Sometimes You Just Need a Steampunk Scotsman

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Another RPG character. Had fun playing with a lot of elements just for the heck of it. There isn’t actually a Scotland for him to be from in the setting, but honestly, there aren’t nearly enough RPG characters running around in kilts. Then, because he’s a tinkerer type, and also slightly mad, I wanted to do something mildly steampunk / clockwork inspired, but which wasn’t really polished or symmetrical at all. He cobbled together the armor from a lot of random randomness.

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Because Turkey Vulture

Will I be getting back to sketchy Wednesdays? No promises. But I built a character for a play by post RPG game t’other day, and he amused me, so I sketched him.

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He’s a half-orc, who in-game are a mistrusted race because one of their parents looked monstery and everyone knows looking like and being a monster are the same thing because Pretty Is Never Evil.

In any case, I found myself into the idea of someone from that kind of background who spent a lot of time trying to rehabilitate the images of other not traditionally pretty creatures.

So, when my ranger-y character went looking for his traditional animal companion, he picked a turkey vulture, because everyone swoons over the hawks and the wolves, and I enjoyed Ladyhawke, too, but carrion eaters get no love, but they are all gonna be thanking their lucky stars when the zombies show up because birdie will be all: Who ordered delivery?

Memes Shouldn’t End Like This

So, my bestie Laura tagged me in a “what books do you love” meme over on the Facebook, and I didn’t have especially good ideas for my Friday post, so I was working on doing that for this little-read venture. One of the books I wanted to talk about was the first in the Guardian of the Flames series by Joel Rosenberg,1 but I couldn’t remember its title. Off to the Google I went. Which is how I discovered that Rosenberg died two years ago.

Dammit.

The thing about the Guardian of the Flames series that was both lovely and frustrating was that it hooked me with what seemed like a bit of a Mary Sue concept, then managed to take it both entirely seriously and in directions fairly unexpected.

The high concept of the series is that a group of Dungeons & Dragons type players are thrown into the bodies of their characters and the world of the game. It sounds like the cheeseball 80’s cartoon (which I love for entirely different reasons), but I found the whole thing engaging for Rosenberg’s continued tendency to un-magic his world.

Some of this was the kind of grimy add ons that aren’t entirely unexpected: pointing out, for example, that most commoners in medieval settings would have no formal education, so a bunch of college students find themselves suddenly illiterate. Or noting the utter lack of things like dentistry. You know, the little details which flesh things out, but which escapist, fantasy gaming doesn’t usually concern itself with for obvious reasons.2

The other thing that Rosenberg does is take on the very notion of preferring elements of the fantastic. It starts in the first book, as a wizard character has to choose whether to keep his magic or save his friend’s life. No one will probably be surprised by the choice he makes. As it turns out, his engineering knowledge (he majored in it in “real world college”) becomes its own kind of magic in the medieval setting.

More importantly, this choice begins a recurring trend in the books, as characters are faced with big, magical power, and have to ultimately decide if it’s more important than the mundane. The end result, thematically, is a series which is firmly couched in magical fantasy while simultaneously working to undermine the power of magic and flash, making it clear that fireballs and floating globes of light and all these things which are amazing are ultimately unimportant. Or, at least, far less important than people.

It’s a move that takes some chutzpah. I mean, in a genre built around the flash and the sizzle,3 to use that to pull folks in and then say “you realize this is all a trick, right? That you don’t need this?” could backfire so very harshly, but I think Rosenberg pulls it off.

So, yeah. It’s more than worth the read, and even if I’m horribly late to knowing about it, I’m sad to discover the man who pulled off that particular magic trick won’t be pulling off any more.

1.I’d lost track of Rosenberg a while ago, when some casual Googling told me he and I probably had more than a few political differences. What I found was mild enough not to put me off, but I didn’t want to find worse and have him turn into my own, personal Orson Scott Card, so I stopped looking. His work resonates with me, and I wanted it to keep resonating. So, fair warning if you do your own searches.[back]

2. I’m sure there are folks who have wonderfully entertaining gaming sessions predicated on a quest to find The First Dentist for the party’s half-orc barbarian who’s broken a tusk (and now I kind of want to write that story), but in general, such details are usually hand-waved in favor of flashier options.[back]

3. Two genres, actually, since the high concept is clearly built to appeal not just to general fantasy fans, but to RPG folks, as well.[back]

Wasn’t This Resolved in the 80’s?

