Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Campaign Stats

My current campaign has run for 2 and 3/4s years.

The first half ran 51 games from July 17th, 2005 until August 22nd, 2006.

We took a two month break to play a Science Fiction Mini Campaign.

The second half ran 60 games from October 21st, 2006 to April 20th 2008.

I started with 3 players. It took me a year of looking to find the other two.

Over the course of the game, we had 18 characters and 13 players, 12 characters from 7 regular players, plus 7 NPCs. We ended with a core of four players whose characters lasted most of the second half of the game. The only character who was there through the whole thing was Chris’ character, Sigdel Fellhand, the Warlock.

I hate Warlocks. But Sigdel was a great character.

The PCs ended up 16th and 17th level, with an APL of 21 because two PCs had become 0 level deities at the end (I game them an ECL of +5).

Eric - Jarn/Akarion/Niv
Chris - Sig
Ruby - Mimosa/Sredny
Jeff - Kazoo
Dave - Kegsam/Afa
Kim - Alia/Tati
Nick/NPC - Kallid
??? - Jess
??? - Shugar
??? - Nosphilion
??? - Dimple
??? - Agrid
??? - Solen
Cohort - William
NPC - Rolf, Ron, Nob, Salt Breath, Ocel, Grieve

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dust - a review

Dust by Charles Pellegrino

Dust is about ecological disaster. And ah, what a disaster! Such a read-the-fine-print, grimly ironic, hoist by your own petard kind of disaster that one is compelled to find delicious how such a longed-for consummation went so wrong. Dust, you see, hypothesizes that all the insects in the world... disappear.

That's the read-the-fine-print catch. While you're thinking: "Hey! No beestings!" You're not thinking about all the damage this would do. All the soil that wouldn't be replenished by ants... all the produce that wouldn't be pollinated... all the fungi that wouldn't be kept at bay... how long dead animals would stay around, breeding disease... all the creatures whose food source has disappeared.

I've always loved end of the world stories. Dante was intimate with the peculiar pleasure of hanging his opponents in effigy. We all wish we could rain fire and torment down on the excesses of the modern world. We choose different excesses. For instance, I would gladly turn the city where Muskrat Love was recorded into a pile of radioactive slag. In the sandwich board oeuvre everyone gets hung! And then, there are few fantasies more perversely fulfilling than imagining how you would remake the world if you had to rebuild it from scratch.

I also love wide ranging science fiction, where authors swing out over the edge of reality on a gossamer thread of possibility. Charles Pellegrino is one of those curious, DaVinci style mutants who's genius infests a lot of intellectual corridors. Search the web for his name, and you will find papers on paleoarchaeology, xenobiology and rocket science. He's the guy that wrote the article about dinosaur DNA in amber that inspired the novel that Michael Crichton wrote that prefigured the movie that Spielburg built - Jurassic Park. So his amazing brain is right up to the task of grazing extinction theory and ecological theory and pulling out the facts that support a chilling end of everything.

But enough about Dust's pedigree. It's a truly scary premise, with lots of gruesome scenes. Unlike many similar novels, Dust isn't about a threat to life as we know it... it's about the abject failure of life as we know it.

The results of absentee insects include: massive species extinction before we've even realized what's happened... worldwide famine... leading to war... ending in the mutual exchange of thermonuclear devices... plague, plague and more plague... and just for gruesome fun, a crapload of mini predators that had been kept in check by insects aren't kept in check any longer. The number of people who are graphically slashed, chewed, and ripped to bits by micro-predators is truly startling.

Dust has a cast of thousands, along the model of the old Niven and Pournelle Armageddon potboilers that I love so much. This is sometimes confusing, as Pellegrino jumps from character to character in the space of a chapter, killing most of them but saving out a few for his final, showstopping set piece.

On the other hand, the busy cast makes for an exciting novel because it gives a wide angle view of the world's impending destruction, allowing you to watch Pakistan and India nuke each other from the deck of the Nimitz at the same time Vampire Bats eat a scientist alive in the Caribbean.

Mr. Pellegrino's grasp of characterization is a little shaky at times. For instance, the protagonist's nine-year-old daughter sometimes seems a little dumb for her age, even though she's supposed to be a mini-genius. And there are a few too many "NoNoNo's" uttered in the course of histrionics. One can't blame the characters for histrionics. The world is, after all, ending. One may wish, however, that distress didn't sound so very operatic... soap-operatic, that is.

This problem is very minor, however. When you get right down to it, the characters are fun people to have known on the page: multiple geniuses in the mold of the author himself and biker rocket scientists and wiccan physicists. Even a real-life friend of the author, a bat biologist, thrown in at the friend's behest and slaughtered by one small corner of this cornucopia of disaster.

