Thursday, December 4, 2008

Comic Life Blog - Becoming A Parent

I was going to post my revised Rogerian paper until Paul mentioned in class that we can do this blog on Comic Life during class, so I decided to go that route instead. The reason, frankly, is that I feel that the Comic Life assignment needs more thought put into it than I have thus far, and I can get the paper revised at any time between now and the day we turn in the portfolio.

The point behind Comic Life is to have fun while demonstrating the learning of a literacy, and I can't think of any literacy I've had to learn that is more demanding and with less room for error than parenthood. So I believe that this needs to be five comic book pages long, and I'll be using South Park characters due to the fact that there's a nice, easy to use generator. So here's what I have in mind for my Comic Life:

Page 1: Becoming a parent.
Parenthood became real to me in the operating room where my wife was having her first C-section. She was on the table while I had a hospital gown, mask, and cap on. I was fine as the surgery started, but I knew when they started cutting. I was doing fine until they suctioned out a bunch of amniotic fluid mixed with a healthy amount of blood, and of course I looked over at the container as it collected the fluids. I rapidly turned green, felt the need to vomit, and had to be led out of the room. Had I not, my wife would have either ended up wearing the contents of my stomach on her face, or I would have fainted. I'm not sure which.

Page 2: Sleep Deprivation and Poop
I took the night shift manning phones while my wife worked retail during the day. This means that for the first six months of my child's life, I was literally existing on three hours of sleep per day. I'd get off work at 5:00 AM, arrive home around 6:00 AM, and then watch my little girl until about 7:00 PM when my wife arrived home. During that time I was responsible for feeding the child, keeping her occupied, and changing diapers. Oh yeah, all the while I was also writing gaming material for a variety of publishers. When I look back on it now, I often wonder how I managed to survive the sleep deprivation. Then there was the never ending chore of changing foul smelling diapers. Now that I've had a few kids, I swear I've had to personally deal with a medium sized mountain worth of poop. Sadly, I'm still not done with it, as my youngest is two and a half years old.

Page 3: Eating Out
My wife and I used to have more money than we do today. In fact, eating at the Outback Steakhouse was a weekly ritual for us. So was eating at Red Robin, and then we'd usually eat at Denny's. the Olive Garden, or one of the other mid-tier fast food joints on the west side.... At least until the first child came along. As a baby, every time we tried to go somewhere to eat, she would start crying and would become inconsolable. Even when we came prepared with a bottle, a change of diapers, and used a rocking car seat, she simply refused to allow us to eat in peace. Eventually we were forced to give up eating because we were afraid that the other patrons would murder us.

Page 4: Children's Programming
One of the things nobody bothered to explain to me before I became a parent was that once you have a kid, your TV is no longer your own. Prior to parenthood, my TV spent a lot of time being tuned to some ctuff I really enjoyed, like Babylon 5, the X-Files, Star Trek, Penn and Teller, etc. After parenthood, my TV was absolutely dominated by The Wiggles, Dora the Explorer, and other shows that I'm currently doing my best to force out of my head. To this day, I really have no tolerance for those shows even though its all my kids want to watch. And of course on those occasions when I simply overrule them and watch something I want to watch, they're loud and obnoxious, refusing to allow me to concentrate.

Page 5: Being a Parent is Being a Teacher
Before my oldest went into kindergarden, I wanted to make sure that she would be one of the smart ones. With that in mind, when she was about four and a half years old, I grabbed a bunch of coins and sat her down to learn basic math. Sure, it was really basic math, but I showed her that if you count one group of coins and added them to another group of counted coins, you would end up with a larger group of coins. I think it took about a week of trying to get her to understand, but before too long I could ask her simple questions, like "What is four plus three" and I would get the ever accurate answer of seven. I also taught her how to subtract while I was at it, and as a result, she has always been way ahead of her class in math. She won't be starting multiplication in school until next year, but she already understands how and why it works, and she's working on memorizing her multiplication tables. Not only is she well ahead in that area, but she's also above average in reading and all other areas. Being a boog teacher at home means that she is a good student at school, which ultimately leads to a happier more socially adjusted child, and seeing that makes pages one through four worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Regarding the WotC Layoffs

Rather than express my own anger towards a company that would summarily dismiss established vital talent like Julia Martin, Jonathan Tweet, and Dave Noonan, among others, I'm going to quote Monte Cook's ENWorld post today instead (in response to a post by Kevin Culp):

While I appreciate the good intent, I'm not sure how one might credit layoffs with the creation of Malhavoc Press. Neither Sue nor I were laid off, nor was our first major freelancer (Bruce Cordell). I suppose later on we used the talents of Sean Reynolds and Skip Williams, but we'd been around for a while at that point. I suppose you could say that some of the layoffs were indicative of the kinds of large changes that occurred at WotC which convinced me it was no longer a place I wanted to work at.

