Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Glory Days


This is a response to Sameoldji’s video about the darkside of tabletop role playing games, no not people worshipping Satan or sacrificing hamsters to Cthulhu but the dawning realization that many of us spend far more time buying and reading and kabitzing about tabletop rpgs than we ever do actually playing them.
Well, full disclosure, I have gone over to the dark side. My life has been stop and go with tabletop games since the very beginning and my last big spurt of activity began circa 2000 and ended with the release of D&D 4.0. I looked. I saw. I sniffed. The system stank. And that was it for me.
D&D 5.0 came out and looked a bit better but my life had changed. Free time is expensive and as an adult it is impossible to not feel pressured to justify every expenditure of it. The reason you are reading a written response and not watching a video response is because I can pound one of these out in less than half an hour. A proper video takes at least an hour to film and prepare, even when it’s only a few minutes long.
Every second counts.
Every minute is expensive.
Would I like to play again? You bet! But is it worth carving up my life and rearranging it to somehow shoehorn in a weekly game, which will inevitably be Dungeons & Dragons because that is all anyone can seem to agree on these days and which will also reveal itself to be yet another round of the same old game we’ve always been playing?

No, not really.
This is actually a major driving force behind the Red EFT. It is not just me hammering out my dream system to show the world what a tabletop RPG can be. It is also me trying to find a way back into gaming, a way to justify the expenditure by calling it work. Yes, I do have to do this - it’s my job. Wouldn’t that be a nice thing to say about your next game? My plan probably won’t work, but I have never been one to let an absolute certainty of failure stop me before. Sad. Sameoldji uses that word over and over in his video to describe the situation. He uses it so much it almost sounds like a dramatic recitation of Donald Trumps twitter feed. I disagree, because to me the word sad implies pathos. It is a way of calling someone pathetic without being blunt. I think a better word is regrettable. It’s not actually wrong but it certainly isn’t right either. In my comment on it I compared it to the song Glory Days by Bruce Springsteen and said that for many of us this is what our relation to gaming has become.




When I go online at night to see what’s on Google+ or YouTube (my two main sources for all things gaming) this is my replacement for heading down to the local bar to drink a few rounds with the townies and talk about whatever we might have in common. And it is not a sad replacement. It is a good replacement, because I was born left-handed and forced to be right-handed which carried with it the unintended consequence of causing me to stink at anything which involved throwing or catching a ball. I was actually quite athletic as a kid, just so long as it didn’t involve anything with the word Ball in it. Baseball. Basketball. Football. I don’t have anything interesting to say about them and I dread being stuck talking to someone who does, so there really is no place for me in your average sports bar.

Dodgeball.

Strangely enough, I was actually pretty good at Dodgeball but I’m not sure if that counts.
Now, when Glenn Hallstrom does a review of an old RPG I once played - that peaks my interest. I don’t know Glenn, have never met him. We probably live a thousand miles apart, but when he posts a video and I write to him about it and he does an After Hours video in response. It feels as if I know him. It feels like we’re old friends sitting at the same bar chit-chatting about whatever as Ivan Mike serves us up drinks.
It’s not an empty bar either.
Runeslinger is not too far away, half-watching Star Wars on the TV screen. Tim Harper is throwing darts with Nolinquisitor. Mark Abrams and Asif are at a back table discussing what needs to be done to make the world right again. Venger Satanis is racking up another high score on the pinball machine, standing like a man who once had a hot girl hanging off of each arm but now has a wife and kids waiting for him back at the house. Shawn Driscoll is hogging the Traveller machine. Again. Dr. Pulsipher is in the corner booth practicing his monologs for class. It's a bit dry but not uninteresting. Every now and then Zak Sabbath blows through with a horde of SJWs on his heels. Personally, I think he loves the attention. James West, Jens D, Megan Burke and a whole bunch of others are scattered about. It’s actually a pretty populous place. So is it really so wrong?
This is not to imply that these people are not active gamers. It could very well be that I am the only one among them. It is meant to say that there is more to the matter of role playing games than simply playing the games. Eventually everyone needs to sit down and play a game. There is no substitute for actual experience, but playing the games is not the end-all and be-all of gaming.