The plot itself is simple, in the manner of this sub-genre. Everything falls apart, and some characters try to put things back together while others just struggle to survive. Few do. So few, that when the novel is racing towards the climactic end, you vaguely suspect that Pellegrino, in a fit of malicious glee, is going to let the world strangle on it's own bad behavior. It's a tooth gritting ride, wondering if there will be anybody left to root for at the end.

Dust is anything but dry. It's fully engaging as a thriller, as science fiction, and as a horror show.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Finished a rough draft

Tuesday, I unexpectedly finished writing my third to-be-unpublished novel. I say unexpectedly because even though I was rather sure I was going to be finishing up soon, there is an uncertainty principal involved. I knew that I was working on the last scene in the book. I'm never sure what will complete a scene: I know the end, I know the beginning, but I work out the steps to get there as I go.

But Tuesday, I sat down for lunch and opened up the document where I'd left it last, and wrote 545 words connecting the current scene to the last hundred pages or so of the book. Boom. I got a first draft.

When I dropped the last two sections into the "2nd draft" document, the whole thing was 688 pages long in standard manuscript format. 178,153 words, as counted by Word. Phew. The first thing I did was cut out a 14 page scene I had decided I no longer liked and write a new bridge, so before starting on my second draft, the whole thing is now 677 pages.

The metrics of writing are interesting to me. Many published authors suggest that if you write a certain number of words per day, you will inevitably succeed in you goal to become published. I have a certain amount of skepticism about this, but it is obvious that if you don't write, you will have no product to get sold. So I have worked hard to maintain a writing habit.

I try to write a page a day. 250 words. I feel good about that number. I feel especially good if I do more. I feel lousy if I do less.

When I started writing this third novel, after a couple of years of fussing around with short stories, I started with a couple of pages that I had written and liked the atmosphere of. The character was a young girl, and being new to fatherhood, I think she became a sort of stand in for how I was feeling about raising a girl into womanhood. She also reminded me a lot of a friend of mine from high school, long out of touch.

I had no real goal. Because the bit I'd started with had a sort of Victorian, Gothic Lolita feel, I decided I wanted to write a urban fantasy family saga with a lot of sprawling plot lines. I totted up some plot points that I would cover, and arbitrarily assigned 100 pages for each section. I was expecting to write an 800 page novel. At a page a day I expected it to take 800 days, or two years and change.

This January, at about 500 pages in, I decided that I was overwriting, that I was putting things in my novel that didn't need to be there. I decided I would write 30 pages to finish the section I was working on, 30 pages to fill out a half finished transitional section, and 30 pages to end the book, about 580 in total. Hah. I ended up writing my original 688 pages over 652 days.

At some point in the middle I decided to motivate myself by keeping a spreadsheet of my progress.

Starting with the word counts, file opened info, and last altered dates from the first couple of sections, I continued with my daily word count. Column B is word Count, C is the date I wrote, D is the number of days that word count "counted" for, and E is the percentage of my daily commitment. You can see how it varies.

There are two purple fields that contain manuscript counts. One is my main count (674.1), the other includes a section of pages out of order (703.1). I assume various rewrites done in the course of the book accounts for the variation from my final page count.

Boring! What matters to me is that both of those numbers are higher than the purple field in the Totals columns. Every single page count I have is higher than the number of days I spent writing the first draft. I applied myself more than my self appointed minimum. Not much, but more. I can do the church lady superiority dance!

Word count isn't everything, of course. I stopped to do a week's worth of cleanup on the first four hundred pages in November or thereabouts but I have yet to read all 677 pages in a row. For all I know, this is a totally overwritten piece of crap. But at least I have a lot of stuff to work with if I need to pare it down substantially.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

All the big personal projects I blogged (does anybody else notice the suspicious resemblance of the word blogged to bragged?) about in March are coming to a conclusion in April. I hope to blog on them one by one over the next couple of weeks.

The project that I put the most elbow grease into was the end of my Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Campaign. I will have stats on that campaign. Why? I don't really know. Metrics interest me. Since I have them, I might as well share.

The end of the game itself was a massive undertaking. I set up a huge battle between the shadow-antagonist of the entire last half of the game and the party.

The Novanomis, the antagonist, had a small force of wizards, weretigers, and giant blooded tribesmen holed up in a crumbling fort on the edge of a tear in reality that leads to the chaotic sub basement of the universe.

I had warned my players that the end game might take several weeks worth of play to work out.

So that I didn't have to leave a map redrawn on a battle map, or re-draw it each week, I found a pad of 1 inch square graph paper, taped two sheets together, and drew the battle field on it.


The characters, the protagonists, had themselves. Two of them had been recently made 0 level deities. They also had a force of 260 quasi-angels that they'd found on a crystalline star that had been accidentally created by an antagonist from the first half of the game.

