Thursday, October 30, 2014

From Splash Page to The Silver Screen

As a fan of Superheroes, comic books, movies, and Superhero RPGs, I feel obligated to say something about the recently updated Marvel Cinematic Universe film release schedule.




HOLY HULK ON A HELICARRIER!

The Black Panther! Yes! Captain Marvel? Oh yeah! The Inhumans...wait...really? AWESOME!

I am told DC is also going to make some movies. *Yawn*

Here's the thing...I love Superhero movies because I love Superheroes. I love Superheroes because I grew up on comic books. If the movies are awesome, but the comic books suck, I am less likely to be jazzed about the films.

Marvel is doing a pretty good job on it's comic books right now. Not perfect, and there's lots of room for improvement, but generally speaking, Marvel comics are good. Since their comics are good, I am interested in their movies.

Since the DC characters I love are really no longer around, and the films seem more aligned with the newer incarnations, I really have no interest in the DC movies at all.

At least I have The Flash TV series. I am really liking The Flash.

AD
Barking Alien

Monday, October 27, 2014

Prepare Yourself For Being Unprepared

Welcome back to Barking Alien.

Sorry it's taken me so long to do this follow up post, but things have been hectic (in a mostly positive way) here at Barkley's Den (mostly positive. mostly).

Today, we're going to teach you how you can prepare a four course Dynamic Dungeon for five or six people, in half the time you'd think it takes.

To start off, you have to understand that most Gamemasters ^#@*ing over-prepare.

***

What Other GMs Do Wrong: Over-Prepare

I'll be the first to say that I over-prepare myself on occasion. It usually ends up happening when I am running a one-shot, especially at a convention. Additionally, I would definitely prefer to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Just makes sense.

That said, the key to an ongoing, dynamic, 'living' (or whatever you want to call it) setting, be it a dungeon, a city, or something else, isn't piles of notebooks, and a metric ton of spreadsheets. No, no, no, my chart and table obsessed cousins.* The secret is preparing not to be prepared. Carefully planning to ad lib. Focusing less on what might happen, and more on what would happen.

Enough fancy word play, eh? Straight talk...

Basically, you need not know the ins and outs of every denizen of a Dynamic Dungeon, anymore than you personally know the comings and goings of every person who lives, and/or works in your home town or city. I am certain that in many very small, rural, and even suburban towns, it can feel like you really do know everyone's business, but lets get some perspective.

I live in New York City, and more specifically the central borough of Manhattan. Manhattan alone has over 1,625,150 people. The city, complete with its infrastructure of maintenance personnel, police, firefighters, EMS workers, sanitation workers, and those who run our mass transit system, work and function on a daily basis completely independent (and likely unaware) of me. I benefit greatly from the system of people and services that make this city run, but I don't have much impact on their lives, nor they on mine in a one-on-one sense.

This is how your basic Dynamic (and potentially Ideal) Dungeon works. You don't manage, or worry about, every single individual being in the place anymore than you are currently worried about what that nice fellow who works at the newspaper stand is doing right now. What's he going to have for breakfast tomorrow? Oh no! How can I plan my day not knowing what he'll have for breakfast?!

Chill the hell out.

He will have breakfast, more than likely, and then he will be there when you go to get your paper in the morning. Some stuff just works, and keeps working.

Think in broader strokes. Focus on ways to portray the dynamic nature of a setting so that it feels dynamic. Don't get caught up in the minutia of running a town, and trying to determine every last detail. It serves no purpose, and only bogs you down and burns you out.

Think about it for a moment; how much of the complex economic and sociological matrixes you've developed to explain how the dungeon as living environment works are the PCs actually going to see and interact with? Probably very little. So there is not need for them.

All you need is a little common sense.

Let's look at some techniques for prepping a Dynamic Dungeon.


***
 

#1. Back to Basics (Of Information)

In your GM notes, place a sheet of paper with the name of your dungeon, and the elements of it's nature that you need to know to run an adventure there. What do you need to know? Well, it will be different for different GMs, but mine would look something like this...


