14 April 2014

The "Wasn't vacation supposed to help?" Blues...

  Greetings, folks.  I am severely upset with myself for having let so much time go by since my last post- it's not like I haven't had any creative thoughts or fun experiences or nifty gaming ideas hit me over the head in the meantime, but I learned a frustrating lesson.  I'd spend a very long while looking forward to the cruise I took the first week of March.  A long time.  Like, counting the days down on my desktop every day when I logged into work.  I was certain that a quick spin around the Gulf of Mexico would be the magic pill that would ease my woes.  I had already pulled the loud handle on my State Guard commitment for the time being, I had a month off between semesters, I would be able to enjoy this cruise without fetters.  Kaylee stayed with my grandmother, Zane with his teacher Ms. Tina, all was set for a great vacation.

  Oh, was it a great vacation.  A GREAT vacation.  Within minutes of getting on Carnival Triumph we had drinks in hand and were toasting leaving life behind for five days.  We ate, we drank, we played games, danced, gambled, ate some more... the kind of stuff you do on a vacation.  It was glorious.  I'm so glad there's no camera footage of me lip synching "Baby Got Back" during the music trivia competition.  I have a nice Carnival medal for that performance, plus my obligatory ship statue trophy for kicking ass in a trivia competition.  It was awesome.  We're going again in January to celebrate Mary's 40th.  Zane at least is coming with us this time, possibly Kaylee as well.  What the hell, we want our kiddos to have fun, right?

  Anyway, we got home, hugged the kids, and jumped back into most of life.  I say most of, since I still had weeks until I was back into my graduate studies.  Even so, just getting back to work almost immediately sucked the benefits of the vacation out of me.  I once again felt lethargic and unmotivated.  It got worse.  Just before the cruise, author Aaron Allston had passed away- someone I had met, talked to, and even hosted in my home.  He was my mom's age, and his sudden passing bothered me on a persistent subconscious level.  Then my great uncle Frank passed, and at the funeral I took some photos of old 1800s tombstones to pass the time, since my grandmother insisted on getting to the funeral an  hour early.  I was moved by the recurrent lamb motif I had never before noticed- and then made the connection that every single on of those little lamb tombstones was a child, usually no more than three years of age.  That was like an emotional sledgehammer right in the gut.  I felt a sort of panic mode where I wanted to drive straight back to Round Rock, hit the daycare, and scoop my kids up into a big hug. 

  I've spent a lot of time, sadly, contemplating the finite nature of our existence.  I find that a belief in the afterlife holds little comfort, since every depiction I have seen of the afterlife seems incomprehensibly boring.  I find that I don't really want eternal peace and harmony, I prefer spending time with my children, my friends, and creating compelling stories and adventures both in writing and around my game table.  I've read that people of higher intelligence are more apt to contemplate death and mortality - and I'll take that as a backhanded sort of compliment.  I was just starting to try to push past all this morbid speculation when one of my coworkers, with whom I had shared an officer for two years, died unexpectedly last Wednesday.  He was 42.  Now, in full disclosure it turns out he had been diagnosed with diabetes about five or six months ago, and refused to believe the diagnosis.  In retrospect, his current office mate described symptoms from Tuesday that would be easily recognizable to those familiar with diabetes as dangerous warning signs.  In any case, he was only slightly older than I am, and now he's gone. 

  This kinda shook me to the core.  I find it terribly surreal.  I also find it a strange sort of wake-up call.  On one hand, it drives home the lesson that we should treasure every possible moment with family and friends.  That's something that just being a father has taught me.  Mary gets upset with me a lot because I'll let the kids snuggle up in my lap when it's bed time.  I'm not giving in to the kids not wanting to go to bed...  I'm giving in to my own feelings of paternal inadequacy by giving myself bits of additional time with my kiddos snuggled up with  me.  I know when it's game night my players get a bit upset with me when I let the kids climb into my lap instead of just popping in for their good-night hugs.  If I could get Zane or Kaylee to just snuggle in and listen to the stories, I'd happily run games with a child in my lap.

  One of the other things all this has brought to mind is how futile certain things are.  I'm watching petty political maneuvering rend friendships and cause turmoil in my little corner of STARFLEET, the International Star Trek Fan Association.  SFI used to be very, very important to me.  I left from 2009-2012/3 to avoid the politics, then some of us decided to come back and start a new chapter.  Now, most of us are regretting that decision due to the politics.  We want to have fun, roll dice, and maybe do an honor guard or two.  A lot of the mess that's going on, firmly anchored in this Region of the organization, just makes us want to leave.  So... do we stay and try to uphold the values that have recently been publically called na├»ve by some of our local leadership?  Do we pull out of the organization as quickly as we joined and leave the club to the jackals?

  I just don't see, at age 38 and with the life experiences I've seen recently, the point of batting over titles and accolades in the club.  I think member recognition is very important to any organization - but it's important for recognition and retention of the membership.  The leaders should seek no such accolades, and should never seek leadership for the sake of the title.  The higher up you go, the more work you're going to do for the organization.  It's work and service, not a path to influence and having your butt kissed.  Sadly, for some folks that's what the whole thing has become- and they're willing to do underhanded things to achieve those goals.

  Why?  Since becoming a father I've realized that there are things that are a whole lot more important and validating.  Parenthood is the chief of these, scholarship is another.  I had put a big portion of my self worth in the concept of soldiering- but after spending time in the Guard I realize that it's a worthy endeavor as a volunteer, but soldiering (as any soldier can tell you) is surrounded by just as much frustrating crap as civilian life is - sometimes much, much more.  I found that my endeavors as a student and as a father eclipsed the value I had put on soldiering- and so I put soldiering on hold until I can finish my Master's Degree.  My priorities have changed so much, there was a time where my #1 goal was to get into uniform, followed closely by being published as a gaming author.  Now, there's a massive re-arrangement of priorities where Zane and Kaylee are on top, my graduate studies are right below them, and they're both wrapped in staying sane while I complete my degree.  Anything below that is priority only until my MA is in my hand.  Family, School, everything else.

