Tuesday, January 31, 2017

PAX South 2017



Honestly, I spent most of Acquisitions, Inc. watching it on a screen. I can do that at home.


Scheduling conflicts turned attending PAX South 2017 into a minor fiasco. While Robin and I enjoyed what we could, the time we spent downtown at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center functioned better as a reconnaissance mission for next year than it did as a weekend’s entertainment in its own right.


The bigger scheduling problem was that Robin teaches late Friday afternoon and Saturday morning classes this year, and so she wound up missing over half of the convention. The other scheduling problem was that Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff of Mystery Science Theater 3000 were in San Antonio on Saturday night for their The Mads Are Back live tour, and there was no way we were missing that. (Honestly, if we had known way back when we bought our PAX badges that Trace and Frank were going to be in town, we probably would have bought only single-day passes.) Thankfully, the live riffing show interfered more with afterhours options than with convention attendance; we had to give up a night out with Clint and Jodi Black, Preston DuBose, and Shane Hensley and family, but we’ll see them in May at Chupacabracon.

(Just in case I don’t get around to writing a separate piece on The Mads Are Back, Trace and Frank are warm and hilarious live. We watched Glen or Glenda? – my first time seeing that Ed Wood film – and they riffed hard on it while also expressing great admiration for the film’s progressivism. There is a distinct aesthetic and philosophical difference between the Cinematic Titanic alumni – who genuinely love the corny B-movies they promote through their riffing – and the RiffTrax gang – who will riff even classic films like Casablanca – and I am decidedly on the side of the former.)

Thankfully, between The Mads Are Back and the panels we attended at PAX South, Robin and I spent most of the time we did get together over the weekend laughing our butts off. The two main panels we took in were the Late Night Dub Fight on Friday and Acquisitions, Inc. on Saturday. While we currently doubt that we’d want to spend so much time standing in line for Acquisitions, Inc. next year, it was a fun experience to try at least once. We’ll probably take in Late Night Dub Fight again, but only if we can get in right before it starts.

(We really hated standing in line as much as we did.)

Late Night Dub Fight features a panel of internet personalities making up goofy improvised dubs over various media both good and bad. It was funny and we laughed a lot, but there’s not much to report there. Acquisition, Inc., for those who are reading this and somehow don’t know what it is, is an ongoing celebrity D&D campaign run by D&D 5e designer Chris Perkins. Despite the terrible line to get in, it was pretty enjoyable – but would it kill the players to actually learn about the Forgotten Realms?

Seriously, they would have gotten much further with the plot if someone had just read one or another of the various Waterdeep supplements that have been published over the years. They wasted at least half an hour trying to suss out where an antagonist was living when I immediately realized she had rented one of the rental villas in Sea Ward. Hmph! Oh well, I guess I can’t blame the players entirely. Perkins could have simply given them an info dump like “As long-time residents of Waterdeep, you know that several large mansions are available for rent high above the cliff-face in Sea Ward” rather than trying to lead them to do things the way he wanted.

While that matter – and the way the players ignored several intriguing plot hooks – aggravated me, I was overall entertained by the sessions (not enough to stand in line for hours to see it again, but pleased to have done so once). Perkins started the game off with a rooftop chase, so he immediately earned some respect from me, and kept the game moving while still dropping in enough setting detail to make his Waterdeep seem alive. It was the kind of D&D session I’d like to run or play in.

Speaking of running and playing games, during the time on Friday and Saturday when Robin wasn’t around, I attended a panel on game mastering and played in a session of the Dungeons and Dragons Adventurers League. The panel – made up of Perkins, Third Eye Games’ Eloy Lasanta, and (as pointed out in the comment below) Sarah Lynne Bowman, Anastasia Marston, and Danielle Lauzon Harper – taught me nothing I didn’t already know, but it did remind me of some things I’ve let slide. I wouldn’t call it educational so much as eye-opening, not just for the reminders but also for the insight into just how freaking self-doubting a lot of new GMs are these days. I know it’s just me being an old man, but seriously, people! The answer to 70% of the newbies’ questions was “just make something up,” the answer to 15% was “ask your players,” and the answer to another 10% was “just try and/or practice.” 

(I’m sorry; I’m still a bit tired and sore and it’s making me grouchy. Also, I keep seeing these kinds of questions in my Facebook and Google+ feeds recently – by the gods, the D&D 5e Facebook group is jam-packed with people who want other people to tell them how to do things! – and it is really driving me nuts. While I disagree with the OSR in many ways, “rulings, not rules” are words to game by.)