The Endless Labyrinth


 
The part of the Endless Labyrinth
will be played by the labyrinth from Labyrinth.


Concept: Greedy Merchant Baron commissions massive, underground labyrinth to hide his treasure, and his daughter. Is tricked by daughter's true love to use his friends as the Architect, The Builder, The Trapmaker, and the Artificer. Friends than tell true love how to get in and past everything. True love runs away with daughter, leaves note to Baron that he left treasure behind. Merchant Baron enters his own labyrinth to find his own treasure, gets lost. Forever.

Design: Seemingly endless maze. Cursed. Many traps. Few monsters, mostly undead and The Juggernaut.

Inhabitants: Undead adventurers who tried to find the treasure in the labyrinth and never escaped. Skeletons, Ghosts, Zombies, etc. Unique Monster(s): The Juggernaut of the Endless Labyrinth, a clockwork/near-robot metal golem. Super strong, super tough, smart. Knows all the secret ways around the maze.

Special: Cursed location. If you die of starvation, dehydration, old age or other natural causes while lost in the maze, you resurrect as undead and continue searching for the treasure or a way out. If you are killed in the maze, you return in a lesser fashion - pretty much a mindless guardian of the area where you died.

Undead are explorers who died search the labyrinth for riches and/or a way out. Very few static monsters. PCs are in motion, undead are in motion.

Notes: Possible society of living people or humanoids (Dwarves, Gnomes, Goblins, etc.) who took up residence in maze when they realized they couldn't find a way out.

That's it. That is the entirety of my initial write up on this dungeon, which incidentally is a major, mythic site on my campaign world of Aerth (for my D&D-But-Not games). No one has ever even found the place. Why do I need more than this?


#2. A Sense of Purpose

For the denizens of your dungeon to have a dynamic society, there must be a reason they're there, something they are doing there, or need to do, that requires they live in the conditions of a dungeon. It need not be a complex, 'ecology of the...' reason, but it definitely should make sense.

Why? So that when encountered, the creatures therein act first and foremost, based on the motivation that this [the dungeon], is their home, their fortified, base of operations, or what-have-you. When PCs do something in the dungeon, and you as GM need to determine what course of action the inhabitants of this domain take, it is imperative you know why they are there in the first place.

Is this their only home after being driven out of the nearby caves by Dwarves? Is this the only place they kind find the rare plant or foodstuff they need to survive? The inhabitants of such a place will likely defend it to the death!

On the other hand, are they just hired help, brought in by some evil priest or mad wizard to protect a project their employers is working on? If so, do they feel it's worth dying for?

#3. Where Do We Go From Here?

Quo vadis? Where are you going?

Why is this a dynamic environment? It's a dynamic environment because the elements of it move and change.

That is to say, once you know why the beings in this dungeon are in this dungeon, and you know why they'll move about, and what their motivations are for doing so are, you have think of where they will go and what they will do next. By putting some thought into the destinations of the populace should an emergency arise (like an invasion by PC adventurers hell-bent on killing them all, and stealing their livelihoods), you make your Dynamic Dungeons actually feel dynamic without A) having to do too much prep, and B) not having to worry about every, single, individual beastie.

Some will never move because they are mere monstrous beasts, locked in a room to guard something, or because they were caught and kept as a pet by the inhabitants of the dungeon. Perhaps the non-combat types such as children, the elderly, the infirm, etc. will be escorted to safer rooms deeper in the complex by more able bodied, but still non-warrior, denizens. Combat types will move to engage, or search the corridors for the sneaky intruders.

Having a rough idea of who is in there, and where they will go, is what will take you from static to dynamic without making you spastic.*


#4. All Dynamic Dungeons Start Static

Take a mental photograph of your Dungeon. Imagine this snapshot is a typical day in the life of all the denizens of this Dungeon. Unless something significant disturbs the routine, this picture you have is a perfect representation of this Dungeon at whatever time of day or night you imagine it depicts.

