Monday, October 3, 2011

Organized Play

With my jump back into RPG event organizing, the topic of organized play has understandably been on my mind as of late. While I do find it somewhat amazing, I know that there are a lot of people out there who aren't familiar with the concept, so I'm going to take a bit to talk about that. In my next post, I'm going to go more in-depth with the actual process of setting up and running events.

Let's take a trip in the Way-Back Machine. In the days of 1st Edition D&D, a new beast formed itself out of the chaos of that era. It was called the Role-Playing Game Association, or RPGA for short. What the RPGA specialized in was convention-play events like the D&D Open and other tournament-style play. An RPGA adventure would contain a number of pre-generated characters, an adventure, generally very tough and meat-grindery and meant to test players' mastery of the game. If you want a taste of these days, you can go and check out the old C series of modules, and even some of the S series.

Players and teams were scored on a number of different factors, and some events were set up so that only certain teams or even individual players would be able to progress on to the following rounds. They were often gruesome adventures, but were generally only one-shot stories. Eventually, someone had a thought similar to, "This is really great, but what if I could make my own character and play that character over and over in an ongoing storyline, and still do it in a similar format?"

Skip ahead to the early days of 2nd Edition and the founding of the Living City campaign. The RPGA took the idea of making up your own character and playing in an ongoing storyline and married to one of the most popular settings of the times - the Forgotten Realms.

The Forgotten Realms is undeniably the most developed (some would say over-developed) campaign settings in the history of the game. The Living City campaign took one of the lesser-developed areas of the setting - the city of Raven's Bluff and its surroundings - and set it aside as a sandbox for the RPGA and players of the campaign.

Sadly, I never got to play in the Living City campaign, but it lasted a long time - right up until the advent of 3rd Edition - undergoing some leadership and rules changes over the years. The "Living" portion of the campaign came from the fact that the actions of your characters could affect the direction of the storyline. In the days before the internet, the distribution of the campaign was such that most of it was run at conventions all over the nation. With so many players, data had to be collected and an aggregate of the results would determine what actually happened. It wasn't as perfect as a home campaign, but it was as close as you could get.

Many other Living Campaigns developed through the RPGA over the years: Living Jungle, Living Death, and more. With the coming of 3rd Edition and the d20 system, even more living campaigns popped up: Living Force, Living Spycraft, Living Arcanis, and, of course, Living Greyhawk.

Ah, Greyhawk. The place where it all started (aside from Blackmoor, but that its own Organized Play campaign as well). With 3rd Edition again placing Greyhawk in the seat of the "assumed" D&D setting, a new opportunity opened up. What if you were take the model of the very successful Living City campaign, but instead apply it to a whole world - a world that was rich in history and established canon, but was at the same time much less developed than the Forgotten Realms. A world like Greyhawk.

This, of course, has its own downsides. How do you deal with something on that scale? The solution was, in my opinion, one of the best things the RPGA ever cooked up - the Regional system. It went something like this.

Every real-world area was tied to a region of the World of Greyhawk. The state of Wisconsin, for instance, was tied to the region of Highfolk. If you were to play an actual game in that region, you would have to play adventures from that region. If you wanted to play an adventure from, say, the Shield Lands, you would have to travel to Minnesota or the Dakotas and play there. Each region was run by a group of three administrators, known as a Triad, who oversaw the adventure writing and storyline for that particular region.

Some areas of the setting were considered "Core" regions and were not tied to an actual real-world region. Places like the City of Greyhawk and the Duchy of Ten were areas in which these Core adventures were set, and anyone, regardless of their region could play in these adventures. These areas were overseen by the Circle of Eight, the main administrators of the campaign.

As time went on, there were additions and addendums to the regional system - Adaptable adventures, Meta-regions, Adapted adventures, and more. By the time the campaign ended (at the height of its greatness in my opinion), the possibilities for play were astounding.

But, there were downsides to this system. First and foremost was that not all regions were created equally, or at least their leadership or the quality of their writing wasn't. I was very lucky to be part of the Highfolk region - we had a very creative and active Triad who created some great and sweeping storylines and, for the most part, kept the proverbial trains running on time. Other regions didn't have that. There were a number of regions who had a general lack of interest, and had a hard time even producing a handful of adventures each year, much less coherent and compelling stories.

The other main issue was travel. The implementation of the regional system had a number of immediately obvious side-effects like if we in Highfolk ever wanted our characters to cross the Yatil Mountains to the west and venture into Perrenland, it would require a real-life trip to Australia. Eventually, this was handled by having "Fiesta" events at the larger conventions where you could freely play adventures from any region.

While it was nice, it did have the effect of widening a substantial gap that existed between those players who were willing and able to travel to conventions and those who were not. For players like me who were able to travel to the big regional conventions in Milwaukee each year, things were cool. I had the chance to play adventures months before they were available for play at public game days, and I got to take part in the Interactives - huge special events that were usually pivotal in the storyline of the region and were not available to be played anywhere else.

The true fact of any Organized Play campaign, as I am always wont to tell people, is that you get out of it what you put into it.