The DDAL game was fun, even if we barely got anywhere. Most of the players were more familiar with older D&D systems and we perhaps moved too cautiously, but we also got a late start because the previous group at our table ran long. At least I got to BS a storm giant into not killing us. The DDAL leaders in the area were very good at inviting in new people and making sure everyone was welcome, so hats off to them. I think I’d still prefer playing more eclectic, more one-and-done games at conventions, but I’m willing to play DDAL again.

Let’s see… Aside from that, our PAX South experience was mainly about wandering the exhibition floor and talking to friends. We discussed teaming up with our friends Paul Scofield and Kate Lytle Elsinger of Too Real Games to stream some The King is Dead games to cross-promote each other, Robin talked with Jodi Black about some of our project ideas down the pipe, we shot the breeze with Shane and Clint (Shane keeps forgetting our names, but he’s warmed to us as people), and we met some friends of friends and hung out. (I'm not going to say more about the streaming or other projects because I don't want to jinx very early plans.) Assuming we go again next year, I definitely want to spend more time with people and less time in lines.

Also, the chairs Clint and Jodi sell through Carolina Game Tables are really comfortable. They really don’t need cushions. Amazing!



Also also, we bought Mermaid Adventures for our niece (who probably won't read or play it, but really should) and ArcKnight's Highborne Manor map pack for ourselves. We finally found a map that could work for Pemberley!



Also also also, we bought Red Flags, but we haven't played it yet.


Also also also also, thank you, Sam Slocum, for the ride on Friday. We owe you at least a meal. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

The King is Dead: DHAMPIR

http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/203573/The-King-is-Dead-DHAMPIR?affiliate_id=10771




The second The King is Dead adventure (which was supposed to be the first) is now available!

In an 18th century that never was, the island nation of Malleus writhes under the thumb of an aristocracy of vampires. A coalition of secret societies fights from the shadows to drag theses oppressors burning into the light, but the alliance is young and in dire need of a weapon that can turn the tide against the vampires and their forces.



Word comes to a cabal of heroes that Lady Clarimonde yearns for freedom from the tyranny of her debauched and cruel father, the Baron Drachenholm. Thankfully for her, she possesses the means to pay for her freedom: the Sanguinem Maledicta, a cure for the curse of vampirism!

 

The heroes must dare the deadly labyrinth of Mallean high society to discretely win the lady her freedom – but can they trust Lady Clarimonde herself? She is, after all, no human gentlewoman but rather the child of mortal and undead – a DHAMPIR!
  • New Hindrances!
  • New Edges!
  • New Equipment!
  • A modular adventure that can be resolved in one session or expanded into a mini-campaign!


The King is Dead: DHAMPIR requires the Savage Worlds rules to play.

The journey down the long and rocky road toward completing The King is Dead leaps leagues ahead with the publication of this pseudo-prequel to VARGR. Whereas that adventure took the heroes into the deadly Mallean countryside, this places them in the even more deadly cityscape of Hammerstadt, the vampire capital. Writing this adventure really helped us work out a lot of issues with mechanics and tone, and we expect work on the setting book to proceed much swifter now.



Purchasing this adventure through the links on this page helps support Wine and Savages through affiliate link incentives. Purchase it now at DriveThruRPG.


Musings on a Gail Carriger-Inspired New Campaign




Well, our most recent duet campaign was abruptly euthanized last night after lingering in terminal doldrums for several weeks. I wanted the next campaign Robin and I were going to play to be Blue Rose AGE, but Robin likes to have physical books on hand when we play in established game worlds and we haven’t received that from the Kickstarter yet. Instead, it’s time for another hastily-improvised original setting: a knock-off of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate universe.
 
I’ve only read half of Soulless, the first book in the series, while Robin has read the original five volumes, the Finishing School YA spin-off, the published volumes of the sequel Custard Protocol series, and the novellas set in the same world. I don’t feel intimidated by this; my reaction when reading Soulless was “I could have written this” – but not in a dismissive way. Rather, I found the book to be surprisingly in line with my own sense of humor and world-building; this did, admittedly, disincline me from reading further, but that’s more from not feeling surprised or educated by the story, rather than disliking it.
 
Carriger’s world is a steampunk fantasy Victorian Age. Ghosts, vampires, and werewolves are openly part of society, though hardly considered safe. Airships and mad scientists abound, as well as weirder forms of supernatural beings. A secret service polices the supernatural to protect the mundane folks.
 