Not that I have any illusions about what would have happened had I stayed. I've no doubt that I would have been laid off. From a larger perspective than just yesterday, it's become clear that WotC's become a company that not only doesn't value experience, it avoids it. (And looks at least somewhat disdainfully, rather than fondly, upon its own past.) You have to stretch your definition of "old guard" to even apply to anyone there anymore. (This is likely a bottom line issue, since the longer you stay, the more you get paid.) When I was there, I worked among people like Skip Williams and Jeff Grubb--with that kind of perspective at hand, I was always the new guy. Which was fine by me. I had much to learn and always appreciated the perspective they could provide. Now, most of the people working on D&D weren't even there when I was there. That's how much turnover and change there's been. There's a real danger of losing continuity with these kinds of layoffs. Dangers involving making old mistakes and not remembering what was learned in old lessons.

It's a foolish and shortsighted management that lets people like Jonathan, Julia, and Dave go. Foolish. And a cold-hearted one that does it at Christmas. But this is not new outrage, it's old, tired outrage. This is the company that laid off Skip, and Jeff, and Sean, and other people of extraordinary talent and experience. It's par for the recent course.

Before I end this bitter ramble, let me just add that it's hard not to laugh at the shocking and perhaps pitiable ineptitude of a company that makes role playing games that would lay off Jonathan Tweet, very likely the best rpg designer, well, period.

I wish all of them the best, and have not a shred of doubt that they'll all go on to do bigger and better things.
Since my thoughts are less diplomatic, I'll just hold on to them. If we meet at a con, buy me a drink and you might be able to coax a rant out of me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Where I See Tabletop Gaming Headed

The tabletop roleplaying game industry is dying.

Or so I've heard....

I started hearing this in the summer of 2003 when Wizards of the Coast released D&D edition 3.5. Immediately the sales of all of the companies publishing under the OGL dropped down to unforeseen low levels. In truth, I had been in the industry for a full three years at that time and though I was insulated from the bloodshed because I worked for Wizards of the Coast at the time, I could see the bloodbath as it was occurring. Prior to 2003, the companies that were doing rather well publishing under the OGL included Bastion Press, Mystic Eye Games, Atlas Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and Alderac Entertainment Group, among others. What do all of those companies have in common? They all either no longer exist or they are no longer publishing material that is compatible with D&D.

Coincidentally, at the same time 3.5 was launching, there was another little game that was also in its infancy: World of Warcraft. Maybe you've heard of it. I know, you're thinking that I'm going to blame the decline of D&D on MMOs, as is the typical interpretation of things these days. I mean WoW is making gazillions of dollars, so surely they're stealing all the D&D customers away, right?

Not so fast. By the time WoW was released, the MMO had existed for the better part of a decade. There was Ultima Online, and Everquest, and Asheron's Call, among others. Everquest had even been particularly successful. Yes, World of Warcraft is certainly an unprecedented success, but when I put my head down in the trenches to actually talk to people at the conventions and the local game stores, and the messageboards, what I heard wasn't that online gaming was stealing them away from tabletop gaming. Instead, what I heard was that 3.5 came out way too soon on the heels of 3.0. Many people were still playing 3.0 and refused to give WotC the money for the upgrade. Now personally, I'm in the camp that really likes 3.5 and did consider it a better value than 3.0, but as long as people were able to kill make believe monsters and take their make believe treasure, they didn't particularly need an upgraded set of the very same rules.

So the last five years have been pretty lean. We've seen a bunch of companies go out of business, we've seen fewer products released, we've seen fewer gaming companies start to replace the ones that go down, and we've seen a new edition of D&D released, and from the reports I've heard, fail to impress a good percentage of the audience. The D&D brand is certainly weaker now than it has been since probably the late '90s, but I'm not actually interested in talking about the past; I'm more interested in speculating about the future.