Since the coming of 4th Edition and Pathfinder and the great gaming schism of the 21st century, there are two main Organized Play campaigns - Living Forgotten Realms and Pathfinder Society. (Yes, I know that there are others, but LFR and PFS are the two biggest campaigns out there.)

Living Forgotten Realms was WotC's attempted successor to the popularity of the Living Greyhawn campaign, but with a lot of changes to address all of the issues with the previous campaign. First, while it is (or was, at its beginning) a regional campaign, characters were free to play any regional adventure regardless of where they were actually playing the game. It also opened up the possibility of replay by allowing any player to play or DM any given adventure any number of times, so long as it was with a character that had not gone through that adventure. In previous iterations of a Living campaign, this was patently verboten.

There have been a lot of changes to the LFR Campaign over the few years that it's been around, the biggest being that they have recently moved away from actual physical Regions for the adventures, and towards "Storyline" adventures. While there hasn't been a lot of action on the official campaign website in the last month, the campaign still seems to be dragging itself along. It's hard to say with confidence that it won't just fall to wayside some day soon, though.

Pathfinder Society, on the other hand, seems to be picking us steam with no sign of slowing down. PFS takes has taken a slightly different approach. First off, it is not a "Living" campaign, and doesn't really try to pass itself off as one. While it shares a lot of commonalities, it has not had a strong ongoing narrative until very recently. It is also not a regional campaign. Adventures can take you all over the Inner Sea region of Golarion and beyond. A unique aspect to the campaign are the factions, shadowy sub-organizations within the Pathfinder Society that are vying for political control of the city of Absalom. The biggest downside to the PFS campaign is the fact that Paizo charges a nominal amount (about $3 each) for the campaign adventures.

I think everyone should give Organized Play campaigns a shot at least once. It's not going to be for everyone, as there are some things that have to be sacrificed for the ability to take your character anywhere in the entire world and play in a sanctioned event. One of these is a rather unrealistic treasure distribution system. Another is that most public game days and convention events do have a rather limited amount of time to run an event in, and even though the adventures are designed to run in a standard 4 to 5 hour time slot, there are a lot of times when this can lead to some skipping over and hand-waving of a lot of actual role-playing.

In my estimation, however, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Grab Bag

Name Recognition

I experienced a bit of a weird moment the other day at work. Now, I've experience more than my fair share of weird moments in life, but this wasn't like falling through the cello cabinet and ending up with a tuba on top of me or waking up naked under an afghan in the middle of a group of middle aged and elderly ladies kind of weird. This was an entirely new kind of weird, the weird of being recognized, at least by name, by someone who you've never met.

It happened like this:

I was at work and a customer came in and I began to ring up his order. He noticed that I was wearing a derby shirt, and asked me what team I was wearing. I proudly proclaimed that it was for the Chippewa Valley Roller Girls, and that I announced for them.

"Oh, cool," he said. "What's your derby name?"

"Mat Black."

"Hey, cool. I've heard you game at Pegasus Games in Madison."

I was a little taken aback. But yeah, I told him, when I get the chance. Sadly, I've only really had the chance to actually game there once.

So, as the day went on, it just kept seeming stranger and stranger. Here was this guy, who was, admittedly, a pretty cool guy whose wife is or was a MRD bench coach, but who had heard where I've gamed. Like I said, a totally new kind of weird.

Mutants & Mayhem

I got to run session two of our Gamma World game this weekend. I'm pretty stoked, but pretty nervous as well. I haven't had a home campaign that's made it past two sessions in well over 5 years. So I'm understandably nervous that session three might never roll around.

This time around, we used my house rules, and I think it was a pretty good success. Even with my mechanics, not everyone had the same Alpha Mutation that they started with.

Gobi, Steam Bolt, and Jerry from Texaport (played by Manda from Mandariffic) were joined by a couple of new mutants - Jellie von Faustus, a Gelatinous Demon played by Naomi (from Mind Stain) and Rut Roach, a Cockroach Pyrokinetic played by her fiancee Dustin.

The newly-bolstered group headed back to the badder steading and found that the outside security had been beefed up. It was pretty short work, and then the group prepared for the huge bat-winged lion with laser beam eyes that they knew waited inside. With some recon work from Jellie, and a hypno-ray that Jerry had scavenged, the group made pretty short work of the encounter, ultimately suggesting to the yexil that it fly away and be happy in the wilderness.

They then descended the stairs where they found a couple of badders waiting in ambush. Beyond the landing at the bottom of the stairs, they discovered a large machine humming away, a cage full of mindless humans, and more badders (these had flails). They managed to make short work of the machine that seemed to be draining them of energy and feeding it back to the badders, who, without their healing, didn't last very long.

And that was where we left it. When we next pick up, the group needs to decide what to do with the humans, and if they want to delve into the system of tunnels leading from the machine room.

Pathfinder Society

It's been a long time since I've gotten to play in any Organized Play campaigns. The last time was when I went to an LFR game at Pegasus (see how I tied that together?). While LFR is fun, it mostly serves to make me nostalgic for the days of the Living Greyhawk campaign. That, in turn, makes me nostalgic for the experience of being an even organizer.