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen fan and Glory Days is not my favorite song. I think it's a little too up-beat for its subject matter. Yet it does end in an interesting way. Nothing overly dramatic, just a guy pitching balls at a plank in an empty field. Eventually, his kid shows up to knock one into the outfield, not too far behind him is mom and the station wagon ready to drive them both home. You can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the guy because we all know there is no going back. The guys he used to play ball with have all grown up and are no longer in any shape to play ball even if they could find the time to do so. This guy is stuck. His glory days truly have passed him by. And that is where table top role playing games have the edge over high school sports. No matter what age you are at you can find a way back. You may not be able to pull off one of the weekend-long marathon adventures of your youth, but these games can still be played to great effect. As time goes by it only gets harder to pull one together, but there is always hope.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Save Vs Gravity

Yesterday, I fell off the roof.
It hurt.
Holy fuck did it hurt.
I haven’t felt pain like that in years.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when my sister’s family came for a visit. My brother-in-law (and don’t these stories always seem to start with a brother-in-law somewhere) was watching a football game and remarked about how bad the picture was. I don’t watch TV much and when I do I usually watch Hulu or Netflix, but Scott was right. The signal was as scrappy as a youtube video from a decade ago. The commercials in between the game were fine but the feed of the game itself were so pixellated you couldn’t make out the score.

And it was on all the channels.

So I decided to cut the cable and give Comcast the boot. I looked around and ended up buying a Mohu Sky 60 Outdoor HDTV Antenna. It has a beautiful picture and if you can get by with PBS and Network TV I can’t recommend it enough. However, you will have to go up on the roof to install it.

In a way, I should have seen the fall coming. Premonition alarms had been going off all over the place. The day before yesterday I had written the Politics of Pricing blog post which prominently features a guy falling through the air, a screen grab from the New Order video Bizarre Love Triangle which is filled with people in suits flying through the air as if they had just flung themselves off a skyscraper, a video I had playing on a loop in the background while writing the post.

While tacking up the cable I even paused to look over the edge of the roof and wonder how much damage I would take if I were to - I don’t know - suddenly and inexplicably somersault over the edge of it. In the Red EFT this calls for a Save Vs Gravity. You take 1 hp of damage per foot fallen, in this case 10 to 12 feet, which is then ameliorated by a Body check. Fail and you take full damage. A terrible fail does double damage. A critical fail does triple. Succeed and you take less. Damage type is determined by what you land on. In my case, the ladder itself, which I think qualifies as blunt damage.

I even remember scoffing at the Mohu instruction manual with its warnings to never work alone and to always have someone holding the ladder you are working on. I’ve been up and down off the roof countless times.

Silly manual, I know exactly what I’m doing….

What eventually got the better of me was an aging plastic rain gutter the ladder had been propped up against. No problem going up, but on a trip down the plastic cracked. It was just enough to upset the footing of the ladder and send it flying out from under me. I went down, caught the edge of roof with my rib cage, flipped over backwards and plummeted. My butt hit the deck hard enough to crack a plank in it like a karate master.

First came shock. Surprise from the simple notion that I had done something as stupid as fallen off the roof. Quick on its coattails was an immense wave of pain and swearing, enough swearing that in an earlier age I would have landed myself on Santa’s naughty list for at least a decade. Finally, I started to grab around, check all the parts which were hurting (pretty much everything), and then laughed, happy to find nothing broken. Bruised all to fucking hell, ripped to shit (this is Florida, I was wearing shorts), but nothing broken. Thank God.

I wandered inside for some iodine and bandages, then wandered back outside to finish the job. Which is why I am actually writing this post. In role playing games there has been an endless debate over the after effects of damage. Usually, it comes down to one of two methods. The first is the Gygaxian method where you simply ignore it until that last hit point is gone and you die. The other is a more modern method where taking damage causes your character to take performance hits until you curl up and die. Normally I would say that the latter is the more realistic and that the Gygaxian method is just a necessary evil of a table-top game. In retrospect? Neither works.

