The Hunter welcomes me to her campsite, offering me warmth and shelter and the use of her cooking fire. She makes friendly chit-chat as I prepare a bowl of cabbage stew. I politely ignore her. Then she mentions that she doesn’t think that the King will mind her poaching, since she takes so little from the forest.

“Poaching? Oh, hell NO.”

I whip out my long bow and shoot her in the face.

This is why I shouldn’t play games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They turn me into a psychopath.

Continue reading ‘The Cabbage Thief, or Role playing as Psychopathic Escapism’


So, is The Wolverine any good, or do we have another The Last Stand on our hands? Continue reading below to read my mildly spoiler-ish thoughts on the most recent film starring everyone’s favorite mutant berserker.

Continue reading ‘My Thoughts on The Wolverine’




Your party of intrepid adventurers bravely explores some shady grotto, sunken temple, or mildew-scented dungeon. The players advance cautiously, their eyes peeled, ears aquiver, nostrils flared. Everything proceeds smoothly until WHAM-O! Without warning, the sound of plastic polyhedrons clattering on the table top. Attack rolls, damage, saving throws. Your party triggered a trap.

Traps don’t work for me. Too often they destroy my suspension of disbelief. For a trap to be effective, it must be a.) lethal b.) nearly impossible to detect or disarm and c.) installed in such a manner that its creator is unlikely to accidentally trigger the trap themselves.

Let’s look at the first element: lethality. The ideal trap is designed to kill and / or maim, but the more effective the trap is, the less pleased your players will be when you wallop them with it. In Dungeons & Dragons, character death must always be a possibility, but everyone wants to go down swinging. Everyone wants a heroic death. They want to punch the Tarrasque in the uvula as it swallows them whole. Nobody wants to lose a character when a hundred-ton load of bricks falls on their heads, or when they tumble down a sixty foot shaft and land on a dozen adamantium spears smeared with owlbear poo. There’s no real struggle in that, no conflict, no choices to be made. No agency. But traps by their very nature are designed to rob players of agency. For a trap to function as intended, it must be unavoidable.

Which brings us to our second element: detection and disarmament. A trap is generally no good if its intended victim can see it coming. But if your players are anything like mine, they are hyper-vigilant. It’s nearly impossible to surprise them, because they’re content to explore a dungeon in a series of five-foot steps, stopping constantly to search every conceivable surface for any pressure plate, tripwire, or panel that might trigger a trap. They poke with fifteen foot poles. They tie ropes around the waists of slain hobgoblins and drag the bodies along with them, tossing the corpses into unknown corridors to sound their path for danger. They drive herds of sheep into the Tomb of Horrors.



The only time a trap should be obvious is when there’s no way for the victims to escape its effects, e.g. a sealed room that slowly floods, or one where the ceiling lowers to crush anything beneath it. There’s no drama in that. For a trap to create conflict, players need to be able to detect, avoid, or disarm it. The players must be able to take some sort of positive action. But traps are fundamentally unfair. They’re not designed to be detected, avoided, or disarmed. Traps are created and installed by villains, and villains shouldn’t give their enemies a fighting chance.

And thus we reach our final point of discussion: the safety of the trap’s creator. Also known as: “Why do we even have that lever?”


Too often in movies and games, the heroes encounter some improbable, intricate, Rube Golberg-esque trap, and my immediate reaction is to wonder: “Who on Earth would build that?” Perhaps the trap’s construction would pose a significant danger to its creator, such as the one-way tunnel lined with broken glass in Heavy Rain or the razor-wire maze in the original Saw film. Or maybe the trap covers a vital pathway, such as the entrance to a keep or the only stairwell in a wizard’s tower. People are creatures of habit. We fall into routines. We get lazy. We get sloppy. We get careless. We forget to lock our doors. We forget to activate our burglar alarms. We forget to arm / disarm our traps. Imagine what would happen if you were an evil warlock, and you forgot to step on the third floor tile with the engraving of the monkey instead of the second floor tile with the engraving of the goose. WHAM-O! Scything blades, spike pits, boiling oil, toxic slime, hails of venomous scorpions…

Traps don’t work for me. Perhaps they work for you, but I can’t reconcile the form (a device designed for maximum lethality but minimum risk to its creator) with the function (screwing my players over, or forcing them to play in a manner that amounts to hyper-paranoid meta-gaming).


