Archives for September 2013

Procrastination Cascades

If you’re anything like me you can always find an excuse not to sit down and write. And even when you start, you can probably find ways of stopping yourself. This has become particularly evident to me over the past few days. 

I normally use a program called Freedom 2 to cut myself off from the Internet for fixed periods of time. The internet is the ultimate tool for self-distraction and by cutting myself off from it and forcing myself to sit down at the computer I can usually pretty much guarantee I will get some writing done. I usually set Freedom to operate in 30 minute or one hour blocks of time, depending on how my RSI is and how many breaks I feel like taking. Recently though Freedom has started to misbehave. When it returns access to the Internet to me, my Mail client does not function, nor does Evernote or a few other programs. The only thing that bring them back is a hard reboot. I am not sure why this has happened. Maybe there is some sort of conflict between Freedom and some other recently updated program. In any case, its disturbing.

In my search for a solution I came across a recommendation for another program Self Control which is for OSX and which is free. SelfControl works in a slightly different way from Freedom. It blocks access to specific websites and once they are blocked you don’t get any access to them until the period of time you have set has gone. Not even a hard reset works. It’s a little more work to set SelfControl up– you need to add each site you want blocked to your list– but once it’s done, it seems to work and work well. I can’t get access to the sites I normally use to distract myself but I can still get any research I need done. I also have access to my email. 

I also started using RescueTime to keep track of where all my time on the computer was going. This is an interesting bit of software that logs the use of all the programs on your computer and shows it to you on your own personalised webpage. 

A side effect of this is that it made me realise that I have other ways of wasting time than simply looking at the Internet. I blocked the KDP home page on Amazon where I usually check my sales. This made me aware of an odd behaviour pattern that costs me a lot of time. Normally when I check my sales, I update my spreadsheets with the new numbers. (This may sound weird but its quite common among indie ebook publishers.) If there’s anything unusual about the pattern of sales (and I can usually find something), I  pause to think about it and make some notes. This can easily waste half an hour if I am not careful. The insidious thing about it is that it’s something I normally do between work periods while I am having a cup of tea and it stretches those non-working periods out far beyond what I would like.

Looking at this behaviour I realised that I am prone to what I call procrastination cascades– I do one little thing that wastes some time which then leads me to doing something connected with it which leads me to something else. None of these things, of themselves take up huge amounts of time but added together they waste hours every day.

As an experiment I set SelfControl to block access to certain sites for 8 hours and suddenly I noticed an immediate change in my behaviour patterns that instantly increased productivity. By not being able to check Amazon, I could not trigger the whole cascade of behaviour leading from it. I have always been reluctant to block access to the Internet for 8 hours because, you know, just in case. I am far less reluctant to block just a few sites so this seems to be working for me. You may want to give it a try yourself!

Bundle of FATE

I am just making a quick post to mention the FATE package available here at Bundle of Holding. If you have any interest in this excellent role-playing game (RPG) this is a good time to buy.

The Bundle of Holding is a pay what you want package.  You can get the excellent FATE Core and FATE Accelerated RPGs along with pulp adventure Spirit of the Century, the science fiction games Diaspora, Bulldogs and Full Moon and the fantasy game Ehndrigohr by paying any sum you care to contribute.

If you pay more than the average price, currently standing around $15 as I write this, you also get Cubicle Seven’s excellent Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre along with Arc Dream’s Victorian Steampunk Superhero game The Kerberos Club (which sell for around $75 in total if you buy the PDF versions).

All of these games run on the FATE engine and represent a value of around $125 if you buy them separately. All of them are DRM free PDFs. There are Kindle and ePUb files for some of the games– FATE, FAE and Spirit of the Century, if I recall correctly.

FATE is a story-and-character driven RPG with an interesting set of game mechanics which give the players an unusual amount of control over the outcome of their actions and the nature of the story. I have owned Spirit of the Century for some time and it is one of the best pulp adventure games and settings I know.

The Bundle is available for a limited time only and the deal has another one day and seven hours to run as I write this. Ten percent of the money you contribute goes to charity.

Upcoming Appearances And Other News

It’s going to be a busy old time for me on the travel front by the looks of things. I’ll be at Gamesday on Sunday 29th September, and hopefully will have a copy of Bane of Malekith to wave proudly at people. 

Malekith Final SMALL

Next up is the Black Library Weekender 2nd and 3rd November at the Belfry in Nottingham. The last one was a total blast. Hopefully there will be no re-run of the Karaz fiasco this year and Gav and I’s multi-generational dwarf epic will finally get the respect it deserves. 

Because one convention in a week is simply not enough for me, I’ll be at Falkon in Lublin in Poland on the weekend of the 8th to the 11th of November.

And I’ll be spending the weekend of my birthday (6th to 8th December) at Parcon/Fenixcon in Brno in the Czech Republic. Come along and have a chat if you happen to be in the area for any of these.

And finally, here is the very lovely cover for the Czech version of Defiler of Tombs. 

IMG 20130910 174457

Monsters and Magic

Now this is interesting– Monsters and Magic (M&M), a new role playing game from Mindjammer Press that bills itself as old school fantasy, new school play.

 Monsters and Magic v1 01 Covers pdf page 1 of 143

First, at the risk of starting a flame war, some definitions. There  are, unsurprisingly given the nature of the internet, some disputes as to exactly what constitutes an Old School game. To me they mostly seem to be retro-clones of old-fashioned original and advanced D&D which use the OGL to simulate the tone and style of play of those ancient games. They also seem to be concerned with recreating the do-it-yourself ethos I well remember from the early days of the hobby.

