Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Review: Bullies Bastards, & Bitches by Jessica Page Morrell

Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction by Jessica Morrell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you have antagonist problems, this is a great book covering techniques to build compelling bad guys & gals & monsters. I took two workshops with Jessica Morrell at Willamette Writers, but not one on antagonists. But this book was there! I enjoyed her so much I picked up two of her books, and this is the on I read first, because my novel needed bad-guy help, STAT!

Well done, and covers a variety of baddies, including anti-heroes, bad-boys, bad-girls, serial killers, sociopaths, and more. There is a chapter on how to match a hero to a villain. The last chapter covers writing bad-guys for young adult or younger markets. Plenty of good advice and techniques to create a believable and frightening antagonist.

Friday, August 21, 2009

RPG review: Mouse Guard

Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game by Luke Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I was a fan of the comic (I've never seen it), I might give this five stars. I didn't really buy this rpg for the game world, I bought it because I had read that it was a simple introduction to Luke Crane's game design. He has rabid fans, and many people consider his Burning Wheel game the best roleplaying game ever designed. Mouse Guard is a simpler version of the Burning Wheel system.

So, as long as I was at Guardian Games, shelling out the big bucks to get on the waiting list for Space Hulk, I picked up a copy of Mouse Guard.

Wow. I can see what makes people crazy for this.

The mechanics of the game demand real roleplaying on the part of the players. They encourage things like using your character's trait, such as Fearless, *against* yourself. As in I'm so fearless, I'm going to race across the raging river, not even trying to keep myself from being swept away. Which gives you a bigger chance of being swept away. And that's a good thing in this game. You get rewarded for making things harder on yourself by playing true to your character's persona.

To really stand things on their head, the Games Master (GM) only runs the adventure for the first half of the game session. Then he turns it over to the Player Characters (PCs) who get to drive the story, repair the damage done to them by the GM, pick fights, and finish player goals they didn't complete during the GM's turn. The more times you used your own personality traits to hurt yourself during the GM turn, the more things you get to do in the Player's Turn.

You also get rewarded for roleplaying your characters core beliefs and instincts. Cool stuff.

There is a lot of player involvement in the action and story telling. This is as a far cry from a game focused only on combat min/maxing as I've ever seen in playable game.

Mouse Guard won't be for everyone. If you want hard and fast non-negotiable rules to test yourself against, this is not your game. Often table discussion is required. Does everyone agree that my mouse's use of fearless really can harm my chances of crossing the river safely?

If games like Nobilis are based on GM-Fiat, Mouse Guard has a lot of Group-Fiat. The GM can lay the law down now and again, but for the most part, everyone gets a say.

Oh, and you're a mouse with a sword. Not everyone will like that. I read a bunch of the Redwall books when my son was a lad, and it reminds me of that world. You are a tiny mouse, not a man sized mouse. Tree roots are big obstacles. Owls are ten times your size. You grab your sword, and defend the mouse territories. It's not what you fight. It's what you fight for.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

TS Luikart shows the love

In my last blog I talked about modding one of TS Luikart's adventures from Purge the Unclean. On the FFG forums, he made my day:

I think your mods are excellent John. I'm likely to recommend them. I'm afraid Baron Hopes ended up getting a bit more... muddled than I would have liked. I hope in the fullness of time to, let us say, "set the record straight" and fill in the full scope of the story.

At any rate, I suggest any GM that intends to run PtU should check out John's ideas. I'm especially fond of the "blood-flamethrowers".

There is some subtext there, I expect the editors and he clashed a bit.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

RPG: Scenario Modding on Baron Hopes for Dark Heresy

A bit of background:

When I'm Games Mastering, I love published adventures. They have pretty pictures, nice maps, game stats all done up, and, hopefully, great settings, plots, and characters. I take these works, and then I put them on the operating table and modify them.

Yes, I also love crafting my own adventures. But that takes time. It can take 5 - 10 hours of design time for 1 hour of play time. And it can be fun. So I do it, just not all the time.

Modding an adventure lets you keep what you like and fix what you don't.

Baron Hopes is the last of three adventures for Dark Heresy in the Purge the Unclean book, by T. S. Luikhart. I really enjoyed the first two, and the slight mods I did on them were personalizations, where I brought in back stories of my players and tied them to the game. I like T. S. Luikhart's work, but no one is perfect.

WARNING: Spoilers for Baron Hopes, don't read this if you are going to be a player in this adventure.

These earlier adventures had the players going head to head against a criminal heresy called The Serrated Query. Baron Hopes, as written, had the players going against an ex-ally of the Serrated Query. With a leader who was invulnerable to harm unless the players somehow figured out the one thing that could harm him. No clues were provided for the players. So the GM either had to tell them, let them die, or have some non-player character (NPC) solve the adventure for them.

