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Month: October 2016

The Con, Part 2

Last time on Almost Infinite… and now, the conclusion:

Playing D&D 5e is, for me, a little bit like coming home to a new apartment: it’s not familiar like where you have lived for years, yet it still feels good to get there and relax on your familiar furniture. I was entirely comfortable in the high fantasy setting of Ravenloft as a sellsword with an abundance of smart remarks and improbable sword tricks. It was, in most ways, the opposite of the game I was to play next: Shadowrun.

I am not saying Shadowrun is bad or that I did not have any fun. However, it wasn’t anything like my D&D experience and not just for the obvious differences between high fantasy and steampunk. The D&D character sheet can be up to three pages long, but the second two are optional. I can explain, in very short order, what everything on page one means to someone who has never played before. My Shadowrun character sheet looked like this:

Character sheet for Karl, the Elven gunslinging manhunting savant.
Character sheet for Karl, the Elven gunslinging manhunting savant.

I like to think of myself as a tabletop gamer of more-or-less average skill and ability, but this was a bit too much for me. I played Karl, the Elven gunslinger adept, as a sort of savant who was extremely good at the things he is good at (my dice pools for many of the rolls I was making seemed quite good) yet was prone to spacing out during negotiations and having seemingly no grasp on the world he lives in despite having been a part of many missions in the past. This was necessary because that was me, except for the part where I had played the game before. As soon as I started playing the game it was quickly apparent that despite the fact that not all players considered themselves to be well-practiced, anyone who had ever played the game before seemed to have a great deal of knowledge the weird jargon that mercenary-adventurers use and the setting in general. The majority of my out-of-character sentences had to start with “What is…?” I was thoroughly lost until I was told what to roll to do a thing. I had heard rumours about how cool the setting is, and my experience confirmed that to be true. I wanted to try it and I am glad I did. What I found, though, is that this isn’t something that I am going to have the time to pursue in a way that I could truly appreciate the depth and complexity of a Shadowrun adventure. I was just glad to go home and to bed after that.

And then, on the third and final day of the convention, I did not get to try the Sftabhmonton adventure. I was signed up to, but only myself, the DM, and one other player showed up. We decided to forgo trying to run the game with only two players in favour of having a great discussion about the game itself. Sftabhmonton is an intriguing remix of the old school D&D. I think you would recognize a lot of it if you’ve either read about it or experienced the old editions for yourself. However, this finely crafted mixture of homebrew and OSR is not just limited to “kill ugly people and take their treasure” adventures that the old editions are known for. It is a living world with a history generated through play. The appeal to me is obvious: I started writing because I wanted to promote the idea that games, tabletop RPG in particular, can be an agent for positive social change and creativity. I hope I never get snobby about playing new systems that push boundaries because Sftabhmonton looks like a great example of how it can be done with a rule book thoroughly grounded in the history of fantasy tabletop RPG but not necessarily sharing all of its cultural conceits. I hope to actually get to play someday.

I also heard about The Dwarvenaut during this discussion and decided I needed to watch it due to my love for visual grid maps, and Stefan Pokorny really takes it to the next level. I found it to be mediocre as a documentary. Compared to the subjects of American history and Broadway musicals, one would think a guy who writes a blog about games would gravitate more towards the story of a man who was able to achieve his dream of building a successful company out of his D&D hobby than to a PBS documentary about one of the Founding Fathers. However, I found myself easily distractable while trying to watch The Dwarvenaut and absolutely transfixed by Hamilton’s America. However, if you are interested in tabletop gaming, I think it is well worth putting in the effort to watch The Dwarvenaut because the underlying story is really quite good. I don’t know if I could ever justify the expense of what such a beautiful set of map building tools would cost, but I am thoroughly impressed that he was able to make it work and Stefan seems like a genuinely interesting person. I am therefore glad that Dwarven Forge exists even if I’m not a likely customer.

So, after such a packed weekend of gaming, what is my big take-away? In order to be a better player who can push different boundaries in new and interesting ways rather than just reiterating one of my favourite characters from other media, I can’t just play at my own table and read widely. Reading is good, but I have to get out and play more at other tables on a more regular basis. That experience will not only be rewarding on its own merits, it will make my private games better. So, having had such a great time, I will sure to be coming around to play at IntrigueCon 2017.