For our knock-off, we’re going to use the classic World of Darkness divisions of supernatural beings: vampires, werewolves (and other shifters), wizards (and mad scientists), ghosts, and fairies. Less common supernaturals will lurk around the edges; Frankenstein’s monster is undoubtedly up to something (I usually portray him sympathetically, so maybe he’ll be a villain this time instead) and perhaps a few mummies have awakened. During last night’s brief session (occurring after several hours of debating what setting to use), I mentioned that Dr. Jekyll was lecturing in London. I should totally throw in the Loch Ness Monster at some point.
 
Our heroine is a wereleopard of Anglo-Indian descent, the youngest child of a nabob family that rose to prominence in the late 18th century. She’s only 1/16th Indian, so her family’s money means she only feels the barest trace of prejudice from the most hidebound members of the aristocracy, but she is still regarded as somewhat exotic and strange, leaving her with no suitors yet at the age of twenty. Her family has just returned to London for the Season, so her mother is determined to correct that.
 
Robin quickly established that Ruby Hastings (our heroine) possesses and inquisitive mind, straying into being a bluestocking. She’s also discontented with societal expectations; I get the impression she finds balls and other such entertainments dull, but isn’t repulsed by them. To give her some independence (and a gadfly), I had her parents hire a companion to chaperone her about the city. Elsie Cottingly, despite putting on a show of propriety for her parents, quickly revealed to Ruby that she possesses a rather dirty mind. 
 
(Actually, “Elsie Cottingly” wasn’t the character’s name when I introduced her, but I didn’t write it down and forgot her name overnight. I chose the name just now because I have determined she is definitely a fairy and wanted a name that reflects that and that I’ll remember.) 
 
Our last campaign was about a fae sommelier in modern New York, but it quickly got bogged down in real-life concerns (also, our heroine kept refusing the Call to Adventure). I’m not saying a campaign or story about fairies who don’t belong to the Seelie or Unseelie courts forming their own union couldn’t be interesting, but it wasn’t working for us. This game will need to be deliberately more adventurous, so I need to introduce a supporting cast and start getting them into trouble.
 
So, who do we have?
  • Ruby Hastings, wereleopard ingénue (age 20)
  • Hereward Hastings, MP, her wereleopard father (who should probably be involved in some political contention like home rule for India or something) (age 47)
  • Coral Hastings (née Tempest-Sackville), her “socially active” mother (not a climber so much as a busybody) (age 43)
  • Walter Hastings, Ruby’s layabout wereleopard older brother (age 22)
  • Pearl Clive (née Hastings), Ruby’s older, domestically-inclined sister (age 25)
  • Ruskin Hastings, Ruby's wereleopard, half-Indian grandfather who rarely leaves the family estates (age 90) 
  • Elsie Cottingly, untrustworthy (secretly fairy) lady’s companion (age unknown) 
 
Who do we need?
 
A harem of suitors, obviously. Not to borrow too heavily from my brief dalliance with Carriger’s world, but a Scottish werewolf certainly sounds appropriate. Maybe turning Stoker’s novel and the Dracula Dossier on their heads and having a good guy Dracula? Hmm… Actually, I think I want to avoid incorporating familiar characters when possible; that way the guest stars won’t take over the narrative. 
  • Sir Arthur Hopewell, Bart., a vampire agent for the Socrates Society, a secret agency tasked with curtailing supernatural threats (age 40). He’s from Lord Ruthven’s bloodline, so he has to steel himself to resist loving anything, or he will be cursed to destroy it. 
  • Ossian McKenna, werewolf explorer (age 31). A daring world traveler in the Sir Richard Francis Burton mold whose lycanthropy is harder to control than he likes to let on. Astonishingly progressive for his time, of course, otherwise he’d be unpalatable. 
  • Kumar Banerjee, weretiger something something (age 25). I know I want an Indian suitor, but I’m not sure what role he should have. I suppose the way to play against type would be to have him be a self-made or second-generation businessman who does not indulge in any weird vices like were-people bare-clawed fisticuffs. 
  • Marcus Toll, American mage (age 30). An aide to the American ambassador; possibly up to no good, because who trusts wizards? 
  • Maybe a mad scientist? It’s so easy to slip into anti-scientific prejudices when doing fantasy and horror, so deliberately not doing that might be a good idea.
We also need some antagonists – not villains, necessarily, but certainly opponents for Ruby. Hmm…
  • Lady Alpharetta Heathcote-Harding-Willoughby, werewolf ingénue (as 18 – 20), a prim, proper, hyper-competitive (murderous?) rival in love 
  • Burke Harrington, resurrected criminal (age 35 – 70), a “patchwork man” version of Moriarity, perhaps. 
  • A bad vampire. Maybe I should use Dracula and install him as the ambassador from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maybe Lord Ruthven is still out there, changing identities from time to time, luring the innocent to destruction.
Well, that’s probably enough to start with. I should probably put off reading any of the dozens of other game books, manga, and novels in my backlog and try reading Soulless again.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Five Years





I can’t believe it’s been five years since I started Wine and Savages.