  My caveat to the above is, as always, everyone telling me to take care of myself.  To enjoy myself, to stay sane because I can't take care of the family if I don't take care of myself.  The death of my office mate from Round Rock has REALLY driven this home.  I restarted my attempts to control my weight in earnest, finding to my frustration that I had regained 80% of what I had lost to get into the Guard.  I must get back to where I was, and then further down the weight scale until I hit my goal.  I've got to get back to exercise- even if it's just WiiFit.  I want to be fit and healthy as long as possible to be here for my kids as they get older.  Bodily health is going to be an ongoing process, and so is mental health.  I've got to keep setting time aside for Mary and I to have couple time, and setting time aside for me, myself.  I need alone time to clear my mind, and I need friend time to actually relax.

  So there we are. 

21 January 2014

The OD&D Reprint Boxed Set... I has it...

  There I was a Dragon's Lair Austin.  It was the 4 January 2014 meeting of the Starship Texas/Royal Dragoon Guards gaming club.  My holidays had been wretched save the wonderful time my children had experienced.  I got bad health news about two family members, lost the fridge and the dryer, had to crunch out a term paper some of which I wrote on Christmas Day... yeah.  I was ready for something fun.  Thanks to a late gift card, I was about to do something financially unsound to contribute to that fund.  I had sitting in front of me in shrink-wrapped pristine glory the red wooden box that contained the 1974 Dungeons and Dragons rules and the four expansions and followed on until the game was rebooted as Holmes D&D and AD&D.  I had never before owned a copy of this version of the game that defined my childhood.  Sure, I'd seen bootleg PDFs, and I'd even laid hands on a copy at a convention.  Even knowing that this was a reprint, there was something compelling to me personally about opening this box.  We are just passing through history.  This... this is history.

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  Yes, I actually did queue up "Map Room - Dawn" as I opened the box.  As the players assigned to my table watched, I carefully unwrapped the cellophane and lifted the wooden lid inscribed with the distinctive dragon ampersand I had grown up with.  This moment, however unplanned, was the culmination of the last few years of my gaming hobby in some ways.  When I started back to college in 2011, I started to really seriously research the history of the hobby.  Thanks to amazing resources on the net, and books like Jon Petersen's Playing At The World and Dave Ewalt's Of Dice And Men I had started to amass a fascination with the genesis of the hobby.  I have a library at home over over a thousand boxed sets, manuals, modules, GM screens and other products - but nowhere among them was a copy of the very first RPG.  Sure, I had a Holmes set - a couple.  AD&D 1e?  Multiple copies of each core hardcover and at least one of the later supplements, original cover art AND the orange spine reprints.  I even had the commemorative reprints of AD&D 1e.  I had Traveller, Boot Hill, Gamma World... lots of Old School stuff, but never the original.

  To the strains of John Williams' classic Raiders score...  I opened the box.  My imagination actually painted a picture of the spirits of adventurers from the last forty years swirling around the box as I carefully removed the lid.  The sense of wonder was dampened just a bit by the cardboard spacer that covered the contents of the box, and then restored when flipping the lid over to set it down revealed the metallic artwork print inside the top of the wooden lid.  Here, too was a cardboard spacer that needed to be removed.  Once done, I was able to look at the booklets inside.  The books had been separately shrink-wrapped as a seven-book stack.  Underneath the books was a felt or velvet interior of the box, a well for the books to rest in lined with individual pits for the extremely intricately carved dice set that came with the box.  Attached to the box interior was a red ribbon, like the ones used to mark pages, probably to assist in getting the books out of the well in which they would be stored.

  I gently removed the shrink wrap from the books.  The covers were a heavy stock, with the prehistoric trade dress of the 1970s.  I could imagine each booklet being assembled and stapled in Don Kaye's garage by Gary and his kids.  I opened Men and Magic: Volume I of Three Booklets. It was like having a personal flux capacitor.  For a few moments, I forgot I was in the gaming room of a large game and comic shop, forgot that I had players eagerly waiting to peruse the boxed set themselves, forgot everything and basked in this facimile of the very first player's handbook.  3d6.  Only three character classes, Fighting Men, Magic-Users (as I still call them) and Clerics.  Race and class were indeed separate in this first edition.  I wondered at the references to Chainmail, and then found that the "alternate" combat system was the very first matrix of attack tables.  All combat hits did 1d6 damage.  This was it - the beginning of the beginning.  D&D before it evolved from this beginning point.  Every role playing game I had played since that fateful afternoon in the early summer of 1986 had stemmed from this.  The AD&D books I had marvelled at in 1985, wondering how one used their contents to play a game - their DNA began here.  I watched the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon every Saturday during its series run, and always wanted to know how it related to the stack of hardcover books in my friend Eric's brother's bedroom.  Here was where it all started.

  Now, at this point some of you are wondering how I can get all worked up over a game.  It's important to note that Dungeons and Dragons, and many, many other RPGs were and continue to be instrumental to the person I am.  Since playing that first character (a Magic-User!) rolled up using the 1983 Mentzer Expert rulebook in Daniel Varner's room with his brother and some of our other friends in 1986 I was hooked on the hobby that actually used the imagination I had been gifted with.  I had lots of trouble in my early school years because I was constantly daydreaming and not paying attention.  I was in gifted and accelerated classes, but still bored much of the time in the grade-level classes on my schedule.  This pattern continued throughout high school and well into my undergraduate studies.  Only now in Grad School and the latter half of my BA am I finding real challenge.  At any rate I was eager to find something where my imagination -normally getting me into trouble- would be a boon.  And here it was.  I could use this game to tell epic stories with my friends, we would have our own tales to tell that were much more exciting than the mundanities of school sporting events or more mundane pastimes pushed on us by our parents.