This is how your Dungeon looks when the PCs enter it. This is your starting point. Regardless of what they are doing back in town, unless it somehow specifically messes with this picture, the PCs will find the Dungeon looking like your snapshot. when they enter it. You need this base picture the way a marathon runner needs the starting line to run a race, or a fairy tale needs some point to serve as it's 'Once Upon a Time'.

***

I could easily go on, and on with this, but I hope what I have put here so far will help take the edge off attempting to run a Dynamic Dungeon. I mean, IMHO, if you are running a dungeon crawl, you're already running the most boring type of adventure possible. At least these notes may help pump a little life into it. :p

Now let's get to something more interesting. Like Superheroes!

Heh. Just being snarky. Good gaming all!


But seriously...let's get back to Supers.


AD
Barking Alien


*I apologize to my British readers. I am aware that 'spastic' has negative connotations in your vernacular. Here in the USA it's a slang term meaning clumsy, goofy, uncoordinated and frazzled to the point of making stupid mistakes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Who Does That?

I hate dungeons.*

Have I mentioned this before? I'm sure I have. If I haven't, that's a major faux pas on my part. My bad, sorry.

I hate dungeons.**

Now that we're clear, let me tell you  one reason why. Generally, it's because they share a not-quite-cool-to-lukewarm, unseasoned, grey sameness that bores the living crap outta me. Oh my stars and garters, save me from the game designers and GMs who feel their dungeons are exciting, but feature the same, damn 10x10 halls, and empty rooms with goblin sized furniture. Seriously. Help me turn my Green Lantern ring upon myself to end my suffering.



This is part of the dungeon at Blarney Castle in Ireland.
 
It's so small.
How the hell are we gonna fit an army of angry Kobolds,
a Lurker Above, two Ropers, and an Umber Hulk in there?

Geez.
You'd think they used it to hold prisoners, or something.


Worse are Megadungeons.

Imagine waiting in line for an hour, or perhaps a bit more, for an Amusement Park ride you've been on a dozen times before, and it wasn't that exciting to begin with. That's a dungeon crawl to me.

Now imagine you're on a similar line, only the wait is about two to three hours minimum, probably a lot more, and the ride itself lasts an hour or two with no way to get off. That's a megadungeon. Kill my character, please. A quick death, early on if you would be so kind, so I can go do something else. This would be vastly preferable to being trapped somewhere in one of these endless malls of the bland and mundane.

Anyway...

Recently, my favorite site that talks about the type of games I don't play (and there by renders itself endlessly fascinating to me), Dyvers, has been doing a series about dungeons in which he analyzes the ideas of the Ideal, Static, and Dynamic Dungeon.

(I know, I'm a little late to the party, but I've had Superheroes on the brain a lot lately, and I just had to get out my thoughts on them while the iron was hot.)

Please go there to check out his definitions of each one. Go ahead. I'll make some coffee while you wait.

Done? Cool. He says some interesting things about them doesn't he? I think so.

Honestly, I was gonna leave this alone since, as noted above, I do not care for dungeons, but the idea that the Dynamic Dungeon is a lot of work irked me. It irked me because I think it's the same belief that a lot of GMs have. As a result, they default to the creation of Static Dungeons, and Static Dungeons, becoming the base standard, typify the boring dungeon and megadungeon designs I so lament.

Furthermore, it just isn't that hard to create a Dynamic Dungeon (or dungeon-like) environment.

This got me particularly incensed (OK, I wasn't really that upset, I just like the word 'incensed'.):

"Consider for a moment that as a Dungeon Master you invest a substantial amount of your free time into making your games better. You draw maps and work on situational responses to your players actions, filling countless spreadsheets and notebooks up with possible resolutions."

OK. Who. Does. This?!?

First, anyone making spreadsheets for an RPG should stop playing right now, and go do my damn taxes. If you think spreadsheets are fun, here's the quarterly inventory list from Home Depot. Knock yourself out.

