Welcome to my birthday post…

PDFs and other ebook formats have really revolutionized publishing. The cost to produce and distribute is much reduced, thanks to e-publishing, and its nice to have an entire library of (game) books in your tablet or e-reader. Despite the convenience, and when publishers aren’t screwing you over by charging full print prices (you know who you war, and shame on you!) the thrift of e-books, print is still king for game materials — or at least core rules sets and larger splatbooks.

Why is this? Simply put, unless you are adept at bookmarking your e-books, a printed book is often easier to find things in. You can visually and tactilely index to a portion of the book you know is where a certain set of rules is located in. Sometimes, they are easier for folks to read; even a good media consumption form factor like the iPad or Kindle just isn’t working for the old eyes. On really complex layouts or heavily graphic intensive books — and many in the industry are now addicted to full-color interiors with loads of art, fancy watermarking, in 300+ glorious pages of stuff that pads the price out to $50-60 a book — a pdf or epub file can really blow up your memory on a tablet and leave the thing scrambling to try and render your pages fast enough to be useful.

And this is why, while I like having digital copies of books that I can tote with me easily, I still prefer print for rulebooks. (Adventure modules, on the other hand, seem perfectly suited to the e-pub model.) I tend to prefer my fiction books, which I rarely reread electronic, but for research material and non-fiction, I prefer a physical book — it’s easier to index, easier to find pictures or maps, and there’s a certain delight to the feel and small of a book. They look great lining your walls, too.

When it comes to the printed rulebook, I like hardcover more for the longevity of the format, but softcover works well, too. My old game books for the systems I played were mostly softcover — DC Heroes might have a box, but the books were softbound. James Bond: 007 was all softcover, and by today’s standard very lightweight with a page count of 130 pages or so for the core book and maybe a total of 50,000 words. Castle Falkenstein‘s main book was a (partly) full-color, hardback, but all the splatbooks were softcover and grayscale inside. Atomic Robo is softcover, and so is most of the Evil Hat stuff, but most of my Cortex stuff is hardbound. Exile Games does great, high-quality stuff, hardbound, but is it necessary?

This question has actually been pretty forward in my mind as Black Campbell Entertainment is ramping up its product line — how much of this trend to full-color, hardcover, “big” book is superlative? Is it better to have 300 pages of full-color with loads of artwork to evoke the mood of the game, or is it better to keep the interior layout simple, uncluttered, and simply push the information you need to the players as simply and clearly as possible. (I’m leaning to the latter…)

So hardcover or softcover, my answer is: As long as the binding is done well, it probably doesn’t matter. Once a group learns a game, there’s usually a lot less flipping through a rulebook, which means its lifespan increases. Is hardcover nice to have? You betcha. I have the faux leather Space:1889 book — that bit of excess is utterly pointless; the usual hardcover, or a softcover would do just as well, but that particular setting has real sentimental value to me for many reasons, so the fake leather is pleasing to me. But ultimately, I’m still a print guy for rule books.

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Easily, I have been most affected by GMing games. From the beginning, living in a small town with a small gaming community, I was often the guy that was willing to pick up the baton and run the game. I was nearly always able to come up with something on the fly, I had a good grasp of scene beats and purpose from having been a film buff from an early age, so I was the guy that ran most of the games. That didn’t change in the intervening 30+ years; others would take up the reigns, but almost always dropped back to playing because they didn’t like the preparation for the game.

It’s what I like to do best. And because it requires retooling plots, characters, and ideas on the fly, or in the hours after the players upended your apple cart in the play session, I learned how to edit on the fly. The ability to plot, to create realistic settings and characters, and to toss what isn’t working, now matter how much I liked the material, had the effect of making me a fast, excellent researcher; a good editor with little worry about axing things that didn’t work; and a solid storyteller.

My desire for verisimilitude — from the early days of running spy-fi with James Bond:007 RPG, to knowing the history of the Victorian period for my Space:1889, to ’30s America for the Hollow Earth Expedition game — much of my professional life has been guided by the interests my gaming has engendered. I went into intelligence because of my love of the genre. I studied history because it’s a writer’s medium ( it really is a genre of storytelling; it’s not a social science — sorry, folks, but we’re just novelists with pretensions to truthiness.) I focused on the late 19th Century, then my doctoral studies mostly revolved around technology and society in the interwar period of the US.