It might seem crazy to think fondly back on the hours of labor and headaches that getting gamers to act in an organized fashion can bring, but nonetheless, I do miss it. So, with the Pathfinder Society program entering its fourth year with new leadership, a new storyline, and lots of new possibilities, I'm getting ready to jump back in. Some time in the next month, I will be hosting the first public Pathfinder Society even here in Janesville (at least to my knowledge). I'm sure it won't have a massive turn-out, but that's okay. I've been there before. I'll post more about it as more details are finalized.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Putting the Cook Back in the Kitchen

In case you haven't heard, Monte Cook is returning to the Wizards of the Coast R&D Team. This has thrown fuel on the fire of speculation around an impending 5th Edition of the D&D game and gamers all over forum boards have begun further splitting themselves into pro- and anti-Monte camps inside the larger pro- and anti-4E camps.

One of my dirty little secrets? I can't stand most gamers.

(Chances are, if I've gamed with you more than once, you're probably not one of those. Also, please be prepared to place you tongue firmly in you cheek for most of this.)

Rather, I can't stand the inherent schismatic nature of gamers. I can't stand Edition Warriors. The horrible truth about the "Edition Wars" is that it wasn't caused by WotC publishing 4E, or the cavalier way they announced it, or Paizo tuning up the engine of the 3.5 system, or any of that. It was caused by the overly extremist nature of most gamers.

And it's not solely a D&D thing. Working in a game store, I hear lots of rips of every edition of D&D. I hear gamers extolling the virtue of Old World of Darkness, and how much the New World of Darkness sucks. I hear the exact opposite.

I'm probably a bit of an oddity. If you look through my gaming bookshelves, you'll find stuff from every edition of D&D, from both iterations and multiple editions of World of Darkness, and more. I've never found an RPG where I couldn't find something about it that I liked. In fact, maybe that's why I can't understand most gamers - I'm spending my time looking for things to like, rather than spending it looking for things that weren't as good as the version that I play.

All RPGs, all games in general, will eventually collapse under the weight of their own rules. The more rules you add on, the faster it will happen. It's happened with every edition of D&D, it's happened with the World of Darkness, it's happened with nearly every game. Add to that the fact that in order to turn a profit, a company has to produce new product to sell, and you've got a perfect storm environment. In order to keep making a game, you have to make new product, and every new product you make pushes you one step closer to the day when you will have to reset and put out a new edition of the game. It's the circle of geek.

Of course, sometimes, you're going to have to make some radical adjustments to the rules. If WotC had published 3.75 instead of 4E, you'd still have people griping about having to replace their books and having to do conversions on older products, and why aren't you producing free pdf documents that update all of these old products that I've purchased from you? Which another thing I can't stand about most gamers - their sense of entitlement. The thought that they are the most important customer, and that they are the ones who the company should be catering to. A certain myopic sense of self-importance. But guess what? I work in a game store, I've been to GenCon and Origins and tons of other conventions. There are a thousand more with that same attitude, and not a single one of you would agree on the "right way" to play the game.

So, that brings me back to Monte, and the speculation of 5th Edition.

Of course there's going to be a 5th Edition (also, NEWSFLASH, there's eventually going to be a 2nd Edition of Pathfinder). That's a given, and if you think it's not, you need to get out of your mom's basement more often than to buy the latest supplement for the best and only real version of D&D EVAR! It's not a question of "if," it's a question of "when," and "by whom?"

If we look at the idea of games collapsing under their own rules, 4E is at that point. While I do quite enjoy a number of things about 4E, one of its major shortcomings was the sheer glut of rules material that was produced in a short period of time. Between all of the material crammed into the early issues of the online version of Dragon, and the insane production schedule (both of which resulted in so many "Updates" to the rules that you practically needed a personal assistant to keep up on them) 4E had nearly as much rules bloat in its first year and half as 3.5 had in its entire run.

And then there was the Essentials fiasco. Don't get me wrong, I liked a lot of stuff in Essentials as well, but it seems that its main purpose was to confuse the consumer. What is this? A new edition? Is this better than my old stuff? It's supposed to be compatible, but why have a bunch of the rules changed? Why do I need to remake the character I made with the Red Box? It was a unmitigated marketing disaster for a pretty solid project.

So, 5th Edition IS coming (or, possibly, as Stephen Radney-McFarland at NeoGrognard postulates, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) and I think that it will most likely be produced by WotC. And it's probably one of the things that Monte will be working on. Possibly it was one of the main reasons he was hired back.

As I mentioned before, this decision has even further splintered and polarized people. A quick read through the 4E forums on WotC's site revealed accusations of Monte being a egotistic hack who lives only to soak up adulation from fanboys and who couldn't design his way out of a paper-bag using his decade-old ideas (of course these accusations were made by people who didn't co-design one of the best-selling RPGs ever, so whatever). It has also been pointed out that he might be Batman.

It's this very thing - this overly-sensitive reaction that someone is out to "ruin" THEIR personal game - that irks me. It's the basis of the "Edition Wars," and it's the reason I can't stand most gamers.

I'm happy that Monte is back designing at Wizards. I'm looking forward to see what he does there, whether it be 5th Edition or not. And if it is 5th Edition, I'll probably play that too.