The Con, Part 1

I found out about IntrigueCon during the pre-game discussion leading up to that time I tried to pull some Wizard of Oz tomfoolery during a Pathfinder one-shot. In a city where the local anime convention can attract over 9000 fans and the general interest Expo attracting tens of thousands, you would think by making some not-so-wild assumptions that there are a lot of people who play tabletop roleplaying games in Edmonton. And there are. But as one of the players around the table was saying several weeks ago, it can be hard to run a convention based on this particular hobby because it is too much like monogamy: once you find the one table you want to play at, you tend to settle in and stop looking at what the market has to offer. As much as I am inclined to accept that model for my love life, I have come to find that my tabletop gaming life should be different in this way.

I don’t have a problem with my usual D&D group, but for some time now I have been open about my desire to play at other tables. It’s not that I dislike playing with them, it just gets too routine after a while and I get worried about contracting geek social fallacy #5. That is one of the reasons why I decided I needed to go to IntrigueCon, to play at tables with people I never would have met otherwise and to expand my horizons, and that I did.

Some tabletop RPGs involve pretending to be an elf and running around shooting arrows at orcs. This one involved playing a sentient wool sock on a quest for an artifact known as the “golden needle of parliament.”

The first game I got to try was one called Threadbare. It was obviously still in the development stage, but I could not help but be intrigued by the opportunity to play in a world that is a perfect mix of Toy Story and Wall-E. Each character is assembled from toys or other junk. My character was a sock puppet (a “wool sock” is a very specific archetype right there on the playbooks) aptly named Red. The rules look similar to Apocalype World, which I have not played yet, but much simpler. We relied on only three characteristics (scrounge, strongarm, and smile) rather than five (cool, hard, hot, sharp, weird). Like in Apocalypse World, the statistics are more personality traits than they are measures of physical qualities like strength or dexterity. I think this lends itself to more role play than roll play. though I found out the hard way what happens when you botch too many scrounge rolls in a row. Negative consequences take the form of having to tear a piece off your character which is both neat and distressing at the same time. So there I was, hoping to repair some minor damage, but ended up stripping it down to just the base sock as I thrashed madly in a pile of parts.

The part of Threadbare that struck me as the most profound is that in the science fantasy setting we played in, nothing was inanimate. We tend to think of hot air balloons, jet planes, etc. as things rather than friends or enemies. You really have to rethink your playing strategy when your party contains a sentient fried egg plushie who starts speaking to, and nearly going fisticuffs with, the getaway jet. I think a game like this has a lot of potential for assumption-smashing and that’s what made it fun even as I had to tear another piece off my character. The boundaries are at least as mutable as in a D&D world if not more so, since it’s not every fantasy world where your wagon (let alone your horse) might have some suggestions or objections to how to proceed with your adventure.

I think Threadbare, in its complete state, might be great to play with kids who aren’t quite old enough to introduce to D&D, World of Darkness, etc. as the rules are very easy to understand and the setting can be dark and gritty without the need for explicit violent or sexual content. At the same time, the “stitchpunk” setting is also far from being so obnoxiously saccharine that adults who are seasoned tabletop players will still be able to access it with their role playing brains rather than their caregiver brains.Once it is finished I am sure the potentials will outweigh the pitfalls in the case of Threadbare.

The next morning the second session started where I had signed up to play the Maid RPG. I knew going in, based on my experience of anime fandom culture, that there was a high risk that this would involve some elements that would be off-putting to people who actually view women as people. However, I came to try things that were different from my regular D&D (typically an ensemble cast of heroes in a high fantasy setting) and what could possibly be more different than a game based on being the best maid?

Indeed, some of the rules that came straight out of the book were pretty gross. However, the great thing about the authority of the DM (I got to run part of the session that was set in an actual dungeon, so DM is sometimes more apt in Maid than GM) is that you can exert some authorial power to take the edge off thing a bit. I know if I could do it again I would shy away from the scenario where players can gain favour by “accidentally” kissing an NPC. Or, if I am going to run something where women are seen as playthings for entitled rich men, then I would at least create a setting where boorish ribaldry could be played for laughs. If someone hasn’t created a Trump Tower themed Maid adventure yet, I know what’s going on my list of homebrew scenarios to run.

The best part of the game, though, was that it involved aggressive action without (necessarily) violence. Competition without the need to see someone die. It was a neat little mix because it didn’t dispense with any of the tension inherent in games where there is a little bit of combat simulation, yet completely avoided the concept of “hit points” et. al. In this game you simply have to prevent your stress level from getting too high. It is hardly unique to emphasize the need to do more than hit things with a sword or shooting things with a gun; what I am impressed by is how vicious Maid can get without going there. It’s certainly not a game about talking and friendships either. It is every Maid for herself in a quest to gain favour.