For those who’ve never heard of it, Dark Souls is a Japanese action / RPG video game created by developer From Software, available for the X-box 360, PS3, and PC. A spiritual sequel to the earlier game Demon Souls, Dark Souls is a Gothic, high fantasy tale that is light on exposition and heavy on atmosphere. It plunges the unsuspecting player into a world of relentless danger and moral ambiguity. The player assumes the role of one of the Undead, an accursed human branded with the mysterious Darksign, and ventures to the land of Lordran in search of their destiny. The actions you take in-game may save the world or destroy it.

Heavy stuff, right? Too bad I’m doing it wrong. Continue reading ‘Dark Souls: “I am Doing it Wrong.”’


Last night I played the paper version of Magic: the Gathering for the first time in years. A gracious player at Yancy Street Comics & Games created a draft game using his own cards as the source material, and he invited several people – including me – to play. There was no pressure to spend money (the cards were provided) and there was no prize at stake other than the thrill of friendly competition. I built a deck overflowing with Thallids and Saprolings and managed four wins, four loses, to come in fourth place in the impromptu tournament.

Everything went swimmingly, and I had a great time, until I ran into the Control Deck.

Continue reading ‘Magic the Gathering: Agency vs Control’

One of the reasons I think the stripped-down, bare bones approach to savings throws works so well in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that the game designers combine it with a new approach to defensive stats. Reflex, Will, and Fortitude still exist in 4th Ed, but now they represent static target numbers similar to Armor Class.

Every character or NPC has varying degrees of these four defensive stats. E.g. a slow, lumbering monster such as a zombie might have a high Fortitude defense but a low Reflex. A pixie, which is fast and flighty but physically frail, would probably have a high Reflex defense but a low Fortitude. Combat becomes a game of matching the strongest attacks against the weakest defenses. Strategies develop. Players have to work harder; they can’t simply apply the same solution to every problem. Fun results.

“Wait just a moment,” you say. “Didn’t you spend a nearly an entire post carping about how static numbers in the face of random dice rolls can make a player feel powerless?”

Guilty as charged. But in my mind, it’s all about who rolls the dice. In game, if a monster rolls to attack me, I’m not terribly concerned. My armor is thick, my body is tough, and my will is strong. If the GM rolls well, it doesn’t reflect poorly on me. I mustered the best defenses I could in the face of adversity. I feel no loss of agency if the bad guy waffles me with a lucky shot.

On the other hand, if I roll to attack a monster’s Armor Class, I can own the results. If I roll poorly, that’s on me. If I roll well, that’s also on me. But if I don’t get to roll at all, I feel like I’m not participating. And if the monster rolls well on a Saving throw, and my attack fails as a result, I feel like a jerk. It all depends on who is holding the dice.

4th Edition‘s defensive stat system is mathematically identical to earlier saving throw systems. It simply inverts who rolls the dice. Dice are agency. Agency is ego. And in a game grounded in escapist fantasy, sometimes ego is everything.


I imagine this is what my reaction looks like when my opponents make a saving throw.


Saving Throws


Continuing with my musings from the previous post, I assert that the saving throw rules for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons are superior to earlier iterations.

No, I haven’t gone bonkers. Hear me out here:

I’m a sucker for the granularity of the clunky old saving throw tables from 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I have a soft spot for the fact that each character class could have wildly different target numbers to save vs petrification, dragon breath, death ray, or rods / staves / wands. But while this system gave the game a certain flavor, keeping track of these numbers without the recourse of a handy cheat sheet could be a logistical nightmare.

3rd Edition and Pathfinder streamlined saving throws by reducing the nigh-limitless types of danger to three broad categories: Will, Fortitude, and Reflex. These ability scores reflect a character’s mental durability, physical toughness, and aptitude at diving for cover, respectively. Attempting to resist a malicious transformation or a virulent poison would fall within the Fortitude category, while fighting off an illusion or a vampire’s magical charms would be a matter of Will. This system provides complexity without burdening the GM with the unenviable task of juggling all sorts of figures that differ by both class and level.

But when you botch an important saving throw as a player, you feel a lack of agency, especially when the odds are stacked in your favor. If you’ve got a 77% or 87% chance of avoiding the evil wizard’s lightning bolt, you feel like a jerk when you flub the roll. Anyone who has played X-Com: Enemy Unknown knows the frustration of missing what ought to be an easy shot, and this is exactly the sort of thing can happen with the saving throw systems in 3rd Edition, 3.5, and Pathfinder.