  In Boy Scouts, Troop 145 spent evenings playing D&D much to the chagrin of Mr. Bonner and Mr. Goorley, our scoutmasters.  We'd make camp, make dinner, and break out the dice.  Mr. Goorley's son Tim was my second Dungeon Master- and took us on adventures like Castle Amber, and msyteries of his own design.  I learned the word "Grimoire" from him.  I remember playing Brother Maynard of the Holy Outhouse at Lost Pines Scout Camp in the summer of 1989.  I remember drawing a toilet seat on a chain that represented his holy symbol.  Brother Maynard drank a haste potion and ran back to town for holy water as the rest of the scouts' characters struggled to vanquish the demon that was the master villain for the campaign we had been playing all through our stay at Lost Pines.  Sadly, the demon was destroyed before the good cleric could return from town - so Brother Maynard became a running joke - literally.  In many games over the past 24 years run by players who were there, a cleric would occasionally run past at superhuman speed for no readily apparent reason.  Somehow, this became a naked cleric.  Oh, well, at least Brother Maynard is still out there.

  D&D opened my world to all sorts of adventures.  Instead of just watching Star Trek or Robotech, I was writing my own stories in those worlds and taking my friends along for the ride.  We had our own Marvel superheroes, we explored ancient ruins, attacked the Death Star, fought World War III and entered into the gritty dystopian future of Cyberpunk and Shadowrun - depending on wether we were in the mood for elves.  I was a natural storyteller, Dungeon Master and all-around gamer.  When I did take up a sport, it was fencing.  I read - a LOT.  The Round Rock Public Library was a second home, and I volunteered there the summer of '90.  I devoured fiction, nonfiction, reference stuff...  I used the bibliographies most early RPGs so thoughtfully put in the back to find things I never would have found on my own.  Heinlein and Asimov, Philip K. Dick.  I read about the historical medieval era.  Roleplaying games not only inspired me to learn, they inspired me to think.  I came up with devious puzzles and traps for my friends to unravel.  I wanted to create my own Indiana Jones adventures- especially after the awesome traps in Last Crusade came out. 

  I also made friends.  Friends I still roll dice with to this day.  In every way that matters, my creative and social outlets from the sixth grade forward were colored by Dungeons and Dragons.  Putting these books in my hands, I could see the formative process that led to the most influential pastime I would ever find.  Sure, I had been a Star Wars and Star Trek fan since I was old enough to turn a channel, but now I could enter those worlds and play inside them.  Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man - all worlds I could now visit.  And my friends came along.  I can't count the number of things I've written over the years to support this world or that as an RPG - and I'm still doing it as time allows.  And I'm still telling stories my friends talk about for years.

  So yeah, reading these books was a big deal for me.  It got bigger as I was able to progress through the seven boolkets in the boxed set.  When one gets to Greyhawk, one sees the D&D game evolving toward what we all know and love.  Thieves are added to the class list, exceptional strength for fighters, spells whose names we've come to know and love.  I was seeing history as it was written.  The three booklets were followed by Greyhawk, then Blackmoor, then Eldrich Wizardry and Gods, Demigods and Heroes.  Each book added something that moved the whole a bit more toward those arcane tomes I had first perused in '85.  A bit more toward the Mentzer basic box I would buy at Hasting's in middle school.  The AD&D 2nd Edition books we would use constantly throughout high school.  It was like having the Rosetta Stone that suddenly unlocked the mysteries of an ancient language, the language of gamers and grognards.

I look very, VERY forward to continuing to peruse these ancient volumes, and perhaps I will run a game using these rules in honor of D&D's 40th anniversary.

11 January 2014

First Post of the New Year

...and it's 11 January.  Wow.  Life has kept this Old Dragoon busy.  Let me describe briefly what my Christmas vacation consisted of:  I got two weeks off work.  Woo hoo!  What did I do with those two weeks?  Well...  Family obligations, road trips, a term paper, and two days of work on my State Guard unit's web site.  I had two days I had set aside to do nothing with.  One of those got taken up by shopping for a new refrigerator AND dryer, as both had died on us during December.  The other was going to be sleep late, read, and go see The Hobbit.  My best friend had a flat on her car, so sleeping late turned into getting moving and taking her to the dealership, but we still saw The Desolation of Smaug.  In short, I liked it- better than An Unexpected Journey.  Perhaps I will blog more on that later.

  Taking stock of my posts over the last year, it's clear I lost my one-post-a-week juju and really fell off over the end of the year.  Once I got into Grad School what time I had evaporated.  I totally underestimated the amount of time and energy Grad School would take.  I am in the middle of a semester in which I will complete 9 hours, one 16-week course and two consecutive 8-week courses.  The 8-week courses are perhaps a bit optimistic.  The pace is frenetic, the readings impossible to complete with kids and work and Guard, but I managed to pull an A- out of my History of Peacekeeping 1945-1987 class.  I hope to blog more consistently this year, but I can't promise weekly until I graduate.

  I have found that my priorities have changed drastically from who I was before I became a father.  They tell you it will happen, and folks like myself tend to resist any notion on the fear that they will "lose themselves" somehow.  On the contrary, I think this experience has helped me find my core being.

 Fatherhood- This is pretty much my top priority these days.  Zane and Kaylee and my family/friends.  This is not a bad thing.  It's actually pretty awesome.  My kiddos are, for the moment, following in Daddy and Mommy's geek footsteps.  As I type this, Zane is sitting to my right watching Thundarr The Barbarian, one of their favorite shows.  I introduced Zane to roleplaying games with the excellent Hero Kids game.  Kaylee was running around our home at Christmas time waving her new lightsaber in the air and yelling "By the Power of Grayskull!"  I love my kids.  I love reading to them, playing with them, watching them learn and grow.  OK, I'm kinda sad about the growing part, and kinda happy.  Bottom line is I'm pretty sure if I was making myself as a FATE character, I would include fatherhood in my high concept aspect.