If you were going to fill spreadsheets and notebooks with the possible resolutions to my players' actions for my old New Jersey crew, or better yet my buddy Will's Champions campaign, you would truly need countless numbers of them. I hope you have an infinite amount of paper, ink, and time.

"You read blogs and articles that offer advice and then you come to the table having spent a significantly greater portion of your time preparing for the game than actually playing it."

On the average, it seems like most GMs I've been reading about do this anyway. They blog, read blogs, prepare and design, and then run for a measly four hours. Four. That's 4 hours! This means that A) you are over-preparing, and B) you need to get more time to game if you're going to be putting that much effort into it.

I probably do less physical prep than 75-80% of most D&D GMs, and my sessions last 6-8 hours minimum. A lot less work and I get double the run-time out of it. Now there is no right, or wrong way to game, but if this long set up, but short payoff, sounds like you, then you are DOING IT WRONG.

***

"Adam, ADAM! What's going on in here? I can hear your font all the way in the other room."

"Sorry Barkley. I was...I'm writing a blog post. It's about...it's..."

"You're not writing about D&D again are you? Or medieval fantasy in general? You promised me you wouldn't do that. Remember what your doctor said."

"Stephen Strange is a great guy, but I don't think he's a real doctor. That's not the point. Yes, I am blogging about a fantasy subject. It's about dungeons..."

"Oh good grief."

"Just, just...let me finish this one post. We can talk about it later."

"Gads! Very well. Tsk tsk. Why do you do this to yourself? Humans."

***

Ahem.

Dyvers goes on to write:

"Then you begin run the game and you're flipping through your innumerable resources trying to apply the correct solution to your players' actions."

Ah ha! The key to solving the problem, as always, is one of altering perceptions. If this is how you go into it, there is no easy way of getting out.

"Suddenly the game really isn't all that fun anymore because you've burnt yourself out. Dynamic Dungeons are incredibly fun to explore for players and Dungeon Masters alike as they offer a greater challenge for each; however, there is a real danger in preparing too much for the exploration of these dungeons. So how do you guard against over preparing and burning yourself out?"

I'm confused. Why are we having this conversation if you just solved your own problem?

Don't over-prepare.

Well goodnight folks! It's been a pleasure, and you've been a wonderful audience. Tomorrow on our show, we'll be featuring...wait, what? Elaborate? Do we have time? OK, our stage manager says we have time.

Let's do this right.

We'll be back after these messages...

AD
Barking Alien


* I am defining 'Dungeons' here, in this first sentence, as:

 "A closed environment, usually full of enemies and loot. Caves and ruins are among the most common forms. In some more open-ended games, outdoor environments might be considered dungeons as well." (Paraphrased from UrbanDictionary.com, on account of their grammar often being terrible).

I should make it clear that I do not mind the occasional use of actual dungeons in a game set in a medieval, European setting. In real life, a dungeon was (as described by Wikipedia):

"A room or cell in which prisoners are held, especially underground. Dungeons are generally associated with medieval castles, though their association with torture probably belongs more to the Renaissance period. An oubliette is a form of dungeon which is accessible only from a hatch in a high ceiling."

** I do not despise all dungeon-like environments to the same degree, but I do try to keep the use of an enclosed, maze or labyrinth-like space, to a minimum in my games. I have been known to run sequences in games that take place in the maintenance tunnels of space stations, through the corridors of starships, in the halls of alien temple ruins, and the occasional death-trap filled supervillain hideout.

In these instances, I try very hard to vary the terrain, conditions, size and shape of the passages and rooms, and the nature of the obstacles the PCs encounter. By not overusing the concept, the 'dungeon crawl' feels like an unusual environment, and a change of pace for my players. If Adam is using a 'dungeon', you know something special is involved.





Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Initivative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge

I've got to hand it to my good friend WQRobb of Graphs, Paper, and Games. Not only did he follow up my recent post with a doozy of his own, but in the comments section of his entry, he came up with an idea for another post that frankly, I'd love to see everyone who is into Superhero gaming do.