In some ways, it feels like less time has passed; in others, more. Personal tragedies and triumphs, vocational wins and losses, have added up to things often feeling like I’m taking one step forward and two steps back every day. It’s undeniable that I’m in a different place right now.

My name is known to some of the brightest lights in the industry. I’ve both published and edited professionally. I’ve made a mark; it may be a little mark, but it’s there.

I wish I had something more profound or creative to say, but Robin and I are about five man-hours away from finally finishing DHAMPIR, the second (though actually the first) The King is Dead module. Most of my creativity is tied up in that right now. 

In lieu of forced profundities, let me thank the following:

Robin English-Bircher, for being such a wonderful partner in life and on this blog.

Eric Simon of Four-in-Hand Games, for being the first publisher to hire me to write in their world – and for being so patient with The King is Dead – and for just being an awesome person.

Vickey and Bob Beaver of Obatron Productions, for accepting my articles and giving me my big break (and the articles in Savage Insider are still some of my favorite writing I’ve done).

Ross Watson, for profound encouragement and giving me a chance to edit others’ work.

John Dunn, for being the second publisher to let me play in their world – and for the Xmas cards!



Charles White, for being the third (watch this space for announcements).

Tommy Brownell and Kristian Serrano, for building the Savage Worlds online community.

Aaron T. Huss and Gilbert Gallo for making me feel this blog was a player when they reached out to me to promote Mythos.

Sean Patrick Fannon, Jodi and Clint Black, Terry Whisenant, Preston DuBose, Ed Wetterman, and Shane Hensley (even if he forgets who I am), for advice and welcoming me into the RPG professional community.

David Larkins, who still treats me well even though I’ve totally screwed up and crapped out on helping him a couple of times.

Richard Woolcock, for advice, support, and inspiration.

Jack Shear, Trey Causey, Charles Akins, Gaston’s Hat, Stacy Dellorfano, Christopher Helton, Jens D., and all of my friends and peers in the RPG blogging community for friendship, inspiration, or annoyingly helpful advice (even Zak S.).

Wil Wheaton and Jess Nevins, for being my spirit animals.

James Maliszewski, Jeff Rients, and John Arendt, for inspiring the blog in the first place.

My high school buddies (James, Robert, Steve, John…), for getting into gaming with me. I hope your lives – wherever you might be – find you well.

My in-real-life friends – Tomas, Andy, Sam, Erick, Stacy, and Kate Lytle Elsinger and Paul Scofield of Too Real Games – for the fun and friendship we’ve shared in recent years.


All the people I forgot to thank.

My cat and my wife’s cat, for being my real spirit animals. They know their names.

And, again, Robin, because I can never thank her enough.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Olympus, Inc








I cannot, with any honesty, review Olympus, Inc. I’ve written an adventure for the setting and expect it to be published in the next few weeks. What I can do, instead, is offer an overview of the new urban fantasy setting from Fabled Environments.
Purchasing this product – or any products on this page – from the provided DriveThruRPG links helps supports Wine and Savages through affiliate payments.

Written by: Gilbert Gallo and Charles White
Published by: Fabled Environments
System: Savage Worlds
Genre: cyberpunk/espionage/urban fantasy
Overview