I’ve gotten jobs because I was a gamer and the guy hiring was a gamer, and understood what I meant when I talked about how game prep made me a better researcher.

So, if gaming has affected (afflicted?) any portion of my life — it’s the skills that being a good GM made me develop.

As the GM, I don’t have a character they can really talk about, but there are a few that seem to have caught their imagination. Most recently, that seems to be Olga — the Russian girl they lured away from the Rabinowitz gang in Istanbul. Olga is a Russian Jew who was apparently a plaything for the head of the Special Department of the GPU, and we later found out a sort of “psychic battery” for mind or magical powers. She is quiet and beautiful, but vicious with her knout.

They took to her after they rescued a mystic they had gotten information from in Istanbul. The older former leader of the Thule Society had been kidnapped by the SS, and the characters felt obligated to save him. n the course of this, Olga broke a man’s wrist with a deft swing of the knout (everyone else was using guns), and knocked another cold. Guns, apparently, weren’t as scary as a young woman breaking people with a length of heavy leather.

Our current Hollow Earth Expedition campaign has been belting along nicely with a good, fun pulp flavor, and while there were many good moments we’ve had, the most impressive — for me — that we saw from one of the player’s was Gustav Hassenfeldt, our scrupulously honest, moral big game hunter, finally lose his temper with the bad guys as two dozen of them swarmed in on our heroes while they were resting from an earlier attack at a plantation in India.

While the others were smartly arranging their defense of the building, Gus grabbed his trusty Griffin & Howe .375 magnum bolt-action and a handful of spare rounds, and race to the second floor, where he proceeded to pick off five of the offending COMINTERN agents in the space of two rounds (about 10 seconds.) Each shot was miraculously deadly — essentially headshots, done in near darkness, on running targets shooting back.

It was the first time that Gus had been able to really do his schtick through the entire campaign. He’d either been in first fights, or used a small handgun on offending giant creatures, but it was the sheer amount and speed of carnage he wrecked that was truly impressive.

This is a tricky one, for me. I’ve only gotten to “just play” a few times over the few years, and that was in a short lived, unfinished Wild Talents game (good game, terrible system.) In it, I played a Scottish telepath working for the big, oppressive superhero bureaucracy that ran the world. His ambition and skills led him to eventually work against this group, and it was looking like we might not quite pull off my intended coup when the game just sort of …stopped. A not uncommon thing for many campaigns.

There were a lot of good moments in the play, but nothing that really stood out for me. So looking out over all the gaming I’ve done, there are a few moments that stand out, and most of them were not mine…

The final battle in our high-school Dungeons & Dragons game, oh so many years ago, where my character kicked in the door to the main chamber of the Big Bad’s sanctum, only to be faced with hordes of minion bent on turning him into sausage, and turning tail with a aaaaaaaaah! that led them away so the other characters could get to the bad guy wihtout interruption.

That time my friend’s James Bond character managed to flip a Lamborghini Countach — no easy feat — in the middle of a chase sequence after a “are you sure you want to do that?” moment.

The moment our two main heroes were coopted by the supervillainess in our DC Heroes campaign in the late ’80s, and became the de facto secret police for the new European Empire.

The weird kid that was in my Space: 1889 game charging hordes of Oenotrian soldiers after running out of ammo shouting about how he would bring down the “might of the British Army”, only to get — predictably — slaughtered. (He would then claim to have been “haunted” by his character in a dream because he hadn’t been “given respect” by the other characters… At that point, I thought it best he take a break from gaming.)

Similarly, there was the time the bounty hunter in our Star Wars game was surrounded by stormtroopers and after being disarmed, asked them, “Do you want my hold out blaster?” to the groans of the other players.

Same campaign, that time our old jedi in a Star Wars game first went to the Dark Side and started speaking in a deep Shakespearean accent. He would later atone. Then go bad to the Dark. Then atone. He got to the point he had a lightsaber that would go from a lavender blade to a dark purple when he was having a case of the evils. Oh…and he collected chairs from every place. Those cool imperial chairs from the Death Star. Chairs from Stardestroyers. A stool. He had a warehouse of chairs he never used.