Job/School- I just got told by a friend not to be, in her words, an "Asian Mom."  What she meant was that an A- is not  a bad grade, and I should stop kvetching about my ruined GPA.  She was right.  Grad School is eating my life.  I am in front of this computer every moment I'm not engaged with the kids, and I'm really tired.  The grind is disheartening.  When this semester ends, I'll be 33% of the way through my MA, and I should be done with all my classes at the beginning of March 2015, unless Mary successfully convinces me to postpone my last classes so that I will not be in class during the holidays, which were terrifyingly stressful to me this year.  The week of Christmas was also the week my term paper was due, and my little brother Cody's wedding.  I had a hell of a time getting everything I needed done that week, and Christmas is the wrong time to be stressing over school.  I was working on homework on Christmas Day.  There's something wrong with that.
  School is a priority because it will unlock the ability for me to start teaching, instead of doing IT.  Being realistic, I'm still going to be doing my current day job for a few more years as I build up a teaching resume as an adjunct.
  Now, my day job is a conundrum.  Most of the time it's pretty simple, since I seem to be born with a decent grasp of customer service.  During the average semester it's pretty low-key, but between semesters, like this last week, is balls-to-the-wall.  It's busy, and we all finish by the skin of our teeth - and it doesn't have to be that way.  I really don't want to get into the technical side of it, but suffice to say we know we can do what we need to do much more simply and quickly than we do- we're just not allowed to due to a staff member who is engineering things so that they remain indispensable to the department.  I have lost the will to excel.  I do what needs doing, and not much more.  Why?  Because my peers at work do even less, and not a word is said, nothing ever done.  Some of them are consummate "get over" artists and there is never any penalty.  Some of them make more money than I do.  So... I need the job to finish school, and to give me time to make it as a professor.  I just no longer have any faith that the things that need to be addressed at work will be...

Gaming- This is the priority I wish was second to the kids, as it encompasses more than just playing games.  For me, the gaming hobby also encompasses writing, studying the history of the hobby, entertaining my friends, and crafting social organizations.  It's not just rolling dice.  I've developed a particular affinity and interest in the roots and history of the hobby over the last year, reading books like Playing At The World and Of Dice and Men.  I've been reading rules systems from the dawn of the hobby, from Chainmail to Top Secret to Boot Hill.  It calms me and entertains me.
  I guess I also include my fandom activities in gaming.  As XO of the Starship Texas/Royal Dragoons I have a lot of fun running game club events.  There's more than a little frustration there, too, but once I graduate and can turn more energy toward the club this stuff will sort itself out.  I wish I could say that I would finish some projects or start new ones this year, but with school going on I really can't make any promises there, either.  Most of my energy goes to the kids and passing my classes.  If I can clatter dice a coupla times a month, that will help keep me sane.

Guard- Sadly, now that I've been in Guard for eight months, I'm not finding it anywhere as satisfying as I had hoped.  My duties have thus far consisted of web site work and document creation.  I had hoped for something a little less like what I do for a living.  Also - after my epic struggle to lose 54 lbs, I have gained 15-20 of it back.  I am deeply ashamed of this, and am working to correct it.  I make no excuses, save that being a graduate student coupled with stress, holidays, and eating out a lot due to the fridge being out of commission did a number on my figure.  My uniform is now tighter than I'd like, and I'm embarrassed to put it on.  Thinking about the next drill or web tasking just stresses me out.  I keep wondering when I'll get my enthusiasm back.  When I swore in, my first question was how soon I could apply for Officer Candidate School.  Now?  I keep looking for a good reason to pull the loud handle.  What keeps me in the Guard is my friends- we joined as a group.  We're there to support one another.  I keep thinking if one of us leaves, it will trigger an exodus either out of the Guard or to other  units and other opportunities.  I don't want to be the pebble that starts the avalanche.

  So, for the record's sake, that's where I being 2014.
  • Fatherhood - Loving it, can't wait to see what's next.
  • Work/School - Becoming jaded and ambivalent about the sadly necessary former; ready for the latter to be OVER already.
  • Gaming - The one thing keeping my brain sane outside of my kids.  Need to stabilize my gaming time, and maybe write here and there as time permits.  Especially here on the blog.
  • Guard - Time will tell, but right now not what I had hoped or signed on for.
So... my next post...  I will reveal the gamer archaeological  awesome that I got over the Christmas break.

02 December 2013

Welcome to December...

  Wow.  I can't believe Thanksgiving is behind us and the New Year is just ahead.  I can see by my post count my resolution to post weekly went right out the window long about the start of my MA program... along with my regular trips to the gym.

  I feel like I've got a polite invisible assistant standing over my shoulder most of the time these days whispering "remember, thou art mortal" all the time.  I've finally caved and admitted to myself and my therapist that yes, Virginia, I've got an actual problem with stress and anxiety.  I've been on anxiety meds since October-ish and I couldn't begin to tell you if they're helping.  Too much going on. 

  The holidays are rough this year.  I've still got schoolwork due each week, including the week of Christmas, so there's no letting off the gas.  I keep telling myself, if I can just make it to 1 March 2015, I'm good.  That's when all my MA work should be done, and I can start looking for adjunct hours and turning this academic slog into income.  My wife and a few others are trying to talk me into a Ph.D. program... but one thing at a time.  I'm nearly insane as it is, and I'm not doing any one thing especially well.

  So, let's talk about stuff that makes me happy.  Like gaming.  Gaming makes me happy.  Bobby and I spent some time a couple of weekends ago putting some more work into our version of MechWarrior.  The file dates on our draft copies showed me that we've been working on this project for over a year.  That makes me feel frustrated, as I know we should have had something more than a few Word documents to show for our work by now - but then I remember all the other plates I'm spinning and it all begins to make sense.  Family, Job, School, in that order.  Then Guard, then gaming.

  I seriously considered resigning from the Guard.  In fact, I consider it almost every day.  I worked so damn hard to get into the Guard, but sometimes it just seems like one more thing I have to do that I'm not particularly enjoying anymore.  I can't go too much into it, but I'm not on track with my weight loss anymore, and the duties I have been assigned are too much like what I do in the civilian world.  I know I have talents in the area in which I am being asked to work - but it wasn't what I had wanted to do as a soldier.  Needs of the service, I suppose.  At this point, I'm staying in my unit for my comrades who supported me in my struggle to swear in.  I'm staying in because hell, I just got here, and I want to do something significant before I get out.  I'm staying in because I'm to embarrassed not to.

