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.