The Babylon 5 game I ran during my time in the army, where the one Starfury pilot got the insanely good roll on his pyrrhic run against an Earth Alliance Omega-class destroyer…and his shot damaged the rotation gears on the living habitat, immediately shredding the ship at the midline.

Or the fight between the 12 year old street urchin and a Chinese assassin in a hotel lobby in Shanghai in our 1936-set Hollow Earth Expedition game, where she used a luggage rollaway to defeat him, Jacky Chan style.

But my proudest moment, this year, would be that moment, temporarily playing one of the other player’s characters (he was away on work travel so I was running him as an NPC): Part of the group was being attacked by Indian communist agents in our Hollow Earth Expedition game. They were stopped by a “broken down” car acorss the road, then boxed in by two motorcycles, with gunmen riding pillion. The players took off in their Alvis Speed 20, knocking down a motorcycle, but Gus Hassenfeldt — the big game hunter I was playing — slid off the back of the car, took the gunman’s pistol, grabbed the bike, and rode it into another bad guy, then ordered the rest at gunpoint to lay down their arms, lie face down, and wait for the police. And rolled well enough they did it.

I thought I really captured the personality of the character as the player had portrayed him.

There have been a lot of good to great sessions over the last year of play, so it’s hard to choose a “best session” out of what has been an exemplary year of gaming. For me, the best session came in April, with the successful conclusion of our long-running Battlestar Galactica campaign.

The campaign was started back in 2011, after the collapse of the long-standing game group prior to that. That group had been, in various configurations, going since 2003, and after losing two of the core players, the rest of us cobbled the group back together for a phenomenal run of Hollow Earth Expedition and the start of BSG. It had begun as a “redo” — taking elements from the old game and improving on it. Over the next almost five years, we lost half of the group to Texas and other life changes, leaving me and one of the players from the original group to soldier on for a few months before we finally picked up the third regular member. Others came and went, but the trio of players — all really into the game — remained the new core.

The small number of players made scheduling easier and kept the game focused and on track. We increasingly diverged from the reimagined show, with more sci-fi elements in which the Lords of Kobol eventually played a much larger role in the story, and the motifs of cyclical time, recurring themes of self-destruction, loomed large. I had to tweak and twist, and roll with the players’ decisions, but in the end, the story ended very closely to what I had hoped for.

How often does that happen?

The story ended with the characters finding Earth, populated by the 13th Tribe. Happy ending…and we could have left it there, but I had always envisioned a coda to the game, that last episode that would put a bow on it. In that coda, we picked up 20 years later, at a Settlement Day celebration for the arrival of the rag-tag fleet and the creation of the Earth Allied Government. The players got to see their players, older, well-established in the politics of the new Earth, and the interstellar politics with the Lord of Kobol they had found, the survivors on the Twelve Colonies, and another group of colonies out by the Pleiades. It was a nice send-off for the players that had the same vibe as Babylon 5‘s “Sleeping in the Light” episode. (Exactly whatIi was hoping for…) After that, we had a short act where, 500 years later, the Pleiades Colonies were attacked by the machine soldiers of the “Olympians” (the descendants of the Lords of Kobol), who were looking to support the recently disgraced “Leader Baltar” starting the whole story over again.

To have a long-running campaign come in 1) completed (ho often does that happen!?!), and 2) finish the story fairly closely to what you intended is nearly unheard of. I had finished a less ambitious Babylon 5 game in 1999 that had been running for two years, but that had been much tighter to canon of the show, playing around the edges of the main story, rather than just striking out from the base conceit to do our own thing entirely.

For those reasons, that sessions was probably the best session of my entire gaming life.

For the first 2016 RPGaDay, the question is: Real dice, dice apps, or diceless — how do you roll?

This is a good question, as how to randomize was central to the design of the upcoming system for a game we’re working on at Black Campbell Entertainment. It’s not just do you use dice or apps or no, but what kinds of dice that interests me of late.

When Dungeons & Dragons hit in the late ’70s, the idea of different kinds of dice — not just the classic cube of old, but different Platonic shapes — was novel. Half the fun, I would propose, to D&D was rolling all these weird dice. Prior to that, some of the box sets had chits to randomize your actions. Roll a d20 — pick a chit from the “d20” pile; that was nowhere near as fun as throwing a d20.

