Monday, September 22, 2014

The Deadliest RPG Experience of All Time

Knuckleduster's soloplay interactive gamebook Raining Hammers: The Ballad of Johnny MacDonald might be the most brutal thing I've played since I was young and attempted to play a gamebook adventure of Sagard the barbarian, which was written solely for masochists.

My introduction to RPG of any kind, not counting pinning a towel around my neck and claiming to be Superman regardless of whatever game was being played by the other kids, was via gamebooks. There was the Choose Your Own Adventure line, which was aimed at a younger crowd, and the older kid style where you actually needed dice and a pencil to play. Many of them were actually Dungeons and Dragons books as well. My particular favorites were the Lone Wolf series by Dever and the Grailquest series by Brennan, but I would sample any of them, really. I purchased this particular book in 2000, meaning I've had it for over ten years, and I've never finished it. Because it is hard. It is unforgiving. It is brutal.

Essentially any gamebook has two ways of resolving conflict. All gamebooks use the first method, which is to offer choices to the reader. "Will you have the fish or the chicken? If you choose fish turn to section 41. If you prefer the chicken turn to section 198". Some gamebooks also use a combat mechanic involving dice or some other randomizer and some form of resource tracking such as life or hit points or endurance (or whatever). In the classic fantasy and sci-fi gamebooks of yore the player's life total was enough that the reader had an advantage to deal with the many opportunities for combat throughout the books and some healing was often made available. I even read a modern mercenary book that had complex hit location charts and multiple life points.

Raining Hammers is not that book.
Johnny's signature gun, the LeMat.  The scattergun underbarrel did not keep me alive. 
In the book you, the reader, are Johnny MacDonald, a North Carolina boy who has moved out west to mine a gold claim with your two younger brothers. The story opens with Johnny coming into town for supplies and a drink, getting into a bar fight, then returning to find his brothers are dead and he's framed for the killings. The task for the reader is to clear your name in the best tradition of spaghetti westerns. I've yet to accomplish this task. I think it might have something to do with the combat in the book. See sphaghetti western though it may be, the author attempts to give it a gritty feeling of realism. Johnny is not Clint Eastwood and guns are dangerous weapons. In this particular case losing a fight means death EVERY TIME.  Because you, the reader, have no hit points.  You have one life to live, lose a single fight and you die.  These are not easy rolls. Roll 13 or better on 3d6. Would you like to know the odds? 7:27. 25.93%. Not bad, right?

Well it's not bad if you have 36 hit points and the enemy's pistol only does 3 points of damage. It is VERY BAD if losing means that you get to read a paragraph about how you've been gutshot and while you are coughing blood and begging for water some carpetbagging sumbitch comes up and shoots you in the face. You start to like better odds. This game has seriously brutal combat. Johnny doesn't just lose fights, he gets shot in the leg, then limps away to hide in a gully and dies from infection. I swear I once turned the wrong way in a mine and died of suffocation during a cave in.
This killed me.
Once I got bit by a rattlesnake. Once I failed a perception check and got shot in a bathtub.
This killed me.
Like I said, brutal.
These guys caught and killed me.
For all that it is a good book. The author includes all these great nuggets of history for the reader, footnotes and the like to tell you how such and such a place was a real town known for its silver strike or how this person or that person you meet was a real figure and what their life was like. The author also admits the adventure is hard. He included an escape clause where you can "cash out" at any time, turn in your collected loot and get points then use the points to buy bonus dice you can spend in the game to improve rolls. Then he limits you to bringing 5 bonus dice per adventure.
This killed me 28 times.
Did I say "brutal" before? I meant vicious.

But then it's a western, innit? It's supposed to be brutal and harsh and guns a-blazin'. There is plenty of that, let me tell you. The author even included rules for making your own character instead of the default Johnny Macdonald and notes for GMs that might want to use the game as an adventure. That's all well and good, value added and sichlike, but I have yet to finish it alive and successful. And on top of all that you are supposed to be collecting clues as you run from the law so you can clear your name. Whew. So essentially this game, as much as I have enjoyed not finishing it, is the deadliest, most savage gamebook I've ever played. It literally has choices that you can make that kill you instantly (wrong passage in the mine springs to mind) and the combat is a one chance to succeed situation. No hit points, just screaming lead death.

Makes you remember the cutthroat days of old school D&D fondly as being "to the player's advantage".
Three Beholders and seven Mind Flayers?  That all?  No problem.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Event Food Horizon

I love to go to places that sell food.  I know, you are thinking, "That's called a restaurant."  I'm not talking about restaurants.  I'm talking about the food you find at carnivals, festivals, snack bars and the like.  Event Food.  Food sold at events.
I was standing in the shower when my wife says, "We should go to the botanical gardens this Spring when the new flowers bloom."
"Do they sell hot dogs?" I asked.
"Yes, but what do hot dogs have to do with the botanical gardens?"
"I like hot dogs."