WQRobb asks, (an excerpt from his comment) "Is there a way to communicate what you are trying to do? Sort of an "Appendix N" of Superhero gaming?"

"There's a blog post idea...", he suggests. It's a great suggestion. Actually, it's a challenge.

***

The Initiative: Superhero RPG Appendix N Blog Challenge





I challenge you, the Superhero RPG GM, and/or player, to list between 5 and 10 Superhero comic books, and 5 to 10 Superhero live action or animated shows or films, that typify your style of Superhero RPG campaign.

Minimum is 5. Maximum is 10. This means you have to really think about the ones that best embody the type of Supers gaming you prefer. Who's up for the challenge?

I'll start!

Barking Alien's Superhero RPG Appendix N:

Superhero Comic Books (Including series, collections and graphic novels):

Astro City - Especially Confession, Local Heroes and Shining Stars
(Various publishers, Currently DC Comics, 1995-Present) By Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross
Green Lantern (DC Comics, 1970-1987) By Various - Not always a continuous series
Justice (DC Comics, 2005-2007), By Alex Ross, Jim Krueger and Doug Braithwaite
Marvels (Marvel Comics, 1994) By Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
The All-Star Squadron (DC Comics, 1981-1985) By Roy Thomas, and Various
The Avengers (Marvel Comics, 1970-1979) By Various
The Legion of Superheroes (DC Comics, 1974-1989) Paul Levitz era primarily
The New Frontier (DC Comics, 2004) by Darwyn Cooke*
The New Teen Titans (DC Comics, 1980-1984) By Marv Wolfman and George Perez
The X-Men (Marvel Comics, 1975-1980) By Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, Chris Claremont and John Byrne.




Superhero Non-Comic Book Media (Including films, animated TV series, games, etc.):

Batman: The Animated Series (Warner Bros., 1992-1995), Animated TV series
City of Heroes (NCSoft, 2004-2012) MMORPG By Cryptic Studios
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (Warner Bros., 2001-2006) Animated TV series
Superman/Superman II (Warner Bros., 1978 & 1980) By Mario Puzo/Richard Donner
Superman: The Animated Series (Warner Bros., 1996-2000) Animated TV series
Teen Titans (Warner Bros., 2003-2006) Animated TV series
The Greatest American Hero (ABC Television, 1981-1983) By Stephen J. Cannell
The Incredibles (Pixar, 2004) By Brad Bird - Best Superhero Film Ever Made
Villains & Vigilantes (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1979, 1982) RPG by Jeff Dee and Jack Herman

I'm a little short of 10 for the non-comic book, comic book Superhero media list because, quite frankly, I don't feel there were ever that many films, movies and games that got it exactly right.

Now bare in mind, I am not talking about getting Superheroes in general right. No, no. Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man, the Champions RPG, etc., are all awesome examples of the genre.

This is the Appendix N for the type of game I want to run, the type of Superhero themes, settings and styles I am trying to emulate.

I loved Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, the (early) Wild Card anthology novels, and of course, DC's Kingdom Come (perhaps my favorite, all-time Superhero story). However, those deconstructed tales of what's wrong with the concept of Superheroes in a post-modern world are not the kinds of stories I am looking to tell right now.

Think I overlooked something? Disagree with one of my picks? I would love to see yours!

Up, up and away,

AD
Barking Alien

*There is also an animated film version of New Frontier. I highly recommend it.



Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Secret War

I want to run a Superheroes RPG campaign.

I really do. I don't think you understand how much. More than that.

No, you don't get it. I really, really want to run one, sooo bad. I mean, I just used a 'so' with three 'o's in it. Who does that? That's some high school crap. Well I'm willing to do it. That's how desperate I am to run Supers.



Alex Ross painting Marvel Super Heroes
from alternate times and dimensions much!