Granted there was a period in which I was stunned by the damage (something that I don’t ever recall happening in an RPG), but after that wore off I found myself swept up by a surge of adrenaline and endorphins which would last for the rest of the afternoon. Instead of a performance hit, my character should have taken a performance boost. I found myself unable to cool down. After patching myself up, I immediately went back out, put up the ladder in a safer location, and finished the installation. When that was over I was still spinning like top so I took the dog out for a nice long walk, even though the bruises on my legs were turning as purple as plums.

It wasn’t until later in the evening that a certain stiffness would begin to set in. Now, at 7 on a Sunday morning, I am as rigid as a board. Typing is tough and it takes the help of my right hand to bend the fingers of my left hand into the middle finger I would gladly give to Comcast if they could see such things. Now my character would experience a performance hit.

So, to a degree, I have to side with the Gygaxian method. Our bodies instinctively see any damage taken as a threat to its existence and will respond with whatever it takes to make sure we continue to survive.

Of course, it could also be that I didn’t take enough damage. If I had broken a leg in that fall and sat up to find a femur sticking out of my leg, spurting blood like a fountain? Yeah, fuck that. I would have called it a day.

Then there is also the mechanics. How do you quantify all of this without unbalancing the rest of the system? How do you figure out when that moment of excitement ends and the stiffness begins? How much of a penalty should be taken? And is this even worth all the overhead in game time it would take to implement such details at the table? After all, it was just a simple fall, barely a footnote in most adventures.  In the end, I have to side with the Gygaxian method. If not for the reality of it all then for the convenience.

I wonder if Gary ever fell off a roof?



Fuck Comcast.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Politics of Pricing

Recently, I have been watching Dr. Lewis Pulsipher's videos on how to price downloadable digital content. And no I did not throw myself off a bridge right afterwards.

Tempted, but no. . . .

I’m more about books than video games, but this did push me to think about the never-ending headache which is the matter of figuring out what to ask for what you create. Striking the right balance is no easy feat. Too far to the cheap side and people will dismiss it as crap. Too far to the expense and they will laugh in your face. The margin seems to be growing thinner every day. Like a tightrope walk across a razor wire, you have to wonder what will happen when the two sides eventually cross and the price which once was too cheap becomes too expensive.

Enjoy the freefall.






A TALE OF TWO PRICES

It seems to me that when it comes to prices every product has two of them, a Value Price and a Buying Price.

The value price is a static price. It is the most anyone could be expected to pay for an item. Its real purpose is to give an impression of worth. The prices printed on dust jackets are value prices.

The buying price is a flexible one. It is set by the economic climate and the state of a product’s lifespan. The .99 cent sticker slapped on the dust jacket of a book relegated to the remainders table? That is a buying price and a miserable one at that.

The problem with the internet is that it runs like a vending machine. You post your book for sale, set the price, and only occasionally check in to see how it is doing. In many ways, this set and forget method is a good thing. You can sell stuff without having to be present to make the transaction. You can also be passed over by millions and left clueless as to why, which is what I think instigates the notorious race to the bottom.

My book isn’t selling. It must be that the price is too high. 
I’ll drop it down as low as it can go and make up for the loss with bulk sales.

Bulk sales which never come because your internet price is both a value and a buy price. At $0.99 cents you have relegated it to the trash bin. Unless people know that your book should retail at $14.95 they’re not going to be excited to find it for $0.99 cents.

Maybe this is why coupons and special promotions are so important. They allow you to maintain the appearance of value while enticing people to buy at a reduced price. Which would you rather buy? A book that normally sells for $14.95 but today can be had for $4.95. Or a book that always seems to sell for $0.99?

BE HONEST NOT MODEST

Publishing has a lot in common with fishing. To be a good fisherman you have to go where you know the fish hang out. You have to offer them something which resembles what they normally eat. You let them nibble the bait a bit before setting the hook. Then you drag your reader into the boat, skin and gut ‘em and fry them up for dinner.

Kidding!

Although this also shows where the parallel stops. A fish you only catch once. A reader you want to catch over and over and over again and have them happy to come back for more.