These saving throw systems are symmetrical whether the individual performing the saving throw is a monster or a PC. This can cause problems, in my opinion. For example, in a recent Pathfinder game where I played as a 1st level mage, I tried to put a fleeing goblin to sleep with the only combat-related spell in my arsenal. The progression of the entire adventure hinged on knocking this goblin out, but the goblin got to roll a saving throw to resist the sleep spell. The GM rolled well and easily defeated the DC (a static target number, determined by the spell’s level and my character’s Intelligence modifier) of my sleep spell. It was my one chance to shine, to do my bit as the party’s spell-slinging wizard, and I blew it. I blew it not because I rolled poorly, but because the goblin aced a saving throw.

Monsters don’t need this sort of parity. There ought to be a better method for resolving how spells affect monstrous NPCs, one that doesn’t leave the player feeling like a chump when their sleep spell fizzles or their fireball fails to connect because all of their wizardly might means jack-doodly when the GM’s dice are hot.

In 4th Edition, saving throws involve a simple d20 roll. Rolling a 10 or higher is a success. Anything less is a failure. You have a 50 / 50 chance. It’s an easy system to implement during play, and it feels fair. Failing when the odds are 50 / 50 feels less galling than failing when the odds are 75 / 25 in your favor. At least that’s how it feels to me, and when assuming the mantle of a player rather than a GM, the illusion of agency is paramount.

In 4th Edition, monsters get the same 50 / 50 shot that the PCs do, unless they’re a big bad boss monster, in which case the odds spike in their favor to either 65 / 35 or even 75 / 25. It’s simple, clean, and asymmetrical, which is fine by me, because when you get right down to it, a group of adventurers doesn’t require the exact same rules to govern their actions as the huge honking dragon that’s trying to eat their lunch.



My experiences at Salty Bay Con last week got me thinking about the conflict resolution systems in roleplaying games. I realized that there’s a problem with games like Pathfinder and the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons that handle combat or skill challenges by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the total against a static target number:

When the dice betray you, the game grinds to a halt.

Continue reading ‘When Dice Attack’

I’ve been working on transcription recently, i.e. the task of getting a stack of typed pages converted into a digital format for future editing. It’s an important albeit somewhat mindless task. I’ve transcribed approximately 33 pages of material so far. I have a tendency to start new stories, shape them until I understand where they are going, then lay them aside and completely forget about them. That’s how I ended up with a stack of 150+ pages of unfinished first drafts.

So far in my transcription I’ve rediscovered stories about: a man whose business is wreaking vengeance in the classical Greek style; a family of misfits with the unfortunate surname of Heaven; a group of goblins going on an epic fantasy quest to get those damn, dirty humans out of their hair once and for all; an aging vampire failing to fit in at these new-fangled vampire raves; a humorous piece of metafiction starring a self-aware protagonist who finds himself stranded in a low-budget Alien knockoff; a brothel staffed by legendary monsters offering all manner of strange sexual services; a ghost story in the style of a hard-boiled detective tale; an amnesiac soldier who finds himself trapped in a luxurious castle prison; another satirical adventure tale starring turn-of-the-century amateur adventurer Harry Hominid; and various odds and ends already mentioned in previous posts.

I guess you could say I’ve been busy.

I’m also in the market for a new set of business cards. I think I’m going to include this image on them:


It’s a killer gnome from my upcoming contribution to Skin Crawling Comics. His name is Ernie.


My panels are finally complete. Yesterday I put the finishing touches on Tears of the Robot: Anime Edition, Smoke & Mirrorshades: Cyberpunk in Anime, and Hobbit-free Fetch Quest: Fantasy in Anime. I’m presenting all three at the Florida Anime Experience in Orlando this weekend. I’m also hosting a fourth event which involves a live-commentary of the animated Fist of the North Star film.

For me creating a good panel presentation is an art. Now that I’ve laid the groundwork, I can conceivably retool, tweak, and upgrade these panels for later use at other conventions. I’m looking forward to WasabiCon in November, where I plan to create two new panels: one about Godzilla and either kaiju films, and another about the Shaw Brothers martial arts films of the 70s and 80s.

Writing has been sporadic recently since I was focusing all of my creative energies on the panel work. Nevertheless, I’ve completed my magazine deadlines and penned another entry for The Vault of Error. Today I began a short story poking fun at the MMORPG trope of pitting low-level players against rats and wolves. I also began formally structuring the Norse-inspired campaign I mentioned in the previous post. All in all, it’s been a fairly productive day.