So, my message to most gamers out there? Stop being little bitches, grow up, grow a pair, and realize that it's just a fucking rules system, not a part of your core of being.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Night at the Museum, Lovecraft Style - A Review of Fantasy Flight's Elder Sign Game

So, let's just get this right out of the way. I work at Noble Knight Games, so when I do game reviews, the links that I'm going to provide to where you can get the game are going to be links to Noble Knight. That's just the way it is.

Now, it took a little while for this game to finally come in to the store. But, anyone who knows me knows that I love me some Lovecraft and I love me some gaming, so Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror line is right up my alley. So I was pretty excited about this one.

Was it justified? Let's find out.

Naomi from Mind Stain came over yesterday morning to play Elder Sign with me. Neither of us had played before, and I only gave a very cursory glance at the rules before going to bed the night before. I figured that would be a good way to gauge things like ease of learning the rules. But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Elder Sign is a card- and dice-based cooperative game for 1 to 8 players ages 13+, designed by Kevin Wilson and Richard Launias (who might be the man who has ALMOST won the Spiel des Jahre more than anyone else) and published by Fantasy Flight Games. While it has Fantasy Flight's well-known production quality, it is part of the Silver Line, so it doesn't have that over-the-top-ness of their bigger releases. Still, it's a gorgeously produced game that's going to wow newcomers and satisfy long-time FFG fans.

If I may indulge a tangential thought (and you really can't stop me), I've recently heard that in an effort to keep the price point on their games low, Fantasy Flight will be moving the bulk of their new games to the box size of their current Silver Line games like Elder Sign and the revised edition of Red November. Whether or not this will have an effect on their usual component quality remains to be seen, but it's something that I'll be keeping an eye on.

The basics of Elder Sign are pretty simple: you and the other players are investigators resolving strange events in and around a museum; Events that presage the awakening of one of the Ancient Ones who will burn the world to a cinder. In order to stop the Ancient One, you must collect Elder Signs to seal them off from this world. Of course, collecting the signs isn't easy, and if you fail to stop it from awakening, you will have to fight a desperate and nearly hopeless battle against the Ancient One.

If you've played any of the Arkham Horror board games, or the Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game, or the Mansions of Madness board game, you'll recognize most or all of the investigators in the game. Anyone familiar with those games, or just with the Lovecraftian Mythos, will also recognize the Ancient Ones: Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Hastur (Hastur! Hastur!) and more are all here to try and turn our world into their own apocalyptic party house.

One of the coolest components of the game is the clock. The clock starts at midnight, and at the end of every player's turn, the clock is advanced three hours. Every time the clock hits midnight, certain card events trigger, and the Ancient One (usually) gets one step closer to our world.

The brilliant thing about this mechanic is that it will make games with more players very difficult as midnight will come around more and more often. It also lends itself as an incredibly easy way to change the difficulty of the game. Want an easier time? Simply advance the clock two hours (or even just one) instead of three. Want a tougher and more desperate game? Advance the clock four hours at the end of each turn. These variant rules aren't presented in the book, but should work to fine tune the difficulty of the game.

Setting up the game for the first time can be a little bit confusing. Like most Fantasy Flight games Elder Sign has a lot of different types of cards and counters, and like many of their games, the rules simply aren't as complete and laid out as well as they could be (I'm looking at YOU, Death Angel), and are at times somewhat vague. As an example of this, the rules provide a very helpful "Anatomy" of an Ancient One card and an Investigator card, but fail to provide anything similar for the Adventure cards, which would have been a big help in setup and in game play in general. It took us about 30 minutes to set Elder Sign up, but this will likely be cut down to no more than 15 minutes the next time we play.

Each investigator has different starting equipment and different special abilities. We played using randomly drawn characters, with Naomi playing the magician and me playing the doctor. Right off the bat, this illustrated that not all character abilities are created equal in this game. The doctor has the ability to heal one stamina on any investigator (including himself) at the beginning of his turn. The magician gets to draw an extra spell card whenever he would normally draw one. I used my ability on every turn of the game while Naomi got to use hers only once or twice.

The layout is pretty simple. The museum is made up of six cards laid out in two rows of three underneath an entrance card. Each card is a room or area in or around the museum and has specific tasks that must be completed before the card can be resolved and a new one drawn in its place. The entrance card is a sort of "safe" area, where investigators can heal and get items or spells. The actual layout of the cards are actually kind of meaningless, as investigators can move freely to and from whichever cards they choose.

While this freedom of movement does allow for strategic options on which rooms to face at any given time, it also has two distinct drawbacks. First, it detracts from the feel of actually exploring a museum by moving from one room to another. Second, it can bring on a bit of "Analysis Paralysis" as players figure out which of the cards is the best option to attempt to resolve each turn. I am actually working on some variant rules that changes the movement a bit, making the game more challenging and interesting.

Each room in the museum has a number of challenges that need to be resolved in order for the card to be completed. These challenges are represented by a symbol or series of symbols that correspond to the faces of the specialized dice that come with the game. The dice mechanic is really the meat of the game, and is somewhat reminiscent of Steve Jackson Games' Zombie Dice game.