Personally, I think you should write for yourself and then your friends, and maybe if it makes sense you should sand off one or two rough edges to make your work more palatable to that big effluvial mess known as the market. At least that way you will never disappoint those who matter most. Ultimately though, you do have to go to the market, see what is for sale and decide where you want your book to sit. If you notice that most of the ebooks you love and respect are priced between $8 and $12. That is where you want to be.

But my book isn’t worth $8. It’s not good enough. 
I would pay $2.99 for it, but that’s about it.

Then why are you publishing it? It’s obviously not done yet. Is it a stinky cover? Get a new one. Is it unpolished writing? Do another rewrite. If the whole thing simply sucks then consider it practice. Push it aside. Do not publish it. If you can come back to it later and build it up to something worth publishing then do so. Otherwise, you are doing yourself a favor by leaving it behind.

Modesty is a good thing. It keeps people from coming across like self-aggrandizing jerks. But it can also be creatively stifling. Overly modest people often start to believe the effacing they do to themselves, that their place in the world is beneath greater people. They repeat this belief until they conform to it and ultimately are left with a low level of being with no way out. It is just as much a trap as bragging way above and beyond the obvious.

Modest or immodest? I think the most important thing is remain honest. When it comes to the end point of publication I think writers need to step away from themselves, forget all the work they have done or what they may be asking themselves to continue doing and just look at the work objectively. See it as someone who just came across it on the internet.

Honestly, how much does it seem to be worth?

And what could be done to make it worth more? As in those aspects you can control. Waving a magic wand and turning yourself into Stephen King doesn’t count.



NO SILVER BULLETS

It is also good to realize that there is no silver bullet price, no point where you can price your work and make automatic sales. The sale will come down to how good your work seems when first encountered. Continued success relies on how good it actually is. We may want the internet to change this but it never will. Even with kickstarters which sell promises instead of product, failure to deliver will eventually come back to kick the kickstarter in the butt. It's just a matter of time.

The world is a very unfair place. Established authors will continue to fart on paper and have it sell millions while unrecognized geniuses panhandle the interstate exits. But anyone who looks back at their grand failures to realize that they tried hard and what they created did deserve to succeed. They will at least find contentment, if not continued hope for the future. The author who looks back to find a bunch of half-baked works with ugly covers and reams of scrappy typo-ridden pages, all priced to sell at bottom of the barrel prices?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Murdering your Dungeon Darlings

If you haven't picked up on this already, god knows I seem to sound off on it endlessly (at least to myself) I FUCKING HATE WORD LIMITS. It doesn't matter if this is "tell a story in 500 words or less" or "your story must be 2,000 words maximum" or "let's write a one page dungeon."

IT IS A STUPID GOAL TO SHOOT FOR.

And yes that is me shouting at you like a crazed subway lunatic with a drippy six-inch meatball parmesan.

Yet, at the same time, I will admit that there is no glory in splatting down words for words sake. Whatever you write, you should use as many words as you need to evoke an idea, not a word more and not a word less. As James V West pointed out, Isle of the Lizard God and The Shattered Temple are absolutely fantastic one page dungeons. They are the placemats you will find lying in wait for you under the greatest Grand Slam breakfast in Valhalla. But, if you were to play them with your friends and do it right if not rules as written you still would find yourself flipping through a bunch of books and spending valuable in-game time doing all those things that a normal adventure module should have already done for you. Both would only be improved by a few more pages of the stuff they might force me to waste time looking up.

Adventure modules are not novels. You can curl up with them for a good long read on a cold winter's night, but they are actually reference materials, things you glance at during a game. I like mine with big fat margins providing a lot of white space I can write notes in. Yes. Fat margined modules make the rocking world go round! The fewer long passages of text they contain the better they generally run. At the same time, a good adventure module should also have some substance to it. It should be there to help you create a sense of place, maybe even help you describe that dangerous corner of the world with a few florid words in (heaven’s forbid!) a text box.

If this can be done on one sheet of paper then more power to you. Otherwise, paper is cheap. Give that adventure what it needs to breathe. Murdering your darlings for the false god of appeasing the stunted attention span of the internet is just going to cause beautiful dead babies to pile up at your feet.

And nobody wants to see that.