Thrown down for their hubris by the primordial mother goddess Gaia, the Greek gods have built mighty megacorporations to replace lost Olympus. The Titans oppose them with megacorporations of their own, turning the battle for godhood into a shadow war of corporate espionage. Waging this war are the demigods, man-times-removed descendants of the gods and monsters of Greek legend who have awakened to their buried divinity, recruited by both the Olympians and Titans to act as their agents.
Contents
Olympus, Inc opens with a chapter detailing the ancient cosmological origins of the conflict between the Olympians and Titans before moving into a history of Olympian activity in the 20th century and the formation of the Delphi Corporation, the private intelligence and security company assumed to be the primary employer of the heroes.
This leads into discussion of six of the twelve Olympians – Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Dionysus, Hermes, and Zeus – and the corporations they control, as well as three Titan-controlled organizations that oppose them. While every Olympian corporation has several legitimate fronts, each also possesses at least one (sometimes borderline) criminal element; this successfully emphasizes not only the nihilism of Olympus, Inc’s cyberpunk side but also the moral ambiguity the gods displayed in their myths. Frustratingly, this ambiguity causes tonal whiplash with the Titans, as their front organizations engage in such unambiguously good services as microcredit and disaster relief in order to provide cover for outright terrorism.
Character creation follows, introducing new Skills, Hindrances, and Edges. The three “races” of demigods are presented: Paragons, who derive their divinity from only one god; Proteans, who have a mix of divine ancestry in their veins; and Demihumans, the half-human monsters of Greek mythology. Only six Olympian bloodlines are discussed (the same six as the megacorporations) and only two Demihuman races are presented (minotaurs and satyrs). Paragons receive the most Power Points to purchase their powers but are limited in the choices they can make, Proteans can choose from any powers they want but are weaker, and Demihumans gain inherent physical abilities but share the weaknesses of their ancestors.
Olympus, Inc requires the use of the Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion, as the next section on powers reiterates, but the available powers have been tweaked extensively to fit the mood of the setting. By judiciously avoiding a few powers that refer the reader to the SPC for details, it might be possible to run the setting without needing the Super Powers Companion. Even though the powers presented represent only half of the Olympians, they competently capture the flavor of the those presented.
The chapter on gear follows after, offering Olympus, Inc’s cyberpunk bona fides in the form of a heavily-illustrated four-page spread of ultramodern firearms. New melee weapons, body armor, and tactical gear not found in the core Savage Worlds rules round out the chapter, along with a section on alchemy and magical items. Like 21st century dungeon delvers or Rippers, the heroes of Olympus, Inc are encouraged to harvest the organs of their monstrous foes to render the ingredients into alchemical potions.
The bestiary is spread out over three sections: a collection of generic nonplayer character templates like beat cops and gang members, a cast of characters of developed and unique allies and antagonists (including one that I am sure only coincidentally shares a name with a former cast member of MADtv), and a section on mythological enemies. The latter section is divided into Intelligent Mythological Beings (IMBs) – beings only a step removed from the Demihumans players can play – and savage mythological creatures – creatures of animal intelligence or unalleviated evil. The IMBs contain the usual suspects – harpies, sphinxes, tritons – but also some unusual examples like cynocephali and empusae.
The final section of the book is the Adventure Oracle, a random adventure generator that emphasizes story structure, pulling inspiration from the noir underpinnings of cyberpunk. The oracle (like many Savage Worlds generators) is based on drawing playing cards, with suit and value representing different aspects of the adventure. The suits determine the Concept (Scenario, Antagonist, Motivation, and Reward) while the values determine the Unfolding (Main Theme, the Start, the Twist, and the Main Scene). Advice on how to work the elements of the oracle together and an example adventure round out the book.
Mood & Tone
The most obvious point of comparison for Olympus, Inc is Scion, the mini-franchise from White Wolf and Onyx Path about demigods who are also fighting Titans in the modern day, but the settings are less similar than they appear. Scion – from what I can glean from a cursory flip-through of a copy I got through one of DriveThruRPG’s Halloween giveaways – is much like an action movie version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, tracking a budding demigod’s transformation through archetypal trips to the Underworld and the like. Olympus, Inc is really more like Shadowrun, only the existence of the supernatural is still a secret for most of the world; the setting emphasizes corporate espionage and intrigue instead of mythic transcendence.
(Humorously, this puts Olympus, Inc in stark contrast to Mythos, the previous Gilbert Gallo-penned setting of demigods in ancient Greece, even though Mythos is implicitly part of the Olympus, Inc timeline.)
The moral ambiguity mentioned before firmly aligns Olympus,Inc with Shadowrun, so even though the setting is an alternate now instead of a near-future, it fits the cyberpunk aesthetic. Reading through the section on the corporations can be a bit jarring: the Titans allied with the Nazis, which makes them unambiguously the villains, but in the modern day they preserve endangered cultures and develop low-cost energy sources; meanwhile Aphrodite runs an ersatz Ashley Madison and Dionysus trades in illegal drugs, but Zeus backs what appears to be an homage to Amnesty International. It’s a deliberately uncomfortable, dystopian worldview that presents the Game Master and players with blurred shades of gray instead of the black-and-white moral divisions assumed in many Savage Worlds settings.
Production Quality
Befitting the decade-plus since Fabled Environments began releasing products, it’s no surprise that the graphic design is clean and effective. Art is comparable to most Savage Worlds third-party licensees, with appropriate echoes of early White Wolf books. Following the example of Pinnacle’s multiple releases of the Savage Rifts® books, the text benefitted from customer review after the initial release.

Review: Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters

Well, that was weird. I jest, but Anno Dracula—One Thousand Monsters is not the book I was expecting, presenting strange and twist...