  OK, so gaming.  We've got our character generation rules locked down, more or less.  What we're working on now is the back end stuff - we're borrowing Pendragon's concept of a "Winter phase" between campaigns.  I like the idea of the MechWarriors going back to their holdings and taking care of the business of being knights/nobility since that was a trope of the original MechWarrior material.

TO BE CONTINUED.

28 October 2013

FASA Trek - A Return To Yesterday

  It's 1987, and I'm in the seventh grade at Chisholm Trail Middle School in Round Rock, Texas.  This school and the friends I had there are responsible for putting me on the path to being an unrepentant gamer for the rest of my life.  From my first D&D books in 1986 to my rapid acquisition of FASA's Star Trek : The Roleplaying Game and Robotech from Palladium, it's just gone nuts from there.  I stopped counting my book and game collection when I got over 1,000 books.  Now, this counts multiple copies and things like 32-page adventure modules and GM screens, but it's still about 70 shelf-feet of "active" library of books in my game room, with 60 shelf-feet of games and that's not touching the archive boxes.  But I digress.

  I've been a Star Trek fan as long as I can remember.  Somewhere, out there, my mom has a picture of toddler me in a Mr. Spock t-shirt - like, a small Trek uniform with stripes on the cuffs and the arrowhead insignia on the breast.  Like every other child born in the mid-70s, I had Star Wars figures.  A lot of Star Wars figures.  That said, one of my favorite toys (until my uncle Jon sat on it) wasa Star Trek : The Motion Picture Enterprise toy that made sounds and could be taken apart and converted into several different re-arrangements of hulls and nacelles.  My Mammaw (East Texas for "Paternal Grandmother) hand-embroidered an Engineering arrowhead on a sweat shirt that I wore as a uniform shirt throughout middle school.  I was a huge Trek nerd.   I had the story records and comics - you know, the ones where Sulu is black and Uhura is a blonde?  I had the films on VHS, I watched the TOS re-runs every afternoon after school.  As an aside, did anyone ever notice that if Star Trek was shown in another TV show or movie the episode being shown was always "Spock's Brain?"  Also - my personal experience growing up was that if I ever missed TOS re-runs, or if I happened to tune in in another town, the episode being shown was ALWAYS either "Devil in the Dark" or "The Apple."
 
  Enter the two Trekker bibles of my youth.  Now, being born in 1975 I remember a time when Star Trek was just Star Trek.  There was no TNG, DS9, VOY or Enterprise and certainly no Abrams reboot.  Up until I was in Middle School, there was naught but the original series and Treks up to Search for Spock.  The Voyage Home came out my sixth grade year.  In those days, there was a rabid and prolific fan publication community.  Problem was, this was pre-Internet, dear readers, and a kid like me had no way of knowing what was out there.  I received as a gift a copy of the Star Fleet Technical Manual

  This book opened my imagination in a way that I'm not sure a book had before.  Sure, by that time I'd read "The Hobbit" and played D&D and was well on my way to being the creative mess I am today- but Star Trek was something that I had grown up with, something that I identified with and that held a great deal of fascination for me.  Inside the cover of this plastic-bound tome I found a wealth of brain fodder from the fonts used in the show to the Articles of Federation to the actual rank and insignia charts to patterns for the uniforms.  There were schematics of phasers and tricorders and the flags of Epsilon Eridanii and... more ships!  In the original Star Trek we only see Constitution-class ships like the Enterprise.  Here we were introduced to the Scout, the Destroyer, the Transport/Tug and the mighty Dreadnought.  I felt a bit like the culture from "A Piece of the Action" that read Chicago Mobs of the Twenties and decided to live their lives the way the book told them to.  Like the Iotians, I was, shall we say, imitative.  We founded our first Star Trek club at Chisholm Trail.  We forged passes into the Apple II-equipped computer lab to use Bank Street Writer to make crude manuals and schematics of starships.  We started to devour everything we could about Star Trek - and I was the ringleader.  Enter Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise by Shane Johnson.  Now we're talking!

  "Scotty's Guide" was a book done to illustrate all the changes made to the Enterprise in Star Trek : The Motion Picture and it was a more modern, more information-filled book than the original Technical Manual.  There was a lot of explanatory text that filled in the universe with so much detail I couldn't help but memorize most of the book.  What engine company produced the warp nacelles for the refit Enterprise?  Why, those are FWG-1 pattern warp drives by Leeding Engines, Ltd.  and the Enterprise was the first ship to mount them.  Little did I know that a lot of Mr. Johnson's writing would become apocryphal in later years since Paramount basically ignored anything that was never shown on screen.  The nice thing is that Mr. Johnson had used the otherwise excellent Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology to make sure at least his publication jived with other popular fan publications.  I wouldn't see the Spaceflight Chronology for many years, but reading it now I can see that not only did fandom take a huge cues from this book, but FASA's Star Trek Roleplaying Game used it as the basis of their timeline and technology.  Scotty's Guide told us what was available from the food synthesizer units, where the lifeboats were, that there WERE lifeboats, how the decks were numbered, etc.