I used to bemoan the fact that when you went up to people and talked about an RPG other than D&D, people would either give you a blank stare and ask what the hell you were talking about, or people would make the same face they make after taking something foul into their mouth, like sour milk, and automatically associate it with a lack of quality. And the truth is that when the D20 products first started hitting the helves, there was a bit of hit and miss. Some products were absolutely stellar, while others were marred by bad editing, bad layout, and bad game mechanics. There is one adventure module on my shelf that I keep as a monument to bird turds because they managed to do everything wrong on the list. But again, I'm allowing myself to be dragged into the past when the point is that what I feel we're really seeing is a widening of the RPG base. In other words, there have been enough excellent third party products over the last several years that people have finally gained confidence in it.

Now the fact of the matter is that most products bearing the d20 logo did die a death. However, when publishers stopped making d20 compatible material, they started making new games that were based on the d20 system and published under the Open Gaming License. The Babylon 5 RPG, Arcana Evolved, Iron Heroes, Castles and Crusades... Oh crap, I'm talking about the past again. Well screw it, you can't get to the future without first covering where you've been. So when WotC decided that it was time to release a new version of the game, there were a lot of players who were still playing a version of 3rd edition and weren't ready for it to go yet. Then there were those who were sick of this "evolved" version of D&D and just wanted to play the game like it was originally published, and then there were those who wanted some uniquely customized version of the game to fit their idea of a cool setting, or a specific feel. For instance, some people wanted a game that was dark and gritty instead of high fantasy, others wanted magic to be handled differently. The beauty of the OGL was that they could get what they wanted, it would still be D&D because it was based on the same original mechanics.

What's more is that a lot of these games have extremely high production values. Some, like Green Ronin, mainly produce black and white books, but those black and white books are done extremely well. Then you have others that are publishing their games in full color, again, with production values that rival or surpass WotCs'. An example of that is Paizo Publishing, which was originally created to continue producing Dragon and Dungeon magazines after WotC decided to give them the axe, but has since positioned themselves as the AMD to WotCs Intel. Their Pathfinder products are full color, their production values, writing, art, and cartography are as good or better than WotCs' in every area, and they're continuing forward with the Pathfinder RPG, which is the next evolution of the D&D 3.5 system. And there are other games that are also taking the D20 system and running with it, such as Modern20 and True20. Spycraft 2.o is another full color book that is essentially based on Modern, but makes signifficant changes to the game. Then there are the retro-clones, which are picking up steam, and new or revived systems that are gaining gaining ground, such as Savage Worlds, Cortex, Traveler, Runequest. Heck, even Star Frontiers is seeing an online revival and currently has "digitally remastered" versions of the original core books posted online as well as a new online periodical called the Frontiersman.

The wonderful thing is that people all over the place are actually playing these games!

In my mind, this isn't a rejection of D&D 4th edition as much as it is the fact that people have finally realized that they have options! Lots of them!

On top of that, the expansion of the PDF market and the rise of printing on demand through companies like means that there are a lot more companies in the business, a lot more games being made, and getting your stuff out to your customers isn't nearly as hard as it once was. In other words, the new configuration of the print industry is adding to the choices people have.

Personally, I've always been comfortable with the basic D&D and Advanced D&D schism. While WotC is offering 4th edition, which tries unsuccessfully to be all things to all people, I'm finding that Castles and Crusades functions well as the new "Basic" and Pathfinder functions as the new "Advanced." I can play Pathfinder with my 35 year-old gaming buddies who have come to like this level of complexity in their RPGs while I can bust out the C&C and play with my wife and daughter.

So what I'm getting at is that while D&D maintains a player base that many companies would die for (even while it is undoubtedly disappointing the bean counters at Hasbro), the rest of the players are going to the other publishers who have long struggled in the shadow of D&D. Many people say that the golden age of gaming was back in the '80s, others say that it was just after the advent of the OGL, when suddenly everyone could make a game compatible with the best known roleplaying game in the world. I say the golden age of gaming is right here, right now.

I say this because your choices as a gamer are nearly unlimited. People like me, who used to dream of being a published game designer, can make that dream comne true, assuming that you happen to be competent at writing and game design and have some good ideas. You can do it by either hitching your cart to an existing publisher or, if you have the technical know-how and the connections to get the art done - do it yourself.

The future of tabletop gaming is no longer in the hands of those who have had it in the past, but rather, it's now in the hands of the community that supports it, both through choice and through small time publishers. This is an industry where the little guy is getting noticed and after a while, isn't so little anymore.

This is the golden age of roleplaying. Game on!