Saturday, February 22, 2014

What Ordering a Movie Online Should Look Like

Blu-ray 3D
Theatrical Release
     Copied from an old VHS because the director wants to punish you for not liking the Special Edition
     Additional scenes as bonus features
Director's Cut
Extended Version
Special Edition
Anniversary Edition
Extra Special Edition
The one where Deckard is a Replicant, seriously, you guys, how do you not see this, it's right there
Just two hours of Jar-Jar Binks being maimed, Wile E. Coyote-style
Aspect Ratio:
Start Behavior:
Advertisement for the very concept of DVDs
Trailers for 'Coming Soon' movies that will be in the $5 DVD bin by the time you purchase this one
Lengthy intro animation for main menu
Main menu
Just play the movie
Default Audio:
Original Language
Dumbed-down English with bad dubbing and unnecessary changes to minimize exposing children to the idea that foreign cultures are different from American homogeny, featuring voice talents of has-been B-list actors and flash-in-the-pan tween pop idols
Additional Audio Tracks:
Original Language
Creator Commentary
English Closed Captions for the Hearing Impaired is different from English for some reason?
Bonus Features:
Trailers for this movie
'Making of...' featurette
Gag/bloopers reel
Actor auditions
Extra content with proprietary player that tries to install itself on your computer
Short documentary the director's cousin made about a subject peripherally related to the premise of the movie

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I've been kicking around the idea of repackaging Stone, Steel, and Steam as an OGL supplement. SSS is, at its heart, essentially a setting, and asking prospective players to wrap their heads around both a new system and an unconventional setting may be a bit much for those only casually interested. Making it an alternate skin for d20 would let players fall back on familiar mechanics so they can focus on the novelty and complexity of the setting. d20 Modern (with the d20 Past and Urban Arcana supplements) might provide a better foundation than D&D or Pathfinder (if I can just remember where I put those manuals...).

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Back from the Dead

Stone, Steel, and Steam may be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

I'm in negotiation with a really terrific artist who is doing a small number of illustrations for me for free. This is leading to a reimagining of the look and feel of some of the races as I'm being quizzed on details I never thought to consider - the first real collaboration that has been done on the game. The insertion of illustration and updates to the text, both to reflect the artistic changes and the feedback from that one playtest back in 2011, will result in a new beta version of the manual some time this year.

No recent progress on actually getting the terrible NaNoWriMo SSS novella typed up, but it's still on the to-do list.

I've been throwing myself into computer programming and one of the tasks I've set myself is writing a text adventure, and it's going to be set in the SSS 'verse. I've just finished the character creation engine, and I have a rough draft of the combat engine. Expect completion in the next couple of months.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

If SSS were an MMO

Stone, Steel, and Steam is not dead, but it still is in deep hibernation. Since the 2011 playtest (I never did post about that, did I?) generated little usable feedback, I've had few ideas on how to improve it. I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2011 and used SSS as the setting, and I've had a few other inquiries, but mostly it's just been sitting at the bottom of my brain's filing cabinet.

Until last night it popped up and demanded to know what Stone, Steel, and Steam would be like as an MMORPG.

The thoughts:

  • There would be a combination of server-client and peer-to-peer architecture. then, perhaps, the more people interacting in a particular area, the less lag there would be. I have no idea if that could actually be made to work, and the idea has no particular bearing on SSS, but I'm fascinated by the potential applcations of distributed computing, even if only to defray bandwidth costs.
  • Ideally, the game would be free to play, though there might be a one-time startup cost to create your account. Like other free-to-play games, the project would be funded by players who want access to additional content. Unlike other games, players would pay to have their content added to the game world. Players would be able to design buildings, write quests, and create NPCs. They submit their ideas, a moderator on the design team would decide if the content is appropriate, and if it's not, we don't take your money. If it is, we accept your donation, and the more money you put in, the higher priority it is for the developers to flesh out and insert your submission. Thus the MMO becomes a creative, collaborative endeavor.
  • The world is in a state of dynamic equilibrium, and players can cause world events. Every nation has a certain amount of animosity for its neighbors. When you go do bad things to a foreign nation, it not only affects their opinion of you, but it also affects their opinion of your entire nationality, and eventually that can culminate in open war. If players stop rocking the boat, things will eventually revert to the status quo. Prices are not fixed: if a lot of players are buying up a particular item or currency, the price will go up and the availability will go down for a while.
  • NPCs will react to you as a member of a race first, and as your fame/infamy increases, there is an increasing chance that they will react to you as an individual. Granarctians might dislike Taksans in general, and if you're a Taksan, most of the time Granarctians will act unfriendly toward you, unless you become famous for being an ally of the Granarctians and then they'll be friendly to you more often. Some NPCs will be incurably racist. Some will be sexist.
  • Death is permanent - sort of, sometimes. PvP is optional, if you're flagged for PvP, you can fight and be fought, but if you're beaten by another PC, there are no lasting consequences. If you're 'killed' by an NPC, you can be revived by a PC or friendly NPC within a certain time - you weren't really killed, just knocked out. If the time limit expires, though, you're dead and your character 'reincarnates.' A reincarnated character has the same name, appearance, and stats and is in a nearby area to his dead doppelganger, but you lose all your personal reputation/fame and all your gear; you start over with starting gear.
  • You can kill friendly NPCs - if you want to instantly gain a massive negative reputation and get attacked by every NPC of that faction.
  • You will never get coins from killing a wolf. Most moneymaking will be through doing a job in the form of repeatable quests. Because prices vary from place to place, you can also farm by setting up the equivalent to an import/export business until you crash a sector of the economy.
  • While you would gain XP from completing quests, defeating opponents, exploring the world, and unlocking achievements, you don't 'level up' per se, that is, you don't automatically get better in every way, do more damage, and become harder to kill. When you get enough XP you earn an improvement point which you can use to enhance one of your existing abilities or learn a new one, but you still have to find a trainer to spend the point, who might demand money or a certain reputation as well.
  • PCs will have to eat and sleep periodically. This is taken care of automatically without cost while you are logged out, but if you play for 16 hours straight, your caharacter will start slowing down, your vision will blur, you'll get wobbly, and your abilities will misfire and gradually become ineffective.
  • Many, but not all, NPCs will sleep through the night, and their services will be unavailable. There are still things to do at night, sometimes more things depending on what culture or what part of town you find yourself in, but most of the world will be quiet and still. The in-game day/night cycle would take about an hour in the real world.

I have no actual plans to make SSS an MMO, nor would I know where to start if I did. I imagine if it ever did exist, it would be like the tabletop version: interesting, different, not everyone's cup of tea.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Moment of Doubt, The Second Session

I had this Moment of Doubt: "Maybe I should just abandon the Stone, Steel, and Steam project altogether. Or put it back on the back burner for another 5-10 years. I've learned and grown a lot as a gamer and as a person in the process of making it, so it hasn't been a waste of time, but maybe I've got what I needed to out of this and it's time to move on."

Part of this, I know, is a sort of post-partum depression. I had the same thing back in March 2010. You have all this energy and momentum and caffeine trying to get the draft out on deadline and then this big rush that it's finally done and then...nothing. A couple of people say, 'that sounds interesting.' And the Big Thing that was the Center of your Whole Life for the past few months is gone, and there's always going to be some depression with that until you find something to replace it with.

And I think I put a lot of that surplus energy, emotion, and momentum into Dave's Exalted campaign and not my own Stone, Steel, and Steam campaign. Because with Exalted I'm in my comfort zone, it's familiar, I'm competent, and I'm teaching it to others. And since SSS and Exalted are on alternate weeks, but Exalted generates a lot more chatter between games, it's easier to keep up enthusiasm for that game than my own. Plus, Dave's GMing, which means it's not as much work for me.

Anyway, I'm not abandoning SSS - at least not yet. We'll give it a few more weeks to work through the depression and the kinks, and then decide. Or, alternatively, SSS is about setting, and the system has been the biggest headache for both me and the players, both to create and to use. I've been giving some thought to making SSS an alternate setting for an existing system. This might still be the depression talking, so haven't committed to anything yet, but definitely looking into it.

(In addition to moments of depression and doubt, I am occasionally subject to delusions of grandeur, storming the gates of GenCon, etc. So part of the reason I built a system was just to learn how to make a system, part was to make sure it was philosophically consistent with my overall design goals and ideals, and part of the reason was to make it my own intellectual property in the event of ever going public. So now I need to decide if I want to look seriously into 'open-source' mechanics and keep the public option open, or, if it's just going to remain a garage game for me and my friends, then I could totally rip off a non-free system and no one would ever know or care.)

I really meant to be documenting the actual play of the second session. I should be both GMing and taking notes about what's going well and what's going poorly in the game. And I didn't really do that. Let's just say that last night's session didn't 'pop.' Aside from developer post-partum, there's been a bunch of other real-life stuff - job stuff, house stuff, car stuff, baby stuff - that really put me off my game.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Stone, Steel, and Steam Now on Facebook

To better connect with my current and prospective players, I've started a Facebook page for Stone, Steel, and Steam. I also designed a crappy logo at two in the morning because I couldn't sleep because of a frustrating conversation about subgenres of Japanese classical drama. Illustration in general is important, but getting a non-sucky logo is a pretty high priority. However, it is a logo, and we do have one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The First Campaign: The Story So Far

Last night was not the very first playtest of Stone, Steel, and Steam in the same way that the Wright brothers weren't the first people to fly. They were preceded and inspired by the work and designs of Swedenborg and DaVinci and others. The very first playtest of what was to eventually become SSS was around Christmas of 2007 with a group of excellent alpha players who could freeform it and wail on their mind guitars with the best. Other stunted playtests ran in early 2008 and the first bumbling one-shot of the 'completed' game was in March of 2010. But last night represents the first true campaign. I've got a dedicated troupe lined up to run about six adventures to see how this baby runs under extended stress. I've also received word of playtests happening in other parts of the world - I look forward to their feedback and analysis as well.