The Serrated Query hook in Baron Hopes just fades away, and there is no arc to to that long standing feud. There is also a zombie apocalypse, and I had recently run one of my own design (Scrivner's Star), and didn't think we needed another so soon.

The Mod: I brought back the Serrated Query, big time. They did not take kindly to Morirr, the villain in Baron Hopes, and after years of study found his weekness: The blood of his arch enemy, Barron Ulbrexis. So they found tissue samples of the Barron, and cloned him. They have a four year old boy they are pumping for blood. Ick! They have modified flamers that inject the boy's blood into the flame.

The Serated Query also did not take kindly to what the players had done to them in previous adventures, so they have been working in the shadows. Their plan is to get the players and Morirr to tear each other up. Then kill any survivors. They have no idea that Barron Ulbrexis is still alive, and working with the players.

I have the party trailed by a SQ agent with a "blood-flamer" who is also an old enemy of a party member. Eventually, they capture the agent and get some ideas on what's going on, and get the "blood-flamer." This shifts Morirr to a secondary threat, as the SQ come in force at the climatic battle.

The Serrated Query are lead by a major leader, and backed by elite troops. They also bring in help from Dark Eldar Corsairs whom the players had tangled with before. This helped create a sense of resolution.

The Serrated Query also had a floating space helmet that opened like a clam shell. It floated over to the Psyker player character, where he saw the two mono blades at neck level. The helmet's mission was to cut off the Psyker's Head, affix it to in-helmet life support, and float away as he screamed. It took the player a burned Fate Point to get out of that one.

I still used the nice maps, the cool characters, and the subplots of the adventure. One of the cool characters is very obnoxious and loathsome, so I had his boss have a vendeta against one of the player's families. He gave orders to shoot off the player character's legs, and when that was impossible, he told his men to just kill the player. Killing this side-show boss seemed to please my players emensely.

So, if you are a GM, and have a published adventure, don't let what is written railroad you into a game not to your liking. Take scalpel, hacksaw, and chainsword, and release your inner Frankenstein.

(Any Dark Heresy GMs who want the crunchy details, let me know.)

Edit: I put the crunchy bits up on the FFG forums:
Scroll down to my second post.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This retelling of Virgil's Aeneid from Lavina's point of very is blissfully mythic. I prefer ancient world to medieval fantasy, because people in the ancient world experienced life through a mythic mindset, more so than in the middle ages, or so it seems. You could say the Australian aboriginal dreamtime was real, because those people used it to navigate their world, and the mythic world of Vesta, Juno, and Mars was real because the Latins' mental model of the world revolved around them.

Ursula Le Guin really worked at her research, and made pre-Roman Italy come alive through the eyes of Lavina, a king's daughter. When young Lavina gets a message from a dying poet of the future (Virgil), she realizes she is part of an epic fate. Her older, wiser, voice as a narrator comes from not from an old woman, but from her story. This is a story narrated by the story itself.

The reader need not know the epic poem, everything needed by the novel is layered into the tale. The writing is powerful, the story incredible, and the characters both exotic and approachable.

I can see why this won the Locus award for the best fantasy novel of the year.

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Writer's Point of View: This is way too impressive. Choosing to have the story tell itself is such a great concept. While the pacing is slow, it feels prefect for this world where even kings walk from town to town. Since the Aeneid didn't go into detail on Lavina's life, there is plenty of room for tension. Yet the foreshadowing is upfront and inescapable. Lavinia learns of the poem of her life before she becomes part of the poem. Le Guin brings the ancient world to life by illuminating the differences of the pre-Roman Latins with the Greek influenced Virgil. By showing us the rituals used to great the new day. By showing us how sacred a thing fire was in those times. Showing, not telling.

The phrase "associate with your betters" comes to mind when reading such a well crafted book. I can only hope for a little osmosis.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Willamette Writers Conference 09

I am exhausted and energized, the mark of a great conference. Had a great time with Oregon City poet and illustrator Anne Paris and Portland science fiction writer Garth Upshaw. Mary Rosenblum was there, but was running around like a speed demon from talk to talk. We kept waving to her as she passed the bar.

Workshops of note were Jessica Morrell: The Sizzle: Tension and Suspense in Fiction and Blood, Roses, & Mosquitoes: Writing with Details. Eric Witchey's Short Fiction for Fun, Money, & Skill, The ABC's of Saleable Fiction, and The Mystery of Voice. Mark Schorr's Criminal Thinking for Writers. Jessica was a one-woman grad school for writers, Eric embodied the evil genius of writing, and Mark showed you what makes an evil genius tick.

I picked up a few craft books, and am looking forward to cranking out more and better writing each day.

And Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown asked me to see the first 50 pages of my novel.