This suits me down to the ground. I have a nostalgic fondness for the RPGs of the period when I first started playing (1977) and I like the open-source philosophy espoused by many of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) designers in gaming as much as I like it in software and operating systems. Many of the basic OSR rulesets such as OSRIC and Swords and Wizardry are available for free. 

For me, new school games are those like FATE which encourage sophisticated use of the rules to allow the players as well as the Gamesmaster some say in the narrative and construction of the game world. This might be the source of some tension with hardcore Old School types when it comes to using M&M since OSR rulesets mostly encourage a sandbox style of play rather than a narrative one.

We are now two hundred words into this review and I have said very little about the game itself. Let’s rectify that. Monsters and Magic is a set of rules which allows a sophisticated, modern style of play while at the same time enabling you to use all of your old adventures for D&D and its retroclones pretty much unchanged. When I first read that I confess I thought it can’t be done but I was wrong. Monsters and Magic does it and with style. It provides real backward compatibility for your old RPG stuff. Since I have a lot of old modules, scenarios and supplements, this is important for me.

Character Generation is simple and quick, just like it used to be in the good old days of the 1970s. It will seem familiar to anyone who has played any edition of D&D. Roll 3D6 or more for attributes or base them on any point system you like. Choose a race from human, elf, dwarf, etc. Choose a class, from fighter, cleric, magic user etc. Roll hit points. Choose equipment.

The main difference is that instead of skills, feats, special abilities etc, characters have advancements. Advancements basically describe anything special about your character from his ability to cast spells to his sneaking skills or his knowledge of arcane lore. They are not limited to abilities that a class might have.

You can pretty much define your own advancements, and are expected to. They somewhat resemble Aspects in FATE. You can use advancements as a level based modifer on pretty much anything you can convince the GM that they should apply on. For example, my (just-invented) natural born liar advancement could be used as a bonus when haggling, performing feats of diplomacy or even in combat if you can make a case for it (“Of course, I won’t hurt you,” said just before you stab someone in the back.)

M&M uses a very basic one die roll system for all forms of task resolution. You use 3d6 plus modifers to judge not just a character’s success but the level of that success. For example, in melee combat you roll 3d6 plus your level (if you have any advancement that apply) plus your Strength modifier (doubled if it happens to be the prime attribute of your class) plus your weapons damage dice plus any other modifiers you can talk your GM into letting you use. This is measured against your opponents Armour Class which in this case is equal to your opponent’s Dexterity plus level plus modifiers for armour and shield along with anything else that seems relevant. If your die roll exceeds your opponent you have succeeded. If your roll is less than your opponent’s armour class you have failed. 

You can inflict damage up to your weapons maximum damage equal to your number of successes or you can inflict consequences or you can do some mixture of both.

There are three levels of consequence, minor, major and extreme which cost 5 points per level. Each level of consequence inflicts a -2 penalty on the recipient which remains until its removed. What these consequences are is left up to the GM and the player to decide.

For example, let’s say a PC attacks an orc and gets 8 successes on his attack. He could choose to inflict a straight eight points of damage. Or he could inflict 3 points of damage and a minor consequence. This could be anything the player wishes from pushing the orc back, to notching his scimitar and inflicting a -2 penalty until the orc changes weapon, to a minor niggling wound that has the same narrative effect. 

You’ll notice this removes the need for a lot of special case rules such as disarming, pushing back, etc. This is something I really like.

If you fail your roll, you take the consequences the GM inflicts on you in much the same way. If you fail by 5 points you take a minor consequence, by 10 points a major consequence and so on. 

What if you don’t like those consequences? What if you would rather be pushed back or knocked over than take that nagging wound? Then you can spend a hero point to define the consequence for yourself– either as a recipient or as the person inflicting the consequence. Players start with hero points equal to their level and can gain and lose them during the course of play.

Pretty much every situation from skill use to magic is covered using the same mechanics. Players have both Physical Hit Points (used like hit points always are in D&D) and mental hit points which are used for mental and social situations. 

It’s an elegant system and it works in all the situations I tested it in. It should also make for some interesting narrative combats. There are no grids or hex maps. Everything is handled in the abstract which  is just the way I like it. 

This basic mechanic is expanded into all sorts of areas, most notably (the somewhat confusingly named for those of us used to 3rd Edition D&D) constructs. In M&M constructs are not golem-like magical servitors made by wizards (although they could be!) but independent megascale accessories that players can acquire as they advance in levels– things like castles, armies or hundred foot tall mechanical golems armed with flamethrowers, for example. They can be used to play out conflicts on a much larger scale.

Can you really use your old modules unmodified with M&M? Yes, you really can. The game allows you to use the old stat lines with a minimum of work and the rules are flexible enough to let you wing it in any situation I can imagine. 

I’ve rambled on for longer than I intended, so let’s try some conclusions. For me at least Monsters and Magic succeeds in its aims.There’s a huge amount to like about the game. It’s well-written. It does what it says on the tin.  The mechanics are simple and elegant and they scale very well indeed.

It has a few weaknesses. As with the old boxed sets, only the first four levels of progression are covered in detail. The not unreasonable argument is made that it’s easy enough to adapt what’s needed from the freely available old school rulesets you (most likely) already possess although this does somewhat sit at odds with the inclusion of advanced rules for constructs. There are those who will find it too new-fangled for the Old School, but I think it brings something new and interesting to the table. 

I picked up Monsters and Magic as a $9.99 PDF from Drivethru RPG. I believe a print version will soon be available.