Forming the Party
I got Stephanie, my then-fiancée-now-wife, and her friend Sarah into tabletop role-playing shortly after I moved to Texas in March 2010. We ran a D6 Star Wars, Second Edition game for the first few months, then after a brief hiatus (pfft, engaged people have this whole thing about marriages and honeymoons) we lost two of our players and gained a few more. From August to December we ran two alternating Pathfinder campaigns - Stephanie running her first campaign with the classic Dragonlance setting and me running the system for the first time with a bastardization of WotC's d20 Modern - Urban Arcana setting. This is important because we've all had time to get used to one another's quirks as players and gamemasters, which reduces the variables and gives us a clearer picture of how the game really works per se instead of figuring out what's my problem and what's the game's problem.

So, here's the group of players:
gaming roughly 10 years, GMing most of that time, most experience in D6 Star Wars, Second Edition and Exalted, First Edition, creator of Stone, Steel, and Steam
gaming roughly 8 months, GMing 4 months, most experience with D6 Star Wars, Second Edition and Pathfinder
gaming roughly 8 months, most experience with D6 Star Wars, Second Edition and Pathfinder (not present the first night)
gaming roughly 4 months, most experience with Pathfinder
gaming roughly 4 months plus some brief experimentation with D&D back in high school, most experience with Pathfinder, also gamemaster in training for an Exalted campaign on alternate weeks
I'm married to Stephanie, Stephanie and Sarah are former roommates, and Sarah, Shelley, and Dave all have other extracurricular activities together, so we have several tight and overlapping webs of friendship, loyalty, and communication going on.

Now, the group of characters:
played by David is a Moy scout and wilderness guide with an ax to grind against the Taksan Republic. Employed as irregulars to do reconnaissance and black ops for the Taksan military, his brother and partner got killed in action, and the Republic disavowed all knowledge, responsibility, and compensation.
played by Shelley is a Moy spy and con artist whose primary cover is a dancer. She's a widowed mother of two, and her late husband was Gregoric's brother and partner, so she shares his grudge against the Taksans.
played by Stephanie is a Moy gunsmith and machinist. Something of an oddity, she has largely abandoned the traditional Moy lifestyle to study engineering in Taksan and Granarctia. Her cousin was kidnapped and she has come to Iyakul searching for her.
Sarah's character has yet to be defined; she was sick the first day.
Early on the group expressed interest in the Moy culture, so we decided to all start playing as a Moy extended family to have a reason to be adventuring together. Dave and Shelley spent a lot of time developing their shared backstory without my input. Stephanie's character I coached her through personally. As an evil GM, I'm already brewing ways to weave these backstories into ongoing world events that will get the PCs in way over their heads.

The First Adventure
I cooked up a quarterly tradition, likely started by Retulian refugees but now popular with the entire area. Every quarter each borough gets together and anyone can get up in turn and call out anyone and challenge them to anything. This has elements of a town festival with pie-eating contests for fun and entertainment, with a dash of freestyle rap battle for prestige and settling of grudges. In the barely-policed Free Territory, it keeps tensions from boiling over by providing a periodic legitimate release. Old man Durgan won't keep his dogs out of my chicken coop - I could go over to his house with a shotgun, or I could just wait until the next festival and publicly humiliate him in a knife-throwing contest in front of the entire neighborhood.

This also was an opportunity for me to casually introduce the players to the system. Nadia got in a dance-off with an Aralean woman and got completely schooled - and we learned how critical successes work. Gregoric showed off his marksmanship and we got a little non-threatening combat practice. It was also the lead-in to the rest of the story - I had the PCs approached after the festival, the NPC was impressed with their performance and wants to offer them a job.

The original plan was to create the characters on January 3 and do the festival in the second half of the evening, but we got sidetracked into chargen for Exalted our alternate campaign, so even though people had done most of their character creation on their own at home before the session started, we still had to do some finishing touches, do the festival, and then we only had a short time for the actual, planned adventure - which was fine, just not according to plan. It was a simple adventure, help smuggle some escaped slaves into the Free Territory, a little sneaking around, a little night combat with Aralean border guards, nothing fancy, and nothing that suffered too much from being a little truncated.