Some days, media melts my brain. Like when an author does his level best to effectively say that engaging with tabletop RPG games is questionable conduct:

[Judge Clark Allen Peterson] has posted game-related messages under his own name thousands of times, accompanied by a depiction of Orcus, a character described as a bloated, 15-foot-tall demon with ram-like horns, bat wings and a long tail with a poisonous tip […].

Peterson chats casually with other game enthusiasts, punctuating many posts with smiley emoticons. He offers lengthy advice on game rules and design elements, and he has plugged products from Seattle-based Legendary Games, a publishing venture he founded.

I had the hardest time finding a representative quote for the article, since by and large it’s a long, fairly haphazard compilation of facts which are essentially this judge has a hobby we find nonstandard. Litigants who are upset with the results of their cases contend “[t]his activity shows a level of immaturity,” because “[h]ad this judge been doing his job instead of playing games, his mind somewhere else, he would probably have done the right thing along the line.”

Was he rolling dice while on the bench? Did I miss the part where judges don’t get to be human beings when they aren’t presiding over a case?

With the title “Kootenai County judge’s job, fantasy game hobby blur together,” it’s fairly clear what the angle is here. That it’s an angle which wasn’t particularly compelling 30 years ago doesn’t seem to hinder anyone. After exceptionally brief stops to note that the judge has had financial and marital problems during the same period (because, really, that kind of thing is incidental when it comes to the impact on a person, right?), the author plows right in developing a case for just how obsessively this monster game has taken over Peterson’s life:

Peterson has posted more than 2,860 times on Paizo’s forum over the past nine years. Since he joined the bench, about 370 of his Paizo comments were posted between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on days that state records show him at work

Literally thousands of posts about this game! It’s clearly taken over his entire life! Big numbers = concern!

Or, we could maybe do a little math, and realize that, over nine years, that turns into an average of 0.87 posts per day. According to the article, Peterson joined the bench in March, 2010, which turns that disturbing 370 into 0.4 posts per workday. Message board posts, mind you, which are often only a few sentences long. So, you know, about how long it takes most people to check the weather on a work break each day OH MY GOD THE NATION IS ADDICTED TO WEATHER!

Yeah, so maybe we stop waving the Demon Games Have Corrupted Justice signs, shall we? I mean, would this painfully overlong article even exist if the judge had been playing fantasy football instead?

(via EN World)

Character Background: Hansom Dan

Character concept for a ‘steampunk super-hero’ game my group’s decided to start. Because what the world is looking for is a super-powered, Victorian cabbie / male prostitute. Well, they are under-represented.

Danny Owen grew up in the streets, scrapping and scraping to survive. As his shoulders broadened and his square jaw began to sport whiskers, he learned that a certain type of gentleman would pay a pretty quid for some time alone with a street tough, if the street tough didn’t mind what the church said about their time together. Since the church hadn’t cared much for him, Danny decided he preferred the gents who did. It beat fighting over scraps with the rest of the street rats.

Occasionally, grateful patrons were inclined to do more than shell out some money for Danny’s services. One of his regulars, nervous about his reputation, set Danny up with a Hansom cab, giving himself an excuse for calling upon the rough-but-not-so-you-mind young man when he was in need of an “excursion.” That it gave Danny himself a cover story accounting for his earnings with the police was a side-effect his patron didn’t really bother considering, but of which Danny took full advantage.

It was in this way that Danny acquired the nickname “Hansom Dan,” earning a fair reputation among those gentlemen on his route who enjoyed the kind of ride Danny offered.

Doctor Stern asking Danny inside to collect his fare after driving him across town, then, wasn’t unusual for the young man. And if the brandy smelled off, you didn’t ruin a good night’s pay by offending some gentrified fool’s pride with criticism, so he slugged it back.

The rest is still a haze of muddled images. He remembers glass beakers and tubes, bubbling with liquids in bright colors. Remembers a cold table, straps holding him down. Mostly, he remembers pain.