In our session, the random events from the book were mediated by a custom board with figurines as game pieces. In an otherwise very abstract game I thought this was a nice touch.
In our first session, the random events from the book were represented by a custom board with figurines as game pieces. In an otherwise very abstract game I thought this was a nice touch.

After that new experience I went to the next session for something a little bit familiar: Dungeons and Dragons. We played the introductory adventure in the new Curse of Strahd adventure book. This was a good old dungeon crawl where I finally got to stress test my halfling fighter that I am playing in another campaign that involves far more investigation and conspiracy than swordplay. However, I am running long in the word count for this post so the whole story will have to wait. To be continued…

Nineteen Minutes of Moirai

If you are an adult with responsibilities it can be difficult to find a lot of time and money for video games. If “free” and “takes less than twenty minutes” sound like good parameters here, then you might want to give Moirai a try (you might not if the topics of death and suicide are things you really need to avoid). The graphics will remind you of a simpler time when you had to get off the phone to be on the internet. There isn’t much to do in the town of four houses you start in. You can talk to each non-player character to get a vague idea of something to do, but you won’t find much in detail: believe me, the nineteen minutes I put into this game is very generous for a playthrough that explores everything. It’s not an exploration game where you have to click on some obscure detail to find a clue; just keep playing intuitively and you won’t miss what this game has to offer.

It’s not a good idea to explore the abandoned mine without a lantern and a knife.


In the end, I was kind of disappointed with the final result I got. It’s a neat concept, I’ll give it that, but I have a hard time imagining how it could evolve into anything else but the little trinket that it already is. I did enjoy it, though, so I encourage you to go play it before reading anything else about it. I won’t tell you what is right or wrong, but please don’t be the kind of jerk who tries to break the game. I think it’s worth playing along, no matter what you choose to do. And the Steam reviews tell the truth: there are no jump scares. I wouldn’t be telling anyone to go play it if the whole thing was just a setup for a lame prank.

You do get to meet interesting people when exploring the caves.

That’s all I can say for now. If you have already played the game and want to share your thoughts about it, please leave a comment. I’m always interested to hear what people think of what they read here.


When I say a game is broken, I don’t mean that there are faults or errors in its execution. Whether it’s a chess set that ships without any bishop pieces or a video game that crashes without a series of post-release patches, the game itself as conceived by the designers is not broken. The media are faulty, but the underlying game is intact.

What I consider to be a truly broken game is one that “works” in the technical sense but where the rules are so contrary to our standards of fairness, enjoyability, or sense of the spirit of the game that we simply cannot abide with it until the rules are changed. This can often be the result of the overpowered nature (or as one of my friends once called it for short, OP-ness) of certain cards or strategies that almost certainly lead to victory over any alternative plays (where one or more alternatives are seen as having inherent legitimacy rather than just being blunders to avoid).

Earlier this week, Canadian Minister of Finance Bill Morneau announced an updated set of rules for mortgages which may alter the Canadian real estate game. I am delighted by this because I see it as a solid attempt to prevent a game that is anything but trivial or recreational from becoming broken. It’s not a good thing when people see the only way to get ahead is to load up on debt.

Either way you look at it, something needs to be done when a runaway market breaks the game.

In this post I won’t be making any arguments for or against the timing of a correction or a crash, nor whether it’s a good idea for any individual to be able to buy right now. I don’t have the expertise to give specific advice and I am not going to try to predict the future. What I will be talking about is risk vs. reward in a game; I am of the opinion that it’s a good idea to adopt rules which dissuade Canadians from going all-in betting on real estate, regardless of whether or not it’s a “good investment” in any individual case.

First, let us consider the possibility that what goes up must come down. Not everyone agrees that prices are unsustainably high. Some people believe for a number of reasons that house prices will continue to rise for decades to come (with only an occasional hiccup) and that it only makes sense to get onto the train as soon as one can. It would then seem unfair to millennial renters trying to get on board to have to do more to qualify for a mortgage. Some people would say we are losing while we wait. But consider for a moment that the price of a typical house blasting past the million dollar mark without a corresponding boom in wages and salaries is the sign of something very unhealthy. If it doesn’t go up forever, then the game isn’t as broken as it could be. Those who gamble will eventually lose, with the magnitude of the risk increasing as the stakes get higher and higher. However, even if the game is not broken in that sense it’s still the case that the higher prices climb, the bigger the fall. Having had front row seats to what happened in the USA ten years ago, we Canadians should know better than to keep on raising the stakes until catastrophe strikes. New rules that bring us down slowly are a welcome alternative.