The problem I have, as evidenced in many of my previous, recent attempts to do so, is that I don't have a lot of consistent players who are comic book readers, and/or fans of the Superhero genre. Fewer still who are fans of my type of Superhero comics, the 'Four Color Comics' of the Silver Age and Bronze Age.

See, I am fighting a 'secret war' of sorts. The objective is to get a group of people on the same page that I am on in regards to comic book Superheroes so that I can run a campaign of it.

That page is a beautiful, action-packed, double-page splash. If only I could get them to see it, I'm sure they'd be amazed. This is far easier said than done, as the two or three people I am thinking about probably don't even know what a 'double-page splash' is.

*Thuds head against the wall. Repeatedly.*

Even though, intellectually, I am well aware that there members of fandom who may never have grown up with Superheroes and comic books, it is still sometimes hard to me to wrap my head around the idea. To me, Superhero comics are an American institution, right alongside hot dogs, apple pie, and horribly expensive health care.

Hmmm. Bad example. OK, how about this...

The U.S.A. is only 238 years old. Our history as a nation pales in comparison to that of England, France, Japan, China, and numerous other countries on the Earth. In addition, while it's awesome that we are a people of mixed cultural heritage, we don't have the unified mythology and folklore of our respective homelands from which we originated. Sadly, the average American citizen has little knowledge of the spiritual tales of the original Natives either.

So what is our folklore? Who are our mythic heroes and villains?

Well, you definitely have characters from the fiction made popular entertainment in this country such as Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the like. You have the tales of Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, and perhaps Conan. Prior to these characters and other heroes of the Pulp Era, you had Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and the real life cowboys turned larger-than-life like Billy the Kid, and 'Wild Bill' Hickok.

Beyond that, you have Superheroes.


 
Is this not Ragnarok, The Fall of the Gods?*
 
 
Superman, created by two young, American lads from Cleveland, was originally conceived of as a very different character from that which we know today**. It wasn't until they hit upon an incarnation of the character as a heroic individual in the mythic tradition of Hercules, Samson, and others, who fought against evil, and stood for justice and truth, that Superman caught fire in the imaginations of America's youth.

Comic books are our mythology. I'm sure I've said this on the blog before, but it bares repeating. It was actually comic books that got me into D&D. I wasn't intimately familiar with the literary sources that inspired Gygax and Arneson. I was 8 years old in 1977 when I started gaming. I knew fairy tales. I knew the Wizard of Oz (films and books), and some English, Irish and Scottish folklore. At that time however, I knew little of the type of medieval fantasy, or sword and sorcery, from which Dungeons and Dragons drew its 'setting'.

I knew Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost in Space, and a host of other Science Fiction shows and movies. Mostly, I knew Superheroes. My friends and I talked about them all the time. We drew pictures of them. We read the comics, and wrote our own stories about the heroes and villains depicted therein, even before we played RPGs. These were the stories we knew, branded into our heads by a love of them, and multiple re-readings. These are the stories I still pass down today.

I fear there is no way to win this war of mine, since there is not weapon as powerful as my own love of the genre developed over the last 40 years. I have no illusions that I can make anyone get it the way I get it if they didn't share the same experience, but even a glass half full would be nice. I don't expect it to be an intrinsic part of them (my players), but a cap they could put on and feel comfortable with.

How to do this remains a mystery.

In the meantime, I continue my fight, to right that which is wrong, to defend peace, and serve all mankind.***

AD
Barking Alien


*Art credit where credit is do. This is the cover to the 'Crisis On Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition' hardcover. It was illustrated by series artist George Perez, and then painting over by the amazing Alex Ross. It has to be one of my favorite pieces of comic book related art ever. My two favorite artists working together on a single piece. Incredible.

**While Superman is often thought of as a boring character (largely due to writers who, IMHO, focus too much on the wrong elements of him), the story of his creation is absolutely fascinating, and worth a little research.

***Recognize this catchphrase? Ever-so-slightly modified, it is part of the intro to the classic, animated TV series Superfriends.