No matter the event, when I go, I want to eat something.  It's not even a matter of being hungry.  I just like event food.  I like food trucks too.  That place that sits in front of the big box DIY store (it's called Dominics in my area) smells great.  They make a great Philly steak.  That's how I feel about event food.  I didn't go to Lowe's for lunch, but since I'm there...

One of the reasons that I still patronize Busch Gardens, despite all their bullshit, is that I like the food.

An asshat feeding a shark on his t-shirt.  BG's smokehouse is a favorite of mine.

Sex on wheels holding a pickle.  Very suggestive.

That is what EVENT FOOD is all about.  Also, diabetes.

For the record, I did not purchase or eat that cupcake.  I wasn't even tempted.  Okay, that last sentence was a lie.

The thing about event food, for me at least, is that the quality, no matter how good, is not the same as an actual restaurant.  You don't see a food truck sporting Michelin stars.  Indeed there is an actual taco truck in Ocracoke, not a tourist taco truck, and it sells wonderful food, but it's not getting rated on the restaurant guides.  It's street food, God bless it.  Event food is its own world with regard to quality.  You don't go to the snack bar and expect fine dining style plating.  You expect a cardboard boat full of french fries.  You can church it up, sure.  A cardboard boat full of pommes frites, but it's still fries.  Instead of stars I think Metal Punkins are a better gauge of quality.  And we don't use Event Food as an excuse either.  I've had truly shitty food at events and believe me, I don't appreciate it.  I want good taste, good quality, and a nice presentation.  If it is a clever presentation, like the above cupcake, that's extra points in my book (I am a man that believes that Halloween Oreos somehow taste better than regular Oreos due to the dynamics of the design on the cookie as it hits your tongue and the color orange in the creme filling), but that can't overcome shitty food.  Both in the figurative sense and in the literal sense.  If event food has you dashing for the nearest dunny that's bad.  I have learned to forgive Ren Faires for having turkey legs as I get older as well.  See, I'm growing as a person.

Busch Gardens Smokehouse with its brisket and ribs, always hot and tasty, always smokey and succulent gets:

In my book.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Busch Gardens Pulls Heads Off Howl O Scream Display

Essentially some fake heads in a pirate Halloween display upset some visitors who felt it was insensitive given the recent, very publicized events of ISIS.


Jeers to Busch Gardens for pulling the heads and boo to them for apologizing.  It's a Halloween decoration.  It's not like somebody was in there cutting off heads while declaring a bloody jihad.  I take offense at half the shit that comes on television, but I don't think there is a big insensitive agenda at work.
What does sensitivity have to do with a Halloween display?

First they dumbed down the scares at Howl O Scream because kids were getting scared.  Boo fecking hoo, it's Halloween.  They tell you that it might be too intense for small children and don't scare the scary stuff until 6 PM, but some bloody parents want the WHOLE DAMN PARK FOR THE WHOLE DAMN DAY AND NIGHT and their little itty dumpling darlings might get scared.


To the "action group" that raised the ruckus that got the display pulled: Fuck you.  Don't fuck up everybody's good time just because you got some sand in your vajayjay.

To Busch Gardens: Fuck you for capitulating.  That's how terrorists win.

Light your pumpkins for freedom!