Other games, like Traveler, right off the bat, tried to make themselves different by sticking to the d6. This was good in that 1) you usually had a set of these, somewhere; and 2) they were familiar. Using a pair or trio (as in GURPS) of d6s seemed “simpler”, even if the math was not. Some games looked to move to percentiles — using a pair of d10s to give you a flat distribution that was easy to grasp.

During the late ’80s up to the start of the new century, I tended to prefer these one type of die systems. I loved James Bond, but always wanted to shed the d6 for initiative. I liked West End’s d6 system for Star Wars…other than needed a wheelbarrow full of bones to have that Stardestroyer shoot. White Wolf used d10s. Easy, right? Who needs a half dozen types of dice!?! And there is something to be said for this approach. (There was also a certain “Get off my lawn” quality to thumbing my nose at how OGL d20 was invading every damned game put out about the turn of the century/millennium.)

But with the release of Cortex and Serenity in 2005, I found myself rolling different types of dice for the first time in decades. (I actually had to go buy a set of polyhedrons for my ex-wife; I was already using dice apps on my laptop.) There is a certain tactile delight to knowing you’re rolling a crappy trait or skill with a d4, or a great one with a d12. They sound different when they hit the table; they look different; they feel different — and that, for many gamers, is part of the experience. So much so that when I stated working on our game system, I found myself shifting away from the initial d100 mechanics that I had envisioned.

Because even on a dice app, rolling different dice is fun.

Which leads to the real question that was asked: How do you roll? I started using a laptop to run games and store my notes, etc. around 1997. For some games, if the system is easy enough, I use my iPad. One thing I like about going paperless was that I no longer had to tote books and notebooks and dice around. I could show up with my computer and go. (And since the battery technology has improved so much, I rarely have to even have a power cord.) I started using dice apps early on. This wasn’t so hard when we were playing the single dice systems of the ’90s, but returning to polyhedrons required being a bit more discriminating about my dice programs. There are plenty that will work with d20 games, but aren’t sophisticated enough to do multiple types or dice rolled together and added (or not.)

Since making the switch to a Macbook Air in 2010, my choices for a good dice app are even more reduced. Pretty much, the best I’ve found for my purposes is Dicy. It’s free. You don’t get a nice animated dice screen, like I do with Dicenomicon (you can find it in the app stores for iOS and Android) — which I have on my phone and iPad.

Dicy allows you to do some tweaking for presets and roll groups, but I’ve yet to use those. Having run Battlestar Galactica for five years (Cortex system), I just needed to add the dice together, and there’s a checkbox for that. There are a few on the MacUpdate site other than Dicy, but you might run into security issues when downloading them. Another that works well is Bones, which I downloaded, with others to look at for this piece. I was going to look at DiceBag X and Polymatic, but the MacUpdate wbsite now bundles crapware with their downloads unless you are a paid user so [expletive deleted] those guys. I tried Rock n Roll Dice — which I think was the one I used for PC, before the Air — but the Mac version didn’t work on my laptop. (Another I seem to remember using was DiceMage.)

Dicenomicon is a graphic dice roller for tablets and mobile phones; I wish they’d do an OSX version  and now they have it as an OSX app. You can find it for $2 in the App Store. You see/hear the dice roll, but you are limited to 10 dice total on the mobile version; the OSX version doesn’t have this limit. The mobile version can be customized, however, to roll just about any randomizer you can think of, including Fate dice, coin rolls, etc. It’s free. (Seeing a pattern?) The Mac version is currently limited to the usual d4 through d100. You cannot alter the background, just the dice colors. I hope this will be changing.

If you do most of your playing using a computer, tablet, or phone having a dice app is near-indispensible. It’s less to carry. It allows the GM to roll secretly, if needed. As a player, I tend to let the GM hold onto my character sheets for me, and all I bring is my phone (since I usually have it anyway) and there’s dice.

However, I understand the tactile delight of rolling physical dice, and I still do it, from time to time. As for diceless systems, I’ve not tried any outside of the half-assed “rock-paper-siccors” to randomize a game while traveling in a car, once.

So what about you? Dice? Apps? And do you have suggestions for the various platforms?