Saturday, June 27, 2009

DINO-PIRATES Characters: Kana

Our next character for review is the native shamaness, Kana. A more complex character mechanically than our previously featured tank, Chen, Kana has a couple of supernatural powers, makes use of what we call a "philosophy", and has some interesting directions to go in.

Kana is an adept, with her focus on managing animals, in particular the big showcase animals of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, the dinosaurs. While she can work effectively with any sorts of animals, she's taken a couple of feats to zero in on the big beasts. The concept is a young woman from the jungle with the uncanny ability to befriend and command dangerous beasts. She's got serious presence and is hard to flummox.

Let's review how she's put together. Ahem.

To start with, she's a Native. That gives her the bonus skills of Notice and Survival, which will play nice with the Wisdom we want to give her, and for bonus feats she gets Exotic Weapon Training and Trailblazer.

When choosing her attributes, we're going to give her a big honking +4 on Charisma, and +1 on Wisdom and a +1 on Constitution. She's unlikely to get into much combat but the Constitution gives her a bit of survivability, and the Wisdom will help out with Notice and Survival, her bonus skills (and skills that play well into her concept). Since we see her as someone who can get to the truth easily, we're going to give her Sense Motive as well, so the Wisdom plays well.

Combat-wise she's not very effective, with no bonuses whatsoever at first level. Anyone who takes a swing at her has a pretty good chance of connecting, so she's going to want to stay out of combat as much as possible.

Her skills play off her feat of Animal Empathy -- that feat lets her use Handle Animal as Diplomacy, AND lets her use Bluff and Gather Information with animals. So obviously she takes those three, and as mentioned above she's also going to take Sense Motive to get more use out of that Wisdom point.

She's going to be reasonably effective with that Animal Empathy; her +8 on Handle Animal means she'll almost always be able to, for example, convince a deinonychus to do what she wants (4th level animal, +1 Wisdom = Difficulty 15). A T-Rex is going to be tougher -- 18th level and +2 Wisdom makes for a Difficulty of 30. Might want to wait on walking into a T-Rex nest for a few levels, there, Kana.

Of course, if her skills fail her, she's got her supernatural powers. With the philosophy of Shamanism she gets a bonus rank on both Beast Link and Dominate, and a T-Rex only gets a +8 Will save, so with a Power save Difficulty of 17, that's not looking quite so crazy. Because she doesn't have Mind Touch, only Beast Link, her Dominate power can only be used against animals, which is exactly what we want. That Wisdom comes in handy here again, helping Kana with those pesky Resilience checks.

Her feat choices are pretty obvious: Shamanism requires a Power Focus choice -- the rules say it has to be a natural location, but the relatively narrow choice of "Dinos" is a reasonable substitute here (she'll take a penalty on Resilience saves whenever she's not using her powers against dinosaurs). We can imagine Kana comes from a nation that worships dinosaur spirits, perhaps, and elaborate totem poles with snarling raptors and triceratops heads rising up in front of the tribal houses. Since she gets Exotic Weapon Training for free, we choose "chakram", since it can end up being pretty effective as a ranged weapon. It's possible Kana will take the Chakram Tricks feat down the road and turn into a Xena-esque figure, commanding dinosaurs and sending out whirling, ricocheting disks of death in all directions.

Or perhaps not. Depending on how the campaign goes, Kana might remain a straight-up Adept, building her array of powers, or she might take a few levels in either Expert or Generalist, expanding her skill and feat selection. If the chakram works out, a Sneak Attack or some such feat might be appropriate. She could also work on getting more out of her "face" skills, using feats like Fascinate or Suggestion against dinosaurs. That sounds like fun. But of course the Adept list includes Familiar, and it seems very in character for Kana to end up with a faithful tiny dino companion.

Anyway, that's Kana, the dino-commanding jungle girl with the really cool hat. Stay tuned for more DINO-PIRATES sample characters over the coming weeks.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Different Kind of Conversation

Training with my instructor today he reminded me that "Katori is conversation."

It's a pretty serious sort of conversation, of course, being the sort in which, if you do it for real, somebody ends up dead.

Those stakes make it incumbent upon me as I practice to be constantly aware of what's really at stake here: that this is a conversation of life and death. Only my mindfulness can make it so; that puts the onus on me to ensure I am bringing my full attention and my entire mind to my side of the conversation.

Even in the kata themselves, our posture, our focus, and our swords communicate, one to the other, the life-or-death moment that each strike and each block contain. The topic actually came up today as we practiced a common move in Katori: O-Gasumi.