Now, suppose the average millennial’s dad is right when, over Thanksgiving dinner, he channels the Lex Luthor from the 1978 film Superman and tells them to buy land because it’s the one thing that nobody is making any more of. After all, it worked for him when he bought a house in the 1970’s. But for a moment let’s put aside any skepticism and imagine for a moment a world where Canadian cities, lead by Vancouver and Toronto, never see a meaningful correction or crash. Those priced out now can never afford to buy there again and both prices and rents get launched into the stratosphere. Vancouver becomes Manhattan. This is what happens if the game is broken and it stays broken. The logical end of this scenario is a new aristocracy where the only good way to get into the market is to be born into a family that is already in the market. This is much, much worse than having a bubble burst. If such a thing was possible and it really is buy now or buy never, then it would be time to change the rules before the commoners start getting agitated.

So, one does not need to know much at all about the finer details of finance to reach the logical conclusion that regardless of what happens in the market, average people looking to make the most of what they’ve got are in for trouble when the game is broken. In order to sustain itself, any gamble (whether it is an investment or a betting game) will have to find its place in the following triangle:

A modified risk triangle to illustrate that an investment can’t be all three at once. The problem is that when other kinds of investment can be shunned when unaffordable, we can’t just say no to shelter.

A runaway market will eventually fix itself, but the human consequences might be hard to take. It’s all fine and dandy to be priced out of the market for Dutch tulips or for the returns on Beanie Babies to crater, but when we are talking about places to live and life savings it becomes necessary to try and mitigate the extreme consequences. And so we come back to the new rules. They transfer more risk onto the lenders and less onto the taxpayer, reducing the moral hazard of banks being able to lend out increasingly outrageous amounts of money to people whose ability to repay is dubious if anything goes wrong. They crack down on people hoping to get around paying taxes on rental income by misusing principal residence exceptions, putting them on a more even field with other kinds of investments/income streams. They ensures that people take on less risk when they sign up for 20+ years of debt. Are the new rules enough? Will they yield the desired outcomes? I don’t know. But I find it encouraging that we have a government that is making an attempt and signalling that there may be more to come.

It’s bad news if your finite game involved becoming rich by jumping on the train at just the right time and laughing at people like me when we still have to pay rent when we are old. Good news, however, if your infinite game involves changing the rules mid-stream to allow as many players into the game as possible. In changing the rules to not favour real estate over other kinds of investment as much, we are not just encouraging the market to calm down to the point where people aren’t priced out of the market just because they can’t get a small loan of a million dollars from the bank of mom and dad. We are also creating the conditions where a young person can get ahead by investing in other things. Boomers may have coveted the garage and the yard and encouraged their children to do the same, but the post-millennial generations may instead choose a future that involves participation in the sharing economy rather than owning cars, investing in companies that create and implement the technologies of the future rather than counting on real estate equity for economic security, and retaining flexibility by living in a housing co-op rather than having to spend previous time mowing the lawn. The economic game of the future needs rules that don’t unfairly advantage the holders of the homeowner title, as that boomer dream may not last forever.

So whatever strategy we employ to invest in our future prosperity, let it not depend on the game being broken in a way that gives us an unfair advantage over our peers. Let us seek to play by rules which allow as many players as possible to be a part of the game. If the history of wealth inequality is any indication, our survival as a nation may very well depend on changing the rules when the game is broken.

Token Caricatures and Character Tokens

Six days ago, I was discussing representation in various media, including games, with an ad-hoc panel of friends and new people I just met at the local comic con because we just weren’t ready to let the conversation end when the scheduled panel discussion was over. During one of these discussions I stumbled upon a turn of phrase that I think is pretty clever: there is no such thing as a token character. Today I will explore that and contrast it with the character token, a practical craft for the tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D.

Tokenism certainly exists, I won’t deny that. But if a depiction of a person is a two-dimensional inauthentic caricature of a gender, a culture, or a sexuality then one can hardly call it a full-fledged character. Likewise, a well-rounded character with their own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, fears, and role in the narrative does not become a token simply by existing while being something other than the “default” straight white cis-man. Our ad-hoc panel was unanimous in declaring our frustration with increased representation being tagged as tokenism. When you look at an all-white all-male starship crew that is supposed to draw from the whole Earth and perhaps beyond, you aren’t engaging in tokenism when you take a character and make them something else. You’re just looking critically at what the “default” is and deciding to more accurately reflect the human race as a whole.