There are six green dice, one yellow die, and one red die. Any time a task is attempted, the player rolls all six of the green dice. If the player has one or more combinations of dice that match one of the tasks shown on the card, they can choose to complete one task per roll. If they successfully complete a task, the corresponding dice are set aside on the card, and the player may choose to roll the remaining dice in an attempt to complete another task. If a roll does not result in a combination of dice that complete a task, the player may choose to attempt again by setting one of the dice aside and rolling again. This goes on until a card's tasks are all completed or the player is unable to complete any further tasks. Rewards for success and penalties for failure are listed on the cards with fairly simple and easy to remember iconography.

There are additional rules elements that will let players add the yellow die or the red die to their rolls, or let them re-roll single dice or entire pools, or let them "save" die results for later. Some of these are pretty straight forward while others are somewhat vague, but in all, it's a very strong system.

Monsters are fought using the same system as completing the adventure cards, with each monster having sets of symbols needed to defeat the monster. Like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign uses as "Monster Cup" to randomly draw monsters when they are encountered. Our main issue with monsters was that the rules seemed somewhat unclear on where monsters were placed when they were drawn, and how they interacted with tasks in the rooms that they appeared in. I'm sure that after another game or two, it will make a bit more sense, but it was a little confusing the first time around.

There are, of course, other rules and elements to the game, but these are the basics that everything else is built upon.

Our two-player game lasted about two hours, including set up time and time spent figuring out rules as we went. We were fighting against Shub-Niggurath, who adds an extra requirement to every monster in play, making our game pretty tough, as we had a glut of monsters appearing almost every time the clock struck midnight. We didn't get a chance to finish, but at the time we ended, Shub-Niggurath's doom track was about half-filled, and we only had about one quarter of the elder signs needed to win. Had we had enough time to play the game out to its conclusion, it probably would have been a very close game.

So let's get to some numbers. I'll be rating games that I review in a number of categories using a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very, very bad and 10 being amazingly good. Let's see how Elder Sign stacks up.

Graphic Design/Presentation - 8
Like all Fantasy Flight games, Elder Sign's components are very nice and well-designed. The graphic design is simply beautiful on this one, but being a Silver Line game, the components are just a little less spectacular than bigger games like Talisman, Mansions of Madness, and Arkham Horror.

Ease of Learning/Clarity of Rules - 3
This is the area where Elder Sign falls very flat. Simply put, this game is going to take a little time to grok. The rules, as I've previously mentioned, are sometimes a bit opaque. I would suggest having someone read the rules thoroughly a couple of times before playing this game, and maybe even play a solo game to have a good idea of how things work in order to explain to other players. If your group picks this up and plays it out of the box, there will be a lot of questions and missed rules for a number of turns. Hopefully, FFG will be quick on the draw to post some rules clarifications or FAQs on their site.

Ease of Play/Mechanics - 7
Once you've figured out the rules, the game usually moves pretty quickly. There are some moments of "Analysis Paralysis" as players gauge their chances at completing the available adventure cards, but this is balanced, in my view, by the coolness and fun factor of the dice rolling mechanic.

Theme/Feel - 6
Elder Sign falls a little short here. As it's part of the Arkham Horror line, the theme is nothing new, and there's not enough in this game to really set it apart in a manner like Mansions of Madness. That being said, the Arkham Horror/Call of Cthulhu theme is one that never gets old for me, so it's not a major flaw. However, the game doesn't quite hit the mark on feel. While the flavor text on the cards is as good as anything else in the Arkham Horror family, the ability to move wherever you want on a given turn really detracts from the idea that you are exploring a museum.

Fun Factor - 9
All issues of feel and vague rules aside, Elder Sign is a lot of fun. Even with two players, there were moments when Naomi and I had a good cheer when making an especially important roll, and groans of disappointment when we failed. Once you get the rules figured out and running smoothly, you WILL have fun.

Replayability - 8
With a good number of different investigators, Ancient Ones, and adventure cards, it's unlikely that you'll ever have a game that plays exactly the same as one you've played before.

Value/Price - 7
At a retail price of $34.95 (NKG has it available for $29.95), Elder Sign isn't going to break the bank or be a major investment like Mansions of Madness. With the game's good replayability rating, you're going to stretch your money as well. You definitely get your money's worth with Elder Sign.

Overall Rating - 7
This is a game you or someone in your group should pick up and play. You're going to have fun, even with the steep curve. If you're a fan of the Arkham Horror line, and looking for a game that won't take quite as long as a typical game of Mansions of Madness or Arkham Horror itself, Elder Sign will fill that niche. It's dice mechanic is unique enough to keep it from getting Jones-Theoried in favor of other games in the genre, and it's a game that you'll be able to play time and again. If you aren't already familiar with Arkham Horror or other cooperative games, this is actually a pretty good way to get your foot in the door with either. If you have a great time with Elder Sign, you're also going to like Arkham Horror and other co-op games like Pandemic, Defenders of the Realm, and Castle Ravenloft. If you're looking to pick up a copy, head to Noble Knight Games to get yours now.