Initial Assessment
The first thing we realized was the character sheet was missing some slots. No space for languages, and languages are kind of a big deal. No space for Gifts, Flaws, and other character information. No distinction between normal and vital weapon damage, no place to jot range and rate. Hey, at least we had a character sheet this time (apologies to my March playtesters). Every time I teach my crew a new system, I harp on the fact that a well-made character sheet is a machine for understanding a game system and using a character effectively. My first-draft character sheet was a flawed machine, but I've got that mostly fixed by now.

Players really like the elemental attributes and the flexibility of the system. They also really like Luck Points, but are still getting their heads around the idea that these pools will refresh every adventure, so they can go ahead and burn them like there's no tomorrow.

Players were troubled by the amount of math involved. It's not a crunchy system with lots of charts and formulae, but pretty much every action involved adding two or three two-digit numbers, and some of my players are a little bit mathematically challenged, so it slows down the action. Still thinking about a fix for this, but a nice dice-roller app would help. Combat was also bogged down by keeping track of who was attacking whom and in what order.

I thought because I had written the game that all the rules would come naturally to me. But it's been a couple months, and I've been relearning Exalted in the meantime in order to train up David as a new GM, plus I had several older conflicting drafts and versions of the rules floating in my head. I really should have spent more time studying and preparing for this playtest just as I would have with a first run of any other new system. I'm sure that as my own (and the players') knowledge and familiarity of the rules increases, future play will go more smoothly, even without implementing changes. This could have had something to do with bogging down combat, too - I may have been confusing which draft of rules were actually in play, and if I'd re-read the manual to refresh my memory, it may turn out the rules I have written are much smoother than the ones I used at the table. Or not. Maybe the rules in to book actually are that clunky and in need of further revision. Main point here is even though I wrote the book, I still need to study it to make sure I'm implementing everything right and be a more fluid and intuitive GM.

My players immediately challenged me with ideas and questions I hadn't anticipated, which is awesome and exactly what this playtest was about. Everyone wanted some kind of weapon or armor not listed in the book, and since I had just overhauled the way the weapon damage and armor rules work weeks before and hadn't really reviewed them since then, I wasn't totally comfortable making up stats for a weapon or armor set I hadn't even imagined three seconds ago. I did make up stats for weapons and armor sets I hadn't even imagined three seconds ago, I just wasn't totally comfortable doing so, and I let my players know, okay, these stats I'm giving you now are temporary and subject to review.

Another thing I realized is that although I say the game can be about intrigue and the setting certainly makes that as a very available as a plot device, I don't really have a mechanism in place for doing it with the dice. One player wanted to know how much dirt she could dig up on our mysterious benefactor before accepting the job - a perfectly legitimate question. And I just froze up - what should I make her roll? I ended up going with Water+Perception, the same as she would roll to notice if someone was sneaking up on her. Even though the skills are designed to have broad applications, detective work is not really the same function as awareness of surroundings. I'm more of a role-player - for most non-combat stuff I like to let the players get their results by talking and being creative, not by rolling any particular skill. This player is a bit more of a 'roll player' and we've butted heads on this topic more than once. "What do I know?" (rolls dice). I went ahead and let her this time because I had no mechanism in place and I panicked, and she did roll really well - she would have been able to count the mysterious benefactor's eyebrow hairs. In retrospect, I should have forced the player to tell me how she intended to find out this information. Are you going to go down to the courthouse and go through records on her finances? Throw money around until someone talks? Sweet-talk her personal assistant? Dangle someone out a third-story window? Use your existing knowledge of local politics? I realized that I didn't put in an 'investigation' skill for a reason. There are lots of social skills that can be applied to an investigation, but there isn't a mechanism for just knowing the dirt on somebody because there shouldn't be. So, a little disappointed that I froze up and handed out a (IMHO) sub-optimal resolution, but now I know better how I want to handle situations like this in the future.

So, initial assessment generally positive but as yet inconclusive. Further study required for accurate appraisal. Focus on improved communication. Anticipate improved performance with increased familiarity. Work on better mathematical tools for players.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stone, Steel, and Steam Wordle

It might be passe by now, but I still find word clouds enchanting. I've seen it done with political and religious speeches to analyze what they're really talking about. doing it to my own work helps me see if I'm balanced in my emphasis the way I want to be. At first, Taksan stood out even more prominently, until I realized that it was doing double duty as the name of the country and as a demonym. I went through and did find and replace to consolidate all of the demonyms and funky plurals, and it came out more even. The setting stands out above the system terms, which is what I want, and the two most influential nations do get the most mention, which is okay, but I should maybe give a little more attention to the smaller nations.

Stone, Steel, and Steam

About Me

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San Antonio, Texas, United States
My game design is fueled by one liberal arts degree, four continents, six languages, fourteen years of role-playing, and too many movies and books to count.