  So there we were, Star Trek geeks just exposed to role-playing through Dungeons and Dragons (Mentzer Red Box and Blue Box, naturally) and being told there was a Star Trek Roleplaying game!  By the time I'd gotten my hands on the FASA-Trek basic boxed set, I had played D&D, AD&D, Marvel Superheroes, Traveller, Gamma World and a few other games.  Star Trek was the first game I played that resonated with me on a "realistic" level - I know, I know.  Marvel and Robotech were based on cartoons.  D&D, Traveller, Gamma World - great games, but not based on something I'd been steeped in forever.  I hadn't yet found West End's Star Wars RPG - but I would in 1989 and it would change the way I looked at game rules.  Anyway, here was Trek.  It used a percentage dice system that seemed sharp and "scientific."  It had a life path method of creating a character - by the time my Science Officer was ready for play I knew how he did at the Academy, what missions he had been on before now (Colonial Operations?  Yawn.) and what skills he had.  I could even compare his skill ratings to the classic Trek crew.  The Cadet's Orientation Sourcebook filled in even more information about the Star Trek universe for myself and my friends.  We took it for gospel, married to Scotty's Guide and the Black Book.  From this trio of sources we started our Star Trek adventures.  The Game Operations Manual had rules for generating planets and missions - and when we saw in Starlog and Dragon magazines that there was a ship combat game, I saved up my money and went to King's Hobby and bought it.  Now we were cooking with gas!  The FASA ship combat game came with rules for using your RPG characters to run your ship in combat!  Holy crap!  Now, by this time we were playing MechWarrior First Edition so the idea of an integrated combat game and RPG wasn't groundbreaking to us - but this was STAR TREK!  The Deluxe Boxed Set even came with "consoles" designed so that you could lay them in front of your players and have each player move chits on the console to track damage, power, weapons fire, casualties...  It was the closest thing to a live-action RPG I had ever done at the time.  And it was wonderful.

  Just two weeks ago, some of my friends from the Starship Texas club decided we wanted to play some Trek.  Now, the club has fully endorsed Savage Worlds as our universal game engine of choice, and I've even made a custom SW character sheet with our ship's logo on it.  Something called to me from the boxed set shelf, and I turned to see the FASA Trek goodness staring back at me.  Yes, it had to be done.  Thus were the voyages of the TOS-era Starship Texas begun by myself along with Jim Cook - who had been there at Chisholm Trail Middle School when it all began.  With us we had Quinn Bratteng, Tony Walker and Cody Wyatt - who hadn't been born yet or were wee lads when our adventures began.  We created a crew of stalwart adventurers in Gold, Blue and Red who each had histories and backgrounds that would form the core of future stories.  Jim and Tony even came up with a plot hook based on their both having rolled randomly and found that each of their characters had just come off a 5-year tour on a Constitution-class starship.  Was it the same ship?  Did they know each other?  Turns out they were two of the only five survivors of the mysterious destruction of U.S.S. Hornet - a plot point we will explore as the game goes on.  Our Vulcan science officer studies Vulcan martial arts in the hopes that the centering it brings will help him toward the achievement of Kohlinar.  Our half-Vulcan security chief is a Chief Petty Officer who served against the Klingons in the Four Years War.

  The adventure thus far has been everything I had hoped for - as it turns out, you can sorta go home again.  I say "sorta" because with 27 years of gaming experience under my belt, I know the FASA system is clunky by modern standards.  I've already started the house rules.  In fact, I've got an 11-page document revamping character creation to include enlisted characters, and people who direct-commission from civilian life due to holding degrees in law, medicine or engineering.  But screw the rules problems - what about the GAME?  The Story?  Well - it was GREAT.  The crew of the Texas take her out of spacedock after an EoSL (extension of service life) refit for her post-refit shakedown, and find themselves stranded on the wrong side of the Klingon border without warp power.  For the first time in decades I had a crew who played Star Trek like Star Trek - and not McHale's Navy In Spaaaaaace.  We had a blast.  People played in character and acted as one would expect a character from TOS to act.  We even had TOS morals and tropes going on that I'd not have imagined this bunch to grok (aside from my fellow grognard Jim.)

  Those of you that follow me know I struggle with stress, depression and overcommitment to my way-too-busy life and that gaming is the one thing besides playing with my kids that really helps me calm down.  Even gaming lately has become more labor than love - and I've thought more than once about cancelling what little gaming I get to do here and there to try and reboot my brain.  I was starting to lament ever really "getting into" a game again.  In the last two weeks I've been reintroduced to two of the games that were absolutely seminal to my appreciation of the hobby - FASA's Star Trek and WEG's Star Wars.  Thanks to the Starship Texas group and my Wednesday irregulars...  I've gotten my groove back as it were.  I've been gaming for the sheer enjoyment of gaming, rather than because I'm committed to running a game for people.  Too often I carve out precious schedule time to run a game because I feel required to do it to entertain my friends, but then stress out over the game in the exact opposite effect of the one I'm trying to fix.  FASA Trek has helped me find the parts of my brain that absolutely love Star Trek and gaming.  And it looks like I'm going to be able to keep doing both, at least once a month when the Starship Texas meets.

Live Long and Prosper!


 
 

24 September 2013

The Battletech Stew Continues to Simmer...

  Well, I blew it.  Missed a whole month of posting.  In my defense, Work + Grad School + Parenthood + State Guard = OneTiredOldDragoon.  I could go on about life, but hey, you guys have Geek Dad for that, right?  I continue to burn myself out on all of the above while trying desperately to relax here and there.  It ain't easy.  I can't turn my worry off.  So... when I can ponder gaming, what am I pondering?

  Well, as everyone has seen before in this blog, I love gaming of all types but I have a particular love of Battletech and the wonderful universe that has been created to go along with it.  Specifically, I love what has come to be called "Mad Max" Battletech - the Third Succession War and thereabouts.  Your 'Mech is an heirloom over a century old, repair parts get fought over, battles are almost ritualistic and MechWarriors are knights and nobility by virtue of owning a 'Mech, and the whole thing feels like A Game of Thrones with giant robots.  Or Dune with giant robots.  Or both.  With a side of Thunderdome.

  I've searched long and hard for the "perfect" Battletech.  I keep coming to different conclusions, mostly because different ways of playing fit different styles of story.  The ultra-crunchy Solaris VII rules are great for duels between warriors on The Game World, but would make for ridiclously slow play at the company level or above.  Standard Battletech grinds at company level, but runs fairly smooth in lance-on-lance engagements.  The new Alpha Strike game could do battalion-level engagements with ease, but loses some of the detail and crunch a lot of Battletech players love.  Each has its own applicability.  Add on top of this the question of what RPG system to use...  you've got a good little gaming conundrum.  MechWarrior 1e had the atmosphere, but a bit of a clunky system.  2e had math that was easily broken at character creation, but was otherwise easy to run and easy to learn.  3e had wonderful lifepath options, but a hideously overcomplex skill-points-to-skill-bonus mechanic on top of a 2D10 resolution system that was not immediately compatible with Battletech.