In this technique, we find ourselves with our opponent's sword laid overtop of our own -- clearly not a position we wish to remain in for long! But the opponent's mechanical advantage precludes simply lifting up. One way to convert this situation to our liking is to turn the sword over so that it is edge-up, and then lift the tip upwards as we step forward. If our opponent does not step back, we may cut his wrists from below, or even slice open his torso with a rising cut.

Performed quickly, it appears decisive and easy. Break it down into its component moves (or more traumatically, attempt it against someone more skilled than yourself) and you will find that your opponent can easily counter-thrust -- IF you fail to maintain contact with your sword against his. That contact is what keeps the "conversation" going. You can FEEL when your opponent attempts a counter-thrust, since their sword is pressed against yours. Likewise, your opponent can feel that no opening is being provided, and has no aggressive options.

Part of practice is learning to hear this conversation between our swords -- so that we are training ourselves to look for the opening when it comes, to recognize the moment so that we can speak our piece when appropriate.

Blindly performing moves, lost in our own worlds, is not the way of Katori. This practice requires open eyes, an open heart and a developed capacity to perceive what is truly being said to us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Environment - Airspur

The ArtOrder blog by Jon Schindehette has a new Concept Tuesday challenge up. This time it was a panoramic view of the Forgotten Realms city of Airspur. Here's the description provided to contestants:

This illo shows the city of Airspur in the Forgotten Realms. This is an opener for the article. Here’s a description of the city from the text:

None who have seen it can think of Airspur without envisioning its heights. Its sun-baked streets wind switchback paths down the bright cliffs, steep stairs cut nearly vertical ascents between buildings, suspension bridges arc between earthmotes high overhead, titanic pillars of stone rise from the sea to the level of the land above, and gleaming elemental spires hang with crystalline clarity all throughout. Those fortunate enough to have visited also remember Airspur as a city of colors and lights. The yellow cliffs tower above an astonishingly blue part of the Sea of Fallen Stars. Cobalt and golden roofs set off pale sandstone structures with gaily painted doors and shutters. Genasi of different hues tattooed with glowing lines promenade in vivid fashions and glittering jewelry. Monolithic crystals, the elemental spires that drift in the air, refract the sun's light during the hot and lazy days and shed colored glows over vibrant nights of wine and dance.

Here's my entry for this challenge (click for a larger view):



My picture was inspired by real-world locations Santorini (Greece), Positano (Italy) and Paraty (Brazil).

If you like my entry, please swing by the Environment Challenge post and write a comment voting for me (please add your name/handle so the vote is counted).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

DINO-PIRATES Characters: Chen

I've decided to begin an introduction to the rules and ideas behind the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND game, so folks can see some of the design decisions getting made and have a notion of how it all works. To start with, I'm going to present some of the sample PC's available on the website, and talk about the choices that went into building them.

We start with stalwart Chen, former Imperial Marine gone pirate. As his description states:

Chen came to the islands as part of a punitive fleet expedition, but when he saw how the Empire oppressed the courageous islanders, his heart was forever turned against the vast nation that had spawned him. Now he saves his special hatred for the agents of the Empire that always seek to overrun the free islands.

All very stirring stuff, to be sure. Chen is a very basic sort of character, what passes for a front-line tank in DPoNI. That said, he's notably different from the sort of tank characters you might see in other games.

His Dexterity is pretty high, for example. In DPoNI Dexterity determines your attack bonus, so it's critical for front-line fighters. His Strength is higher, which gives him a brutal damage bonus (+6 for the battleaxe), meaning he'll very likely seriously injure his foes anytime he connects. The one point of Constitution is a little low for a tank, so Chen wears leather armour to help protect himself. But Chen has popped one point into Charisma, even dropping his Wisdom to do so. We'll look at the reasoning here below.

Chen's skill list is never going to be very broad. He opted for most of the fundamental Strength/Dexterity skills like Climb, Jump, Stealth and Swim. Missing is Acrobatics -- this is mostly just a concept thing. Chen as an Imperial Marine just isn't the sort of nimble swashbuckler that a character like Victoria needs to be. But he does get Concentration and Intimidate for free as an Imperial. Concentration, with his low Wisdom, is a bit of write-off (and not so useful for a fighter), but Intimidate is a great choice, and here's where Chen's point of Charisma helps out. A +5 on Intimidate means Chen can readily use this skill in combat, either using the feint action to startle his opponents with his menacing manner, or by using the provoke feature in Intimidate to protect his less combat-proof friends.