Thanks for reading this far into my first game review here on Libram X. I'll be playing this one again, and will be posting my thoughts about further sessions of Elder Sign in the future. I'll also be writing up some proposed variant rules to change the game's difficulty level and add more feel to the game with limited movement.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Weekend at the Dream King's Palace - Part Three

Okay, so you want me to get right to juicy stuff, right? Where's Neil's house? Did you see what he's working on now? Did he have any dirty underwear lying about or anything like that?

Well, I'm not going to go into any of those details, save to assure that there were no Hugo-winning drawers anywhere in sight. What I will say is that Neil's house is gorgeous. For as long as I can remember, I've loved old Victorian and Edwardian houses, and I've always wanted to live in a house with a turret. Until this weekend, I had never had a chance to go inside a house like this.

The way there was long and winding, and I'm glad that we followed Lorraine and Kyle from the after-party, because I probably never would have found it with only directions.

My first thought at seeing the house was that it was pretty much THE house that I had always wanted to live in. It was large and dark, but still inviting, with a large open porch and, yes, a turret.

We got to meet Lola and Cabal right away. They are truly beautiful animals, even more so than they are in pictures. And friendly, to boot. Lola put up a big show of ferocious barking at first. She bounded up to us, but switched to nuzzling and sniffing mode when she got there. Cabal was, of course, more reserved. He waited by the back door for us to come to him, and accepted our petting and scratching with a quiet dignity. In short, they are the kind of dogs that anyone would love to have around.

Kyle went off for a midnight walk with Lola and Cabal while Lorraine took Kristen and I inside. When it comes down to it, Neil's house is a house much like any other. Sure, it was filled with lots of books and Beautiful Things, but it was like any other home and it exuded it's owner's presence even in their absence.

Lorraine gave us directions to our bed for the night - all the way up the stairs to the top of the turret. Cool. On our way up, we met the first of the cats, Coconut. He was a mixed white and gray, and didn't seem to mind the fact that there were strange people climbing his stairs too much. We stopped a bit to pet him and introduce ourselves, then continued the ascent. Up we went into the attic.

Now, I honestly don't know if Neil writes in the attic. If I had the house, I would most certainly write in the attic, and it seemed like a place the Writing Happened. There were shelves and shelves of papers and other stuff. I made a point not to be too nosy about it, but my inner geek couldn't help but notice (and drool) over some old Sandman and Death merchandise that I would have loved to play with. If Neil does write in his attic, I think I spied the room where it actually happens. I'm good with getting that close to things.

"Um, I don't know if this is where we're supposed to be," one of us said to the other.

"Yeah, I don't think so. This is like back stage," the other replied, looking around in wonder.

We had lost the flow of the turret and were unsure where to find the next set of stairs.

"Maybe we should go back down and wait for Lorraine to find us," said one of us.

"That's probably a good idea," said the other, casting last second glances around the attic as we made our back down.

And so we hung out with Coconut some more. Or possibly he hung out with us, it's kind of hard to tell with cats.

We waited at the end of a long hall. Between bouts of petting Coconut and marveling at how loud his purr was, I explored the length of the hall, checking out the beautiful works of art hung on the wall - Dave McKean and Charles Vess and others. Stuff that you wouldn't find anywhere else, personalized and personal sort of things. Beautiful Things.

Eventually, Lorraine found us again, sitting somewhat sheepishly, I imagine, and the top of the stairs. It was eventually decided that, because of our allergies, it would be best if we stayed in the library instead. In Neil Gaiman's library. In case that wasn't perfectly clear already.

The library used to be Lorraine's room, she told us, before she got her own house. She was an excellent hostess. We met another of the cats, Princess Snowflake, the distinguished matron of the house who followed us to the bathroom. Princess likes to drink out of the faucet, and in fact, it might be that the main reason that she allows humans to reside in her house is that we have the ability to turn the faucet on.

Joey, the third cat, also seemed to enjoy the bathroom. Every time I saw him that night, he was in the bathtub, looking expectantly at the tap.

So, once Lorraine made sure we were all settled in, she took her leave to go back home for some well-deserved rest. She had, after all, just skated in her first two derby bouts, as well as being in charge of setting the whole thing up. We gave her hugs and congratulations and some carrot bread that Kristen had baked as a thank-you.

Then we were alone in Neil's house.

Kristen observed, and I concurred, that it was akin to being a kid and deciding that you were going to run away to live in a museum, like in "The Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler." It really kind of was.

Neil's library is a lot like you would probably imagine it would be, except you probably wouldn't think to put a futon in your version. There were lots and lots of books, of course. Old books, new books, red books, blue books; Books you would expect like fancy versions of his own works, antique books of Poe and other classic literature. I was thrilled to see a couple of old Fritz Leiber Lankhmar novels sitting out on the desk. They had been purchased from a library sale. There were other things you would expect like classic literature and the huge bookcase filled with all manner of texts on mythology and folklore.

There were also a few surprises that you wouldn't expect to see, like a Chelsea Handler book and Stephanie Meyer's "The Host." If you take a minute to think about it, though, even these make sense. It's obvious that Neil loves books in the same way that I do. If I had a library, I could only hope that it looked a lot like his.