  The other night it occurred to me...  Something I'd love to try for a campaign.  Bear with me.  So, Stars Without Number uses a d20 task resolution but with 2d6 skill rolls, with skills starting at 0 and each level representing a great amount of improvement over the last, yes?  OK.  Adventurer, Conqueror, King has a chart for figuring out where in the grand scheme of things your class level places you.  Alpha Stike (and Battletech) have benchmarks for skills for the average MechWarriors at Green, Regular, Veteran, Elite, etc....

  So...  Use SWN as a base.  Use the level equivalencies from ACKS.  Use Alpha Stike as your 'Mech combat engine.  Voila...  A fast-playing, old-school-feeling Battletech roleplaying game that does not require a spreadsheet for character creation (A Time of War, I'm looking at YOU) and has a simple enough 'Mech combat to be dropped in on a whim just like a random encounter might be in old school D&D.  You can get your 'Mech on without devoting a whole day to a large battle...

  Will I ever get to try this?  I'm not sure.  Bobby Dean and I have written a perfectly usable version of MechWarrior grafting what we liked about 1e and 2e together into a single game and adding our own touches.  We still need to playtest it.  This was just something I was thinking about when trying to sleep the other night...

09 August 2013

The Old Dragoon Revisits - SHADOWRUN FIRST EDITION

  Shadowrun First Edition - my first delve into genre-mashing goodness.  So, do I view it through rose-colored mirrorshades?  Let's find out together.

  I remember when I first laid eyes on Shadowrun in early 1990.  Schoolmate of mine sold me a stack of Shadowrun books he'd gotten and decided he didn't really want.  BRAND NEW ONES.  I scored the corebook, the Street Sam Catalog, and a couple of the early modules- I wanna say DNA/DOA and Mercurial.  There is something about this game that keeps me coming back.  There is a wonderful alchemy going in in Shadowrun, an arcane alloy made of artwork (Laubenstein, Bradstreet and others with cover by ELMORE) setting and unique rules.  Put them all together and you get something quite unlike anything I'd ever held in my hands. 

  Opening the book, the first thing that presents itself is a map of Seattle - on my copy I've got notations from some of my players from the early 90s who put their safehouses and apartments on the map.  The Renraku Arcology and the Aztechnology Pyramid are quite notable on the map.  The next page shows the classic Shadowrun logo with the ram skull, above which is a piece of Meso-American-inspired art.  This is where it starts getting REALLY cool.
 
  The introductory fiction "A Night On The Town" really, REALLY gets the setting into focus quickly.  Even better, it's directly tied into the cover art, which is a lot less usual than you'd think.  "And So It Came To Pass" has to be one of my favorite data dumps to bring people up to date with the world as it stands in the Shadowrun universe.  Now, here's where things get a little odd for some people living in 2013- this was written back in the late 80s, using late 80s assumptions for what technology would look like going forward.  Bear that in mind when you see things like telecoms that stay at your house, or 500-nuyen mobile phones that just make phone calls.  I usually deal with this by telling my players this world took a vastly different technological path post-1980s, and that just because we have something now doesn't necessarily mean we have it in Shadowrun.  The Shadowrun tech is at the same time more advanced, and less than what we currently have- and I'm OK with that.  I have often said that I like my Cyberpunk 20 minutes into the future of 1987, and that's the way I'll continue to GM it.  Moving on.

  OK, so there's not really enough of a Native American population left to pull off what happens in the history section.  I'm good with fudging that, because I like the implication that the Amerind peoples (of which I have 1/4 blood myself) get to stick it to whitey in a pretty epic way.  I used to think about how unrealistic corporate extraterritoriality was, and the huge corp influence on government, and the idea of completely electronic commerce, and putting all your important data on a worldwide computer network so it could be hacked, and... wait... we're living it?  Never mind.  Perhaps not ALL of Shadowrun is that far-fetched.  Just the parts about spellcasters and elves.

  In the Game Concepts section we look at the rules.  And what rules they are!  At the time, the only dice pool game I could say I'd played was really Star Wars D6 from West End Games (and it's parent game, Ghostbusters.)  In those games a player rolls the entire dice pool and adds the values all together.  Shadowrun was the first game I'd seen to have the individual dice checked for success and failure.  We'd see this again in '91 with Vampire: The Masquerade with d10s.  So, first dice pool system.  Also, first system I'd played with what has come to be called 'exploding' dice.  Roll a 6 on a d6, and roll another one and add them together.  That was new at this point as well.  Compare the successes to what is needed, or to the successes of the opposing character, and you're golden.  Not nearly as complex as it looked at first- but there are some strange mathematical issues.  The most glaring example is that there's no functional difference between a target number of 6 and one of 7.  If you roll a 6, you've already got the 7 if the second d6 comes up a 1. 
  Another strange mechanical issue is that armor counts as free successes against damage.  In Shadowrun, weapons do a set amount of damage, with that damage becoming more severe if you rolled extra successes and less severe if the target makes a good dodge or body roll to resist the damage.  This was called 'staging' the damage up or down.  Weapons had various staging numbers (this was set permanently at 2 in Shadowrun 2nd Edition) with the lower numbers representing a weapon that varied in damage more often, and higher numbers representing a weapon that usually did its normal damage.  The 3L1 Tiffani Self-Defender only needed 1 success to stage the damage either way, but the Ares MP Laser's staging of 8 (!!) meant it was nearly always possible to hurt someone with an MP Laser, but next to impossible to kill them.
  While we're discussing rules strangeness, note that the entire combat section of this game is 11 pages.  This is VASTLY smaller than the rules in later editions.  I'm not sure if this is good or bad - but I lean toward good as I come from the Basic D&D school of Game Mastering - if there's not a rule, make it up.  And I prefer not to have to look up zillions of rules.  Games like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder try to cover all the bases, but in some ways they hem players in by explicitly ruling what they can do with the implication that anything not covered by the rules is off-limits.  In the old days, we made it up as we went, and had a fine time.  A good example of this is 2-weapon shooting.  One of my players has to go all John Woo every damn time she plays Shadowrun.  I couldn't find the rule for it in SR1 when we played our retro-game, so I just made up a rule.  The rule in SR2 is present, but VERY restrictive to the shooter, who takes a TN penalty on top of losing any benefit of smartgun or smartgoggle interface.  This just seems... off... in a game that has a reputation for high-action gunfights.  The system handles Orcs and fireballs, it can't really say it's going for hyper-realism.  So... rulings, not rules.