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Benefits of Player Killing

My tabletop RPG days began with the release of AD&D 2nd edition.  While I had flipped through the AD&D 1e books and had D&D toys, I did not actually start playing until 2nd edition.  I had read solo gamebooks before that, however, so it is fair to say that I was somewhat versed in the idea of RPG.  From those first days my group really didn't know the rules and as a result our first games were pure insanity.  We'd level out in one game session, so ignorant of the actual rules were we, and thus we developed a bad habit of getting bored quickly with a character and simply making a new one.  To further this imbalance we did not take many casualties.  It just wasn't the style of game we were playing.  Even in the deadly Ravenloft, the very Realm of Terror, we seemed to have supreme PC halos.
Well let's be honest here-nobody actually wants their character to die.  I have been thinking lately that our lack of character death was actually detrimental to our gaming.
Why, I ask, did we become bored and keep making then scrapping characters?
In one sense I believe it was because it was more fun to make a character, design it out, come up with a backstory and all than it was to play it.  The DM's plans rarely, if ever, really fit our idea of who our character was supposed to be, thus we found ourselves dissatisfied and looking for a new, better character.
In another sense, maybe we should have died much, much more.
Pre-planning your character to be the next Raistlin or Drizzt is probably not a good thing.  It is likely a much better idea to play a character and let it develop.  This allows the DM freedom to go with the flow and make interesting adventures.  But more importantly, without the threat of failure there is no thrill of victory.  The most memorable characters, the ones you value, are the ones that survive to do great deeds.  For that reason I make this suggestion to DMs, GMs, and referees of all types, and players need to accept this advice as well:
Kill player characters.
Kill the SHIT out of them.
Now I don't mean you should be malicious, because that is not fun for anybody but you and soon you will be playing alone.  I mean that the threat of character death is what gives this artificial life meaning.  It teaches the players to play smarter and value their characters.
It was not until I had been playing for years, after I joined up the Navy in fact, that I actually played one character and stuck with it for a long time.  I valued that character and he died early in the campaign only to be brought back.  Now admittedly he died because I was doing something stupid.  I was roleplaying.  Not the smartest way to keep a character alive, I admit.  I was fighting without my armor on and a goblin got a double crit backstab and wasted me.
I got better.  The mechanism by which I got better left me, the player, annoyed which led to a wish gone wrong which led to a time loop that led to a very exciting and satisfying campaign.  But what was established early on with that character's first untimely death was that the DM was a "let the dice fall where they may" rolling-out-in-the-open-crit-chart-using-sumbitch.  But we all learned to value our characters and I felt invested.  It was a good campaign.
Now some DMs aren't into that sort of brutal dice law gameplay.  They have grand plots, the framework of never-to-be-published novels they are writing, and they want everybody to be happy.  You can't make everybody happy.
You can, however, give a player a chance to value a character.  If my old DM had killed us a few more times, well we'd have been pissed, sure, but I think we would have adapted.  We wouldn't have gotten bored with our characters if we were always rolling new ones and eventually we'd come to cherish the ones that survived and got some levels.  When you pick the monsters and they are too tough for the players...kill them.  Or rather, let them die.  They are big kids-they'll get over it.
Because you are not Aragorn.  You are not the heir to the throne of Gondor.  You are not Frodo.  Hell, you are not even Pippin.
But you could be.  If the dice favor you and you play smart, you too can become king by your own hand and wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.
But in the meantime, if some player makes a bonehead decision and the dice don't favor it.
Kill him.
And no bennies, and no fate points, none of those little tokens the players can use to alter the course of their fates/stupid decisions.
Let.  Them.  Die.
Then let them roll up a new character and get right back into the action.
Too many games these days are just not lethal enough.  They want to handicap the GM.  But I remember the words in the introduction to the AD&D 2nd edition Dungeon Master's Guide, "Your word is law, if the players don't like that kill the shit out of their characters."
Okay, that might not be the exact words, but we all know that is what they meant.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Too Much of a Good Thing

Some games have way more classes than they need.  I mean both base classes and advanced (sometimes called prestige or even paragon) classes.  I understand that players like options.  Options are wonderful things, but not every single idea needs to be expressed by a new set of powers or a new class.
Here is a hypothetical exchange to illustrate my point:
Player: I want to play a Witch Hunter.
GM: No problem; Paladin starts on page 82.
Player: No, I don't want to play a pseudo-cleric-fighter hybrid.  I want to play a character that hunts evil magic users.
GM: What do you think a Witch Hunter should have, classwise?
Player: You know, resistance to magic, dispel magic abilities, powers to smite evil.
GM: I see.  Paladin starts on page 82.
Precisely my 16 year old idea of what a Witch Hunter would be like.
The reason I pick that example is because as a youth playing 2nd edition AD&D that was more or less me.  The player, not the GM.  We had kits back then, which gave special abilities and restrictions to existing classes and there was an Inquistor kit for Paladins that was, pretty much, a witch hunter.  That was not good enough for me for some reason.  Ah, youth.
Some games, and I mean D&D 3rd and Pathfinder, among others, have way too many classes.  Too many core classes when alternate versions are taken into account, too many 3rd party classes, too many prestige classes-just too damn many options.  I say this because every single idea does not need its own special class with special powers.  
Let us say you want to be a monster hunter of some kind.  Perhaps just a monster hunter in general.  What do you think an adventurer does, for the most part?  They fight monsters.  Monsters are those things that litter dungeons and keep you from getting treasure.  Do you need a special monster fighting skill or ability?  Won't your vorpal sword do the trick?
Much of what people want is just window dressing, really.  It is background, not part and parcel to the rules themselves.  Too much specialization can be a bad thing.  Suppose you are just itching to play a pirate.  Does your GM want to run an aquatic adventure?  If the GM is not interested in an aquatic adventure then having a special Pirate Class with special Pirate Abilities is useless to you.
What about a Vampire Hunter?  I've seen those bounce around in games.  We all know the classic vampire weaknesses and a good vampire hunter is loaded with tools like garlic, stakes, holy water, a whip, and a holy symbol.  Yet many a player will expect a special class for that type.  What exactly would such a class have in terms of abilities?  Special undead detection powers?  That's not very vampire hunter.  The ability to hurt the undead and hold them at bay with a holy symbol?  Really all you need are some stakes, a little garlic and the desire to hunt vampires.  Too much specialization means that if there are no vampires to fight you are lacking where a normal base class has utility.  
I'm sure someone might suggest that this is where a classless skill-based game has the advantage, but not really.  Those games either force even more specialization in order to succeed (skill costs) or have special powers with variable costs (arcane backgrounds, for example, to allow spellcasting) that end up making the characters very much like a class-based game character, only more one-dimensional.  I advocate fewer, more generalized classes and then exercising the imagination to fill in the gaps.  Like how we did it in the old days before there was a special ability and skill for every single thing you could possibly do up to and including a skill for writing your name legibly in the snow when you pee.