Simple enough, right?

I kludged together a method for handling troops, including radically simplified stat blocks. I think it was simple and effective: nobody tried to tear their eyes out or gouge their brains out of their ears with pencils. Everybody seemed to be having fun directing their forces.

After several rounds of combat, the battlefield looked like this:

The squares of colored paper (mostly) represent blocks of ten troops, the minis represent individual characters.

In all, the end game took 4 of our Sunday games to play out, about 12 hours all told. It was 16 rounds of combat.

Like most of the game, I didn't expect it to take that long, but I had a blast. Afterwards, the battle field was marked with troop positions from the previous weeks, the scars of a couple of walls of fire, and snack stains. I actually hoped the map would be more marked up. Sniff. Those Dorito stains contain memories.

The characters were victorious, of course. Good guys always win.

After week two, I decided that the only thing the mass combat did was take the spotlight off the PCs for three weeks. They chased their troops around and destroyed arcane engines, sure, but they didn't get a chance to shine in combat until game four. It sure did give the impression of a lot of activity, though.

I'm not sure I'd run another end game like that, but I liked the kludged mass combat system enough that I am tempted, if I find myself with copious free time, to cook up some really wild units and runs skirmishes with the paper squares.

It was fun. More pics following.

Thanks, guys.


Monday, April 21, 2008

4e Demo

On Sunday, I went to a local hobby shop, and played in a 4e demo.

I was a halfling paladin. And I saw some mock ups of two of the core books. I have no details to give, just impressions.

1) I had fun. Chris, one of the guys in the gaming group I run, said he had fun, too.

2) The sets of powers they give characters are really dynamic. They've done a good job of keeping all the classes at about the same level of power, while still making them feel different. For instance, my halfling paladin had no fear of pain (and took negligable amounts of damage), though the warlock and wizard tried to keep as far away from opponents as possible. But when I was rolling bad, they were easily doing as much, or more damage than I was.

3) The real fun of playing is going to be choosing sets of powers that complement each other, and in using your actions and action points in order to get off bursts of powerful attacks. At low levels, this still goes quickly.

4) If you are a wizard, you have fewer powers, but no chance to pick dud ones. You have something to do every round. It works and it's fun. If you are any other class, you have a wider variety of things to do, but not so much that you hit option paralysis.

5) Don't include 5th level opponents in a battle with a 1st level group. It is a doable fight, but one of the PCs will invariably get soaked with damage and die. No fun at all.

6) Playing a halfling in combat is actually fun in 4e.

7) WOTC's sample adventures universally suck for plot. Much like the RPGA's living campaign adventures. I wonder if it's the same dudes writing them?

8) After looking at the sample monsters that Wizards has released, and some of the sample monsters people are kludging up on Gleemax, I've decided that I like how Wizards is handling monsters.

I like that they seem easy to design based on level appropriate damage and hit points.

I like that they are providing a range of creatures-within-a-creature: lizard men warriors and spellcasters. Gnome sneaks and spellcasters. Goblin harpoonists. Etc. Many of these options are just like the monsters with class levels from the later 3.5 monster manuals.

I know people rebelled against the classed monsters in the last few 3.5 monster books, but they make it easier for me in the long run. I think this philosophy of monster creation stabilizes the game by providing more choice in cleaner categories. It encourages working in those categories instead of creating a lot of goofy monsters that don't fit with other campaigns well. No flumphs. I think.

9) One of the things this monster design philosophy does, however, is bulk out the core monster book so that not very many creatures that people think of as core get covered

In turn, it presents you with a very small array of monsters for each level (6 or 8?).

Some of this will get fixed by the digital initiative, and people like me, who will make new monsters and post them.

There will be bitching from purists, but also, I think, from casual and beginning players who might not care about high level monsters and don't feel comfortable making their own, and people who don't plan to buy a lot of supplements.

I'm not sure how they could have solved this problem. I might have left out most of the high level monsters, since I would assume people would be starting with high level campaigns.

I personally would have liked to see some low level elementals. I don't understand why all 4 efreeti are 23rd level. C'est la vie.

10) Last, I see no evidence at all of a pet mechanics. I didn't see familiers, saw no summoning spells, and of course there is no pet class. I could be wrong about this. I looked at the PH much less thoroughly than the MM. Some people, my wife amongst them, will chafe at this. This will probably be featured in future releases. I'm hoping that somewhere in the three books there is some hint about what power level creature is appropriate for a PC to use as a pet or summoned beastie.

All in all, the good was really good and the bad is fixable with a little elbow grease. I'm thinking that it's a good edition of the game, and I will give it the core rules a good hard try out.