  OK, so I've gotten on a rules track and skipped character gen.  Let's finish covering the rules, and then we'll talk about characters.

  Magic.  OK, this section is a glorious mess.  I'm still not sure I grok all of it, since most players I've had for the last 23 years NEVER go astral, summon anything, or enchant anything.  In fact, few of them make use of talismans or fetishes, most of them just go D&D-style flash-bang on their magic.  In this version of Shadowrun, your Sorcery skill gives you magic pool, but it's the force of the spell that really has an effect on the outcome of the spell.  Magic can be quite overpowering in this version of Shadowrun if you're not careful- especially the mana-based magic.  Shadowrun NPCs (and some players) had a habit of having mediochre Willpower stats in favor of more directly combat-oriented applications.  This meant mana-based magic would drop them like they were punched by George Foreman.  Brutal, and not a whole lot to do for it, except for the REALLY effective spell defense rules in 1e, where the mage can lend Magic Pool dice to the entire party for spell defense.  This is why you geek the mage first!

  The Matrix.  Another glorious mess.  I don't think I've EVER played the Matrix rules as written, but it's a goal of mine to do so someday just to see how it would flow.  Most of the time, I have players that don't bother playing anything but street samurai, riggers, and combat mages.  Nobody wants to bother with the complexity of the decker, and it's just that complexity that I, as a a player loved.  Which programs do I load into memory?  Can I swap them fast enough to get the job done and get out?  How long will it take me to design and cook new chips to make my deck more badass?  Nope, most players just want to shoot stuff.  Oh, well.  The decking rules use the concept of the Cyberdeck as a container into which the programs fit.  Programs are like skills or weapons for the Decker to use in the Matrix, and the deck itself can be enhanced with response increase, more memory, more storage, etc.  It's sort of a sub-game within Shadowrun that I was very fond of - but many people aren't.  This is because once the decker goes full VR, it's kind of a solo-show for the Decker while the other players take a bathroom break or go get pizza.  Shadowrun 4 and 5 try to mitigate this through various means, but for some reason wireless matrix and augmented reality feel too much like real-world tech and not enough like Shadowrun to me.

  OK, character creation.  One of the things I loved about Shadowrun was the priority character gen system.  Most, if not ALL of the games I'd played up until that point were random-generation games.  D&D, Traveller, Marvel, etc.  I'd not gotten too far into GURPS or anything like that yet, so the idea of allocating priorities and points was pretty darn cool.  I liked the concept.  In practice, metahumans kinda got boned.  Ever notice how low the attrivute scores were for most of the pre-gen metahumans?  I mean, the Elven Decker pre-gen had a Charisma of 3 and a Body and Strength of 2?  Better buy some armor, Chummer, and hope you're not the party face, despite being an elf...  One of the wonkier things in Shadowrun 1e and 2e was the ability to put top priority into gear/cyber/stuff and get a cool MILLION nuyen to spend.  I've yet to see someone spend that much scratch elegantly.  You usually end up either trying to buy a single, REALLY hot piece of deltaware and eating most of it, or ending up with a chunk left over that isn't enough for anything super-awesome but is still somewhere around 200k nuyen, because by the time you've spent 800k what do you really need?

  Ah, the gear.  Iconic stuff in there.  The Ares Predator (the Robocop gun)... The Colt American L36 (the Battletech gun)...  The Panther Assault Cannon (Don't be a troll without one!)...  I will note that the choice between the Harley Scorpion and the Yamaha Rapier was pretty much a telltale of what kind of player you were.  Also - the Dodge Scoot.  For Deckers who spend too much of their starting scratch on decking stuff.

  CRITTERS!  This part of Shadowrun, much like the Native American themes, are woefully underused in the more modern versions.  Awakened creatures really do help establish the feel of the world.  I mean, it's not just people who have been born dwarves and elves or goblinized into trolls and orks.  There's dragons, and phoenixes, and sasquatches... sasquatchi... yetis.  All sorts of stuff just in the corebook, not to mention the excellent Paranormal Animals of Europe/North America books.

  So it it just nostalgia?  Well, I don't really think so.  Last night I ran part one of a two-shot of Queen Euphoria for my group of people who have never played SR1 before.  We have a Decker, a Former Wage Mage (Healer), a Street Samurai and a Former Company Man.  We've done a bit of Matrix, a bit of combat, and a tiny bit of magic.  So far, the rules have held up.  Nothing has come out as overtly broken, and we've had a hell of a time.  The players carried out a classic Shadowrun-esque extraction of Euphoria in her penthouse through disguise, skullduggery, hacking, seduction, bushwacking with a Narcoject pistol...  Everything's been pretty smooth so far.  Did I fudge the decking?  A bit, yeah.  But then, I did that back in The Day.  Did anyone actually PLAY AD&D 1e initiative as written?  Nobody I know- so no foul.  I'll know more when we go back tonight to finish up the adventure.

  Variable weapon staging might be a little confusing, but to be honest the players have kept combat to a minimum to get the job done, get in and get out without attracting undue attention.  They even managed to talk their way into and out of some potentially shooty situations- unlike most Shadowrunners who don't know how to do a job all quiet-like.  We'll see where the night takes us - but so far I'm pretty damn happy with my pink mohawk and mirrorshades.  See you twenty minutes into the future of 1987, chummers.