Player: I want to play a Vampire Hunter.  Somebody that has the powers and conviction to fight the undead!
GM: Cleric starts on page 56.

Keep your pumpkins lit.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New Cryptkeeper Badges for 2014

The 2014 Cryptkeeper badges this year feature the Gillman.
Excellent.  In fact given my choice of topic this year, apropos.

Friday, September 12, 2014

American Horror Story: Freakshow

The new season of American Horror Story will debut this year on October 8th, just in time for the season of spooky.  This marks the fourth season of AMH and in keeping with the pattern established as of the second season, we have an entirely new story featuring several of the cast of previous seasons.  This season's story is entitled Freak Show and is set in a carnival.  Again we have a classic American horror concept, which is what AHS is all about.  It is American Horror Story, after all.

The description from FX's website is as follows:
American Horror Story: Freak Show begins its tale in the quiet, sleepy hamlet of Jupiter, Florida. The year is 1952. A troupe of curiosities has just arrived to town, coinciding with the strange emergence of a dark entity that savagely threatens the lives of townsfolk and freaks alike. This is the story of the performers and their desperate journey of survival amidst the dying world of the American carny experience.

Sounds good to me.  I'm a sucker for the carnival setting and I love freaks.  I mean that in the nicest way possible.
Let's say you are not the ideal of your species.  People are going to whisper.  They are going to point and laugh, if not to your face then behind your back.  If you were ever an outcast at school or the object of a bully's attention then you know what I mean.  Wouldn't you rather be paid for the suffering?
Many a so-called freak has had that very attitude.  P.T. Barnum made famous people that would otherwise have been treated horribly for no reason other than they were different.  I like the sideshow.  I like the way if forces us to appreciate our normality while, secretly, wishing we too were special.
But those are my personal feelings.  Don't take them as good or bad.  In the medieval era people had similar feelings I am given to understand.

As for AHS, I truly enjoy this show and am glad to see it surviving, nay thriving, in today's market.  I believe the secret to its success is not the shock factor, although there is plenty of that, but its anthology approach.  We don't see the anthology series these days.  Television series such as The Twilight Zone, Monsters, Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt, Night Gallery and The Outer Limits were all great anthologies.  Each episode was a different story with a different cast, writers, directors and settings.  Anthologies are like comic books (indeed Tales from the Crypt was a comic book) with a variety of stories, some better than others, but generally of a type. The creators of AHS have cleverly chosen to make each season a complete story with a start, middle and ending.  Complete stories satisfy us on a primal level.  By using much of a the same actors from season to season, but casting them in different types of roles we get a feeling of the familiar while getting a new story.  For an actor this is probably a nice change as well since so often I read how actors become bored with a role over a long period of time and begin to feel the need to find a new challenge.  It's a win-win scenario.
Most series work from the principle of a continuing story using a plot arc for a season, wrapping that up with a few loose threads for the next season and often employing a cliffhanger to keep the audience interested in returning.  There is nothing wrong with that save that after a certain point the series tends to have run out of ideas, usually by season 5.
AHS neatly avoids that problem.  As long as a new complete story is worth watching, this show will remain.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Alternate Background

As I blast toward this year's Halloween theme I thought I'd take a moment to show what the alternate background choice was for the Pumpkin.

I still like it.  If you lot prefer it I can always switch.