His feat selection is likewise unsurprising. Picking up Armor Training basically means getting a free Toughness bonus, and perhaps if he gets some wealth down the line he can get more effective armor than he currently has. It's a tradeoff though, with his physical skills since the Armor Check Penalty in DPoNI is so much more crippling -- and that effects not only the use of the skills but the ability to Stunt off them. He'd have a +2 Stunt Bonus from Climb, Jump and Stealth without the armor, so that Toughness bonus comes at a cost. Which ends up making the focus on Intimidation even more important.

Down the line Chen would want to look at putting some more focus into that battleaxe -- Attack Specialization to increase the damage, Intimidating Prowess would get him more use out of the Intimidate skill, and Parry Focus would build on his already-formidable Parry. Cleave is another good bet, and he'll want to take a Tough feat every few levels as the opponents get nastier. He'll continue to max out Intimidate, and then depending on the turn the campaign takes keep putting skill ranks into Climb, Jump or Stealth (or Swim if that seems appropriate).

So that's a quick look at a very simple DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND character, but hopefully it illustrates a few of the things that make this game unique. The revised skill rules and the Stunt bonus make a wide array of skill choices feasible even for such a basic character type.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Convo Mark 2: The Online Community

It's time for the second round of what came to be known as "the convo". The last one led to all sorts of larger conversations and community efforts, but ground needs re-plowing. Seeds need replanting. This time around, I thought we'd target a more narrow topic than last time: What are the characteristics of successful online communities?

Most of us are involved in multiple communities whose primary medium of social exchange is online -- whether that be a Twitter group, a discussion board, email list, or whatever. When positive, these communities can turn into massively productive sources of energy and transformation. Some online communities thrive while others never get off the ground. Some prosper vibrantly for a short time and then wither and die for some reason. More interestingly, some communities (all healthy ones) appear to reach beyond the online sphere and into "real-world" connection and influence.

Are there characteristics shared by successful online communities? What are they? Are any of them necessary qualities? Are any of them sufficient qualities? Can any of them be fostered or nurtured constructively, intentionally? Can they be DESIGNED?

And, perhaps more importantly, what is the purpose or output of these communities? How is economic value generated? In a sense, where does the marketplace begin and end -- to put it bluntly, under what terms can we authentically go after money and seek economic reward in this community without (as RT so delicately put it) being douchebags?

Sign up on the wiki -- we're planning to hold this on the morning of the 23rd, location TBD. Stay tuned and hang out in the comments!

Photo credit: Ivan Avramov.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Battleships, Communists and Demons

We went to see the classic Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin last week at the Cinematheque.

We'd seen it a couple of times on video, as much out of a sense of duty as anything. I mean, you HAVE to watch Potemkin. You HAVE to. What are you going to do when you're talking to REAL cinema fans and they start talking about it? Fake it? Come on. You HAVE to watch Potemkin.

Anyway, seeing it on video is woefully inadequate preparation for seeing it on the big screen. It was a SHATTERING experience. One of the most exciting films ever made, still. Ranks up there with King Kong. Bad-ass.

I defy anyone to watch that film in the theatre and NOT come away going, "I wish I could join the Communist Revolution and take back power from the capitalist overlords!" It's such an emotional argument -- it's impossible to debate Eisenstein's overwhelming enthusiasm for the revolution and all it means to the downtrodden and hopeless. But at the same time, it was interesting to note for the first time how the enemy of the revolution gets steadily less and less "faceful" as the story moves onwards and outwards.

When it's just the sailors on the battleship mutinying, the bad guys are clearly outlined for us: the arrogant captain, the sneering ship's doctor. We see them clearly and their downfall is a triumphant moment. The next round of villains (aside from the sneering facist whose calls for racial cleansing are spurned by the fair-minded brothers and sisters of the revolution) are the Cossack soldiers, marching in line down the steps, their uniforms identical, their steps perfectly cadenced, their faces never shown. They are the mass -- the undifferentiated human product of capitalist society, put to mechanical work serving their masters at the expense of the proletariat. Who are NOT undifferentiated but made up of one individual after another, Eisenstein is very clear about that.

The Cossacks are much less individual than the ship's officers were. And the final villains of the piece are even more so -- they're never even shown at all. The crews of the oncoming squadron are never on screen. All we see are the ships pumping smoke and churning up the sea, until at last the triumphant conclusion overwhelms all else and the proletariat revolution takes over the globe.

Which is I think the problem -- Battleship Potemkin is an illustration of the Communist religion dealing with the question of evil. If the revolution is inevitable everywhere, and if everyone will eventually see the truth and light of the socialist way, then nobody's really AGAINST us, are they? I mean, IF we're right, then ultimately EVERYBODY is on OUR side, so who are we supposed to fight? As the scope of Eisenstein's revolution expands, his villains MUST get more and more indistinct, less and less human. Because it's very difficult to justify running around killing other humans if they're really going to be on your side in the end.