When he came to his senses, Danny found himself naked and bruised in a dark basement. He wasn’t alone: he awoke in the middle of a pile of at least four other men of about his age, all of them naked as he was. At first he thought it had been just another drunken party by an overzealous lordly type, but then he shoved aside the first bloke and saw his vacant, dead eyes. He was in a pile of corpses.

Danny panicked, trying to shove the bodies off of himself. As his left hand burned its way through the flesh of one dead man’s shoulder, he grew no calmer. He stumbled into the next room, where a gruff bloke was shoving yet another body into an oversized furnace. Danny grabbed the man by the face to keep him quiet, intending to interrogate him and learn what madness he’d stumbled into, but as Danny’s right hand made contact with the other’s face, the man’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the ground, unconscious.

The confused and frightened cabbie made his way upstairs, to the room of glass and colors and cold tables he vaguely remembered. There he confronted Stern, who was himself quite amazed that Hansom Dan was alive. All his previous alchemical experiments, you see, had failed, and when Danny fell into the same deathly silence as Stern’s other patients, he’d set his assistant to removing him with the other failures of the night.

Danny, still not quite sure what was happening, related the horrors of his two encounters below, and the alchemist nearly squealed with delight. “Caustics from the sinister, anesthetics from the dexter. Marvelous!” he blathered on, kissing Hansom Dan in celebration.

This was his mistake, for though Hansom Dan had been oft-told he had a skillful mouth, the alchemist now discovered his experiments had given Danny even more. The doctor found himself completely enthralled, a condition of which Hansom Dan took full advantage. He regained his clothing, his funds, and sent the doctor to confess his murderous acts to the bobby on the corner while Danny himself drove off into the night.

As with his first career, Danny quickly learned the means of controlling his newfound … skills, though he usually sports gloves just to be safe. This is nothing out of character for a Hansom cab driver, and his other clients enjoyed him as an exotic to begin with, and so generally don’t mind.

Besides, if they grow too suspicious, a kiss from Hansom Dan can always set them aright.

Improv Default

There will be sarcastic shock and amazement to the revelation that I have a history with roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. People who don’t follow RPGs are probably genuinely shocked to discover that D&D isn’t the only game where people sit around pretending to be someone else while rolling dice to decide the fate of the world. It is. Readjust to the paradigm shift and move on, because I don’t have time to coddle your poor, sheltered mind.

Outside of high school, though, my only real gaming has been online. Mostly, I don’t like meeting new people. Especially groups of people who have a lot of mutual history and shorthand with each other. Bah. No. Welcome to about half a dozen of my countless neuroses.

Besides, the thing I found I really love about gaming on a posting board (EN World, if anyone wonders) is how much more I can play with the cooperative storytelling aspect of these games. Certainly there’s still plenty of dice rolling and game mechanics to deal with, but I get to couch all that in whatever kind of prose I want. It feels like writing, and as I’ve known for a long time, writing almost always helps me feel better.

Plus: editing. Posting lets me actually evaluate how I’m telling my bit of story. I take time trying to develop voices, both for the character and for his narrator. And then I can ‘fix’ it as I want before I throw it to the board. So I’m spoiled there, where I get to do a lot of prose (probably purple as hell, but if I can’t call the kettle an ebon monstrosity while tossing lighting bolts around, what’s the point?) and considered voices in between the dice.

I recently fell into an actual face to face game. Turned out, I knew other gamers, and just didn’t know they were gamers. It’s the first time I’ve done this since high school, and it’s definitely a very different beast than the one to which I’ve grown accustomed.

Time is my enemy, I tell you. Because we’re all sitting around a table this way, everyone has to wait for me to do … whatever it is I’m going to do. There’s no composing, as little rule lookup as I can manage (which is still a fair amount, since rules involve my mortal enemy: numbers).

Everyone’s completely patient, mind, but because I know I’m holding things up, and because I hate to be That Guy, there’s a definite internal incentive to say something. So: it’s still collaborative storytelling, but it’s far more an exercise in improv.

I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that my improv default is sarcastic and snarky. There’s nothing really wrong with that, though it does turn my “haunted by visions of the world no one else can see” character concept into a very different kind of person. It’s a bit like watching Lost in Space‘s Doctor Smith take over the role of Frodo Baggins.

Which, hey, isn’t a mash-up without its entertainment value.