Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Launchpad

New character is all ready to go--stats rolled, background written, skills and gear purchased. I know pretty much who I intend him to be. Now to see who he will be.

Tomorrow night...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Strange Inactivity

Feels strange to be sitting at home tonight. I've spent the last five nights out of the house, plus Saturday nights are often movie nights with friends. However, we had movie night on Thursday, so now everything feels skewed. I just feel as if I should have somewhere to go, and I don't.

Which is not to say I don't have things to do. I have a ton, and a nearly unprecedented 4 days off in which to do them. Bad in terms of hours worked this week, but good in terms of having time to get caught back up on life. I need to start reclaiming the house from the mess that engulfed it after the heat wave clamped down on us. I need to put together some eBay sales for my dad. I need to finish editing Hero Go Home and finalize the cover. I need to get a lot of work done on the Hero Go Home relaunch: settle on one of the potential new themes I've been playing with for weeks, and finish up the new logo, as well as designing the look of some new featured graphics. And write a new Movie Monday, as well as working my way ahead on Out of the Vault.

Oh, and set up a plan for Halloween. Since Hero Go Home is now the official location for all Blog Events, the big festivities will happen over there. I have a short story written that I'm going to adapt into a new radio play (hard to believe it has almost been a year, already). I'm going back and forth between Non-scary 70's Horror and Superheroes Who Are Really Monsters for the Out of the Vault theme. I don't have a theme for Super Movie Monday yet; maybe some 70's British stuff like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, or maybe (as a companion to Out of the Vault) Superheroes Who Are Really Monsters, like Blade and Ghost Rider (which is unbelievably getting a sequel--you can see the trailer here).

I probably won't get it all done in four days, but I hope to get some really big chunks done. Good intentions and all that...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

GIMP Tutorial and Game Preview

So I used GIMP to put together a really quick and dirty portrait of my new character in the new game campaign, and thought I would throw up a quick tutorial on how I did it. I'm not going to give all the menu paths and such; generally, selection tools are under the Select Menu, Gaussian Blur is under Filters>Blur, and the layer modes are on the Layers dialog under Windows>Dockable Dialogs.

I took as my model this photo of actor Corbin Bleu, best known for his role in the Disney Channel's High School Musical movies. He has matured into a handsome young man, and between the hair and the well-defined planes of his face, he looks a lot like the character I see in my head.

STEP 1: I used the Path tool to copy him out of the background and paste him on a new layer. There are some complicated methods using high-pass filtering to preserve the detail of the hair and such, but in general, I find it faster and easier to simply define a path around the figure, Select From Path, Invert, and Cut, then use the eraser to do fine clean-up. I will usually then Select by Color the transparent portion of the layer, grow the selection by 3-10 pixels (depending on how big the photo is) and run a Gaussian Blur of 2-3 pixels to eliminate the sharp edges to the image that are a telltale giveaway that the person has been cut and pasted.

This was a quick-and-dirty conceptual piece, so I didn't do as much clean-up as I could have on his hair and neck/shoulder areas, or the gap between his chest and his right hand. I also cloned out the necklace, although not completely.

STEP 2: I added a desert background, then flipped it to make the angle of the light more closely match that of the Bleu photo. Then because my character is of a non-human race with golden cat-like eyes, I needed to change Bleu's dark brown eyes to match. First I selected the area of Bleu's eyes, cut and pasted to a new layer, then erased everything except the irises. I desaturated the image so it was black and white, then upped both the brightness and contrast until the brown area of Bleu's eyes (hardly noticeable unless you're looking at extreme magnification) was quite bright. Then I used a small brush to paint in black, darkening the pupils and extending them into catlike slits.

STEP 3: I added another layer just under the one with the copy of the irises and painted in yellow over Bleu's irises. Most irises darken at the edges, so I left a little gap between my yellow and the edge of the iris to provide an outline (I've hidden the other layer so you can see the color more clearly).

STEP 4: I set the layer mode of the iris copy to Hard Light. This allowed the natural patterns of light and dark in Bleu's eyes to overlay the yellow color I'd painted in, making a realistic looking eyeball with shadows that match the lighting in the base photo.

The eyes look a little bright and artificial at this point, so I reduced the opacity of the color layer to about 60% and the overlay to about 80%, which made the effect more subtle and natural-looking.

STEP 5: I had the eyes looking pretty good at this point. The problem now was the color. The original photo had been taken indoors, while the background was saturated in the warm colors of sunset. So I added another layer, did a Select by Color on the transparent portion of the figure layer, followed by Invert Selection. Then I filled the selection with a tone which I thought would give a good match and set the mode to Overlay. It wasn't quite right, so I fiddled with the Hue and Saturation sliders under the Color menu and played with the Opacity until I had something I liked.

STEP 6: It still didn't look right, though. Notice that on the background image, it appears to be taken at sunset, and the shadows are very deep and black. So I needed to deepen the shadows on the figure, while making the highlights pop. I couldn't simply change the contrast on the figure, because that would also change the hues, making them garish. So I copied the figure and pasted it to a separate layer above my color correction layer. I Desaturated the image, then ran a Gaussian Blur. The figure was large, so I may have gone as high as 10 pixels on this. Experiment with what works best. I erased out the irises to allow the eyes I'd worked so hard on to show through.

I set the mode to Overlay  and kept the Opacity at 100%. Notice how it makes the shadows deeper and the highlights brighter without changing the overall hues. The blur also has the added benefit of smoothing out the skin tones and giving everything a slightly alien sheen. I probably could have done this better and more easily with an Alpha Channel or something, but I still don't understand channels, so I stick with what I know.

STEP 7: At this point, I was pretty happy with the result, although I figured I would add some processing to the overall image to add a subtle iris effect to focus attention on the focal point of the picture. I usually do this on a separate image, though, so I saved what I had to a separate JPG, then added the iris effect for the final result.

I intend at some point, once the game has begun and the character has taken better shape, to do a better portrait. But as a quick-and-dirty picture that was completed in an hour or two, this is not bad, and the basic techniques are applicable to a wide variety of situations.

If this kind of article interests you, let me know and I'll do some more. I'm no expert, but I've learned a few tricks here and there, and I'm glad to share if it does someone some good.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Other Smeaton

So I thought I was done with the Dougal Smeaton posts, but turns out, I've got at least one left in me. I am excited about our new campaign and about my new character in it, but I notice that I still break into the Scottish accent every now and then for no damn good reason except I miss the big brute, I guess.

But here's the thing: I've mentioned this before, briefly, but he wasn't the only character I had in mind when we were setting up the campaign. I actually proposed two characters, and Dougal was the one who seemed to fit best with the rest of the group as it was taking shape. And since naamah mentioned publishing some of her initial notes as she was putting together Tom Gentry, I might as well do the same thing with the Smeaton who might have been. So here is my intial email to sargon proposing two character ideas.

Like I mentioned Monday, I had a character idea leap into my head while we were talking. Then as I was driving to see my daughter last night, it occurred to me that the group may have too many of one type or other character, so I came up with another. And no matter which one you pick, the other may be useful. So let me present the Smeaton boys.
Dougal Smeaton is the older of the two Smeaton brothers. The Smeaton family runs the Glenellon distillery near Aviemore along the Spey river. Dougal grew up around the boilers and condensers used to make the family product and experimented with steam machines when he grew older, an enthusiastic amateur like so many who helped drive science and invention in those days. His skills with machine tools and engine design are not fully developed yet, though he is an expert when it comes to boilers and pressure systems.
But when was old enough, he joined the Royal Highland Regiment (The Black Watch) or whatever Scottish unