although I've got a re-formatted compilation of the whole thing here.

I was trying very hard to capture the feel of spiders and lizards in the flavor text of the powers. Working from the "standard" Dark Pact Warlock, poison damage became one hallmark of the build. The decision to use acid as the other came from the caves like Villa de Luz and Lechuguilla, where the water in places is really fairly concentrated sulfuric acid. I know that, from the standpoint of folks into character optimization, this probably isn't up to snuff, but I think that I made the mechanics reflect the story I was trying to have them tell. I'd call this solid, but not innovative, work.