And so, when it comes to the cast of characters in tabletop RPGs that I run, I encourage crossplay around genders, colours, and cultures. Stepping out of your usual demographic is part of the cool thing about playing customized characters: you can be something else without making a token character. That brings me to the character token. In my post where I proclaim my love for the grid map, the photo I use also shows what I consider to be an essential accessory for the grid map: the character token. When I run a D&D game I like to make one of these for each player as a way to complement the map visually, for the practical purpose of tracking each character’s position on the map, and because it is a tangible representation of the character. “Pen and paper” tabletop RPG in the age of the video game may be about eschewing the finest graphics in favour of the theatre of the mind, but the tangibles are nice and if your character isn’t “default” then it only makes sense to have a token reflecting that rather than just settling for the white-skinned archer you found in your dad’s collection of AD&D miniatures. Because playing 4th Edition D&D was the first time I got to sit down with a group to play a real tabletop RPG, the tokens became even more practical than the miniatures because of the highly tactical nature of combat encounters and the rules that allowed player characters to share a space. Tokens stack much more neatly than miniatures.

Well, Ser Donathon doesn’t ride a horse, or wield a sword, but sure I can use this mini for my knight.

Before the first session of a campaign, I ask the players for character names, backstories, and general concept. I don’t get into character sheets and numbers until the first session, which is often more character creation night than it is the start of the plot. But I also ask for a picture. As someone with almost no talent in sketching I’ve never felt comfortable with the demand that I draw my own character. So I don’t ask that. I ask for a picture whether it is a scan of original artwork, copyrighted material we don’t own the rights to that the player found on Google Images, or just a detailed description that I can use to come up with something. In today’s example I will only be using copyright-free images and original work that I created or commissioned, but you can see from “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map” that some of the tokens in my collection are obviously taken from other sources for private use.

So how would I go about making some character tokens for the players? Suppose I ask for pictures, and from one player I receive a link to an image of an elf from Pixabay (a wonderful site offering copyright-free images where almost all the stock photos and illustrations used on this blog come from) and a description from another player: “She is a humanoid, with a head like a cat, and an eerie green glow.” The submitted image is easy to handle. Open up the good old word processor and insert the image on the page. I don’t need software that is any good for page layouts, just something to ensure that the scale is close enough to what I need. Most word processors can handle the task of drawing simple shapes at specified dimensions, so for use with a 0.5″ grid map I can draw a circle or square at that size on top of my image to make sure the scale is correct.

I will want to scale the image down a little bit more if I am making a token for a 0.5″ grid

For the second one, I will take a picture from my own media library of a suitable cat and fire up a good image editor. In case you haven’t noticed by now, I am a big fan of cheap or free stuff whenever it is made available morally and legally above board. One of the reasons for this that the 90/10 rule of program optimization also applies to usage cases: it is likely that 90% of Photoshop users will use 10% of the available features. I know I am firmly in the 10%. I don’t do advanced image editing; I just need something that isn’t as appallingly featureless as MS Paint. Sensible methods for cropping, basic colour adjustment, and the ability to do some simple masking is all I need. Paying for the latest version of professional-grade software seems pretty steep when all I want to do is take my picture of a cat, crop it, then mess around with the hue and saturation a little bit. For my purposes I find that is fantastic because it does all of this and it’s a free download. So I open a photo of a cat, crop it, then adjust the hue to emphasize green and crank up the saturation. A cat with an eerie green glow.

I will lay out as many images as I need to make the tokens, then print the page. I find my consumer-grade colour laser printer produces a high enough quality of image for this purpose, but I could take it over to a local shop if I had no printer at home or a truly awful inkjet. Then I apply two-sided tape to the back of the page well beyond the edges where I will carefully cut them out. This, for anyone not familiar with design terms, is called using a bleed. It means that your image is printed first, then cut down to size allowing the image to go right to the edge. I will affix the image to a small piece of cardboard taken from my household recycling bin. The finished token will look something like this.

Preparing the printed image for cutting. Tape works much, much better than craft glue. I learned my lesson when producing this beauty of a dungeon tile. Nothing, neither weights nor a steam iron, has ever been able to fix that piece of work.
So, if your fictional character is as simple and flat as the character token I would use to represent them on a grid map, perhaps it is worth reconsidering how you portray the character in general. But there is indeed more to your elf than being slim, glamourous, and skilled with the longbow then I think its worth celebrating the character with a unique visual element even if you yourself lack the skills of an artist. Like the grid map or the graphics that give you an impression of the world, so too can your tokens represent the diverse array of characters in your game. I hope today’s foray into practical tablecraft had provided a little bit of inspiration even if it’s not something that you’re going to do for your group and your game.