Which now brings us to demons and the problem they present.

Basically, demons are a convenient tool for telling stories, because you can have your heroes slaughter them remorselessly for hours on end if necessary. Nobody has to feel bad, cause they're demons. They're inherently EVIL. They DESERVE to die.

Ah. Deserve.

But in the end, what does "inherently evil" even mean? Does it mean they just do cruel things all the time, like torture puppies or talk in movie theatres? Are EVIL creatures just big meanies?

Well, it has to be more than that. Cause it's not okay to run around killing people just because they're mean. So maybe "inherently evil" means "incapable of good". Okay, so whenever given a choice, a demon does the evil thing. Which gets retarded almost immediately -- whenever somebody's talking to the demon, the demon punches them in the face. Or stabs them. This must make demon-to-demon communication kinda hard. But if the demon sits and listens politely, even if he's planning to do something really horrible later on, he's still doing something NOT evil right now. If he happened to fall off a cliff before his evil plan came together, the person he was talking to would think, "Gosh, that demon sure was a nice fellow. I'm going to be nice to kittens from now on." and suddenly the world is a better place because that demon was in it. Which means that running around killing demons "just because" actually might be a bad thing, because the demon might inadvertently be just about to do something good just when you kill him, and thus your killing him is an evil act.

Whoops!

Eisenstein gets around the Demon Problem in the time-honoured fashion of dehumanizing his revolution's enemies. Many fantasy authors and game settings take a half-baked philosophical approach and pretend you can coherently imagine creatures of pure moral constancy. I prefer my demons to just be people. People who maybe aren't very nice, maybe aren't very concerned with other people, but who are people acting for people-like reasons. It may be less exciting, but well, it may not be.

Thoughts on Communism, revolutions, demons, and cinema? When designing a setting either for a game or a story, what sorts of choices this way do you lean towards?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Variations on a Theme

This week I'm once again participating in a Concept Tuesday challenge at the ArtOrder blog by Jon Schindehette.

This week it's "Variations on a Theme": pick a D&D race and draw a figure in three different suits of armor. I chose the eladrin because I didn't have any painted eladrin in my portfolio. I chose to do a female because, hey, I like 'em! And being the D&D geek that I am, I even assigned classes to my three variations: swordmage devoted to Corellon (god of magic and swordplay), cleric devoted to Sehanine (goddess of the moon) and fighter (with the favored eladrin weapons, sword and spear). Apparel changes to suit the class (note that all have the same ornate longsword, which any eladrin can use).

If you like the picture I did, please swing by the ArtOrder entry for the challenge and post a comment voting for my entry! But don't vote as "Anonymous", as those votes won't count.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Jukebox Heroes

A while back DC Comics had the Milestone imprint, which featured characters like Static (of Static Shock fame), Icon and Hardware (they were all recently incorporated into the main DC universe). So I recently learned that one of the Milestone characters is a girl in a winged iron armor who calls herself Iron Butterfly (if you didn't catch that, hang your head in shame and check out Wikipedia).

So that obviously got me thinking (as these things are wont to do). And since nothing good ever comes out of thinking...

The Jukebox Heroes:



  • Robert, a sentient plant.

  • War Pig, an iron-clad wereboar.

  • Deaf Leopard, sharp-clawed, keen-sighted berserker. Not really deaf, just stubborn.

  • White Snake, beautiful female shaman.

  • Poison Sticks, silent wielder of the twin viper rods.

  • Concrete Blonde, a hot woman who could turn into living rock.

  • Wayward, a drifter marked by celestial powers.

  • JoAnne Jet, superfast girl who loves a battlefield.

  • Holy Diver, a time-displaced barbarian warrior.

  • The Foreigner, the alien that brought the Jukebox Heroes together.


In their helicarrier, the Lead Zeppellin, they fight whatever menace threatens the freedom of the world's youth. They fight menaces like Zig, Master of the Stardust, and his Spiders from Mars; Thriller and his Undead Horde; Burning Heart, the Unquenchable.

And the mega-plot is the fight for the icon of ultimate cosmic power known only as the Eye of the Tiger.

Picture by HopePhoto

The Jukebox Heroes

A while back DC Comics had the Milestone imprint, which featured characters like Static (of Static Shock fame), Icon and Hardware (they were all recently incorporated into the main DC universe). So I recently learned that one of the Milestone charactewrs is a girl in a winged iron armor who calls herself Iron Butterfly (if you didn't catch that, hand your head in shame and check out Wikipedia).

So that obviously got me thinking (as these things are wont to do). And since nothing good ever comes out of thinking,