And of course, there were the awards. Hugos (three of them), the Newbury Medal, the Nebula (the coolest looking award I've ever seen), and more. While they really are huge deals, their presence in the library was natural, like it would have seemed strange for them not to be there.

So, weary from a long hard day, we prepared for bed. Kyle returned from his trek with Lola and Cabal. He would be staying in the room next to ours, and we chatted for a bit, he enlightening me on the power dynamics between Coconut, Princess Snowflake, and Joey.

You might expect that sleeping Neil Gaiman's library would lead to wondrous and mystical, meaningful dreams filled with characters from mythology, but the honest truth is, I was so tired that I can't even remember if I dreamt at all. I do know that I woke very happy and well-rested, even though we only got 6 hours of sleep and had to hit the road right away.

There was still a bit of wonder left over in the morning. Sadly, though, we wouldn't be able to stick around and enjoy the venue. We got ourselves together, wishing we could stay longer, and headed out.

Kyle was outside already, playing with the dogs. We chatted a bit more, and said our goodbyes. As we pulled out of the driveway, our last sight was Kyle, Lola, and Cabal heading off into the woods for a morning walk.

And, just like that, it was over, which is, generally, how these sort of things end.

So, if you're ever wondering what it's like to visit Neil's house, I would have to sum it up by telling you that it is very obviously the house of a Very Nice Man.

Thank you, Neil, for your hospitality, and Lorraine, for so very many things that I can't even begin to list them, and to Kyle, for being a Very Nice Man in his own right, and for making us feel like we weren't ghosts haunting an empty house.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My Weekend at the Dream King's Palace - Part Two

For those that don't know, aside from an accredited Gaming Geek, I am also the announcer for the Chippewa Valley Roller Girls, the Eau Claire area's original Women's Flat Track Roller Derby league. Not only had this sport made me friends with a great group of dedicated and fun ladies, but it's had a few side perks as well.

Now, I know that this about this weekend, but there's really a year-long preamble to how things got to this weekend, and I think it's important to recount my side of those events.

Last Halloween, I had the pleasure of attending The Gathering of American Gods at the House on the Rock. I was thrilled just to be going to one of my favorite places on the face of the earth to celebrate one of my favorite works of fiction. Little did I know how it would my personal worlds of derby and literature collide in a most unexpected way.

So, I kept running into Neil at the event all weekend, in strange ways that often seemed to be driven by fate. And perhaps they were.

I had heard that the Fabulous Lorraine, Neil's assistant as well as a very talented lady in her own right, was a fan of derby. I thought that was pretty cool, since she was lived in the Eau Claire area, and I should find a way to invite her to our upcoming bouts. Then, on a late October Saturday morning, things happened that changed a lot of stuff.

Through a series of rather inexplicable events including my inability to make a decision, rocking out to a Drums album so intently that I missed an important left turn, and forgetting a pack of cigarettes in my car, I ended up entering the House on the Rock right alongside Neil and Lorraine.

I gave a polite nod and hello to Neil, and sort of pulled back in the group a little, not wanting to intrude. I ended up walking next to Lorraine, and decided that it would be a Good Thing to strike up a conversation about derby. So, I confirmed that she was a fan, let her know about CVRG and my announcing for them, and found out that she was one of the people who got turned away from our first sold-out bout. We chatted for a bit about derby and her getting to join Neil and Amanda Palmer and others on stage at the Evelyn Evelyn show I had attended a month or so prior, and then let the group go on their way to take photographs in the carousel room.

"That was pretty cool," I thought.

As the weekend went on, I met Neil in passing a couple more times, and kept running into Lorraine. We talked derby some more, she introduced me to Joan of Dark from Naptown, and talked about how excited she was to get to skate for her first time that weekend.

I became facebook friends with Lorraine, and we would chat about derby. I'd let her know when the bouts were, and when practice was, and encouraged her to come and skate with the girls and give it a go. You can read all about Lorraine's adventures on her blog at her website.

The months rolled by. Lorraine attended the bouts. Neil came with her to one, and it was great. I got to meet Joan of Dark again, as well as Lorraine's awesome friend Daisy. Things were going well.

Then Lorraine started attending practices, which made me very happy for her. I knew how much she wanted to, and how scared she was at the same time, and it was just great to be there to see her take her first steps, as I had for a lot of other girls on the team. It's amazing to watch that confidence develop and really empower these ladies. You can tell just by watching how life-changing it is for most of them.

So, fast forward to the beginning of Season Two, and the Back-to-School Bruise-a-Thon mixer this weekend. In that time, I've moved twice and ended up in Janesville, a four hour drive from Eau Claire. There's no way that I'm not going to announce for CVRG, though, as long as it's realistically possible for me to do so. Lorraine is now head of the Events Committee for the league, and has been nice enough to provide a place for Kristen and I to stay when we come up for the bouts.

So, a couple days before the big event, I get a message from Lorraine that there might be snag - photographer Kyle Cassidy is going to be in town, and she's not really going to have enough room at her place.

"So," she says, "you guys will be staying at Neil's house."

In the second or two following that, a lot of stuff went through my head. Part of me fainted dead away. Part of me just kept screaming "OMIGOD!" over and over again. Part of me was trying to calm the other parts down. Neil's just a person. He does regular old person-y stuff like everybody else does. Part of me thought, "Is that what my life is now? Spending the weekend announcing four back-to-back derby bouts, meeting world-famous photographers, and hanging out at an award-winning author's house? I can deal with that."

I'm pretty sure the cool and collected part won out at first, but as the days went on, that "OMIGOD!" voice got stronger. Not only was I getting to announce for these lovely roller warrior women, but I was going to get to sleep at Neil Gaiman's house? OH. MY. GOD!

So, the weekend was furious and fun. A four hour drive from Janesville to Eau Claire, most of which was spent coming up with some, if I do say so myself, pretty awesome intros for a ton of skaters from other leagues that would be attending. It was so nice to see everyone again when I arrived, and I'm still always a little surprised at how warm the welcomes are. Self-esteem issues, I guess, but whatever.

Then set up at the venue, which is always a blast to witness. Thankfully, the arena had internet access, so I could get some sponsor info. Most of the rest of the time was spent wrangling data into spreadsheets for team rosters, ref info, sponsors, timelines, season schedule, blah blah blah. All rather tedious stuff that you're not interested in.

The bout itself was spectacular, even though it was incredibly cold and attendance was low. I got to see a lot of great skaters from other leagues and got to witness some of the new crop of CVRG skaters - Velveteen Rogue, Toxic Hell, Emmachete, Medium Rare, Sissy Strangler, Shawtown Shankher, Jinx'd Karma, and of course Quiche MeDeadly (Lorraine).

"This is really fascinating, Mat," you're probably saying, "but when are going to get around to your stay at Neil's?"

Well, kids, THAT is going to have to wait until tomorrow's post.

I know, I'm such a tease.

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Weekend at the Dream King's Palace - Part One

We followed the Dream King's Seneschal and the Artist to the palace. The way was long and winding, and you couldn't tell if you were approaching the palace until you were already there. We had received an invitation from the Seneschal, a friend of the family, to stay the night while we in the area. Morpheus would be away, but we were welcome to partake of his hospitality along with the Artist. 

As we arrived, the guardians of the palace came alive. They were four-legged and pale as mist; beautiful creatures who shouted their alarm at the presence of newcomers. The younger of the two bounded toward us, barking ferociously. As she reached us, she began to nuzzle and sniff, dropping her threatening demeanor to welcome us. She lead us toward the palace and introduced us to the other guardian, an older and distinguished gentleman who offered his head and back to be petted in greeting. The guardians and the Artist went off for a walk around the grounds while the Seneschal lead us inside.

The palace seemed to hold its breath in the King's absence. The Seneschal brought it to life with her presence. Though Morpheus himself were absent, his aura still permeated the place, a shadow in the corner of your mind's eye. The Seneschal directed us to climb the long stairs to a chamber at the top of the highest spire in the palace, where we would be staying. We began the climb while she went of to take care of some very important business.

As we climbed, we came across one of the many oneiric denizens of the palace. He lounged across on of the stairs, furred in white and gray, and eyed us curiously. His name, as we would come to find, was Coconut. He and his two companions, Princess Snowflake and Joey, were the real owners of the palace. They were however, nice enough to let Morpheus and others think they owned it. They also gave others the great pleasure of feeding them and appreciating them. It was a good system, and everyone was happy.

The stairs seemed to shift as we ascended. Perhaps we only turned left when we should have turned more left. We found ourselves in what seemed to be a backstage store room. Bits of old dreams were piled on shelves. I'm pretty sure we caught a glimpse of Morpheus' work room. Not sure if we supposed to be here, we headed back down the stairs to a hall of Doors, where we indulged ourselves by admiring the dreams and visions hung upon the walls and appreciating Coconut some more. Eventually, the Seneschal found us again.

It was decided that instead of staying in the tallest spire, we would spend the evening in the library. The Seneschal showed us around, assuring us that everything would be okay. Before she took her leave, we gifted her with carrot bread and warm embraces. Then we were alone in the palace of the Dream King.

The library was everything one might expect and more. Shelves lined with generations of dreams, both those of Morpheus' own design and those of others. There were fantastical cities, dark and twisted tales, rocket ships, even a tiny galaxy encased in glass. Tired from our day, we readied ourselves for bed.

The Artist returned as we finished brushing our teeth. He would be in the room next to us, and it was nice to know that we weren't the only ones haunting the palace. We chatted with the Artist for a bit, and then turned in.

So, what does one dream when they sleep within a dream? I wish I could recall, but we woke refreshed, with gray light seeping listlessly into the room.

The morning did not change the palace much, except for the lighting. We prepared ourselves for the journey back home, gave some more appreciation to Coconut, Princess Snowflake, and Joey, chatted some more with the Artist, and played with the guardians a little. Before leaving, I left a dream of my own, knowing that it would be one among many in Morpheus' collection, but still something that felt like I needed to do.

As we drove away, we watched the Artist and the guardians going off for another exploration of the grounds. Then it was back to the real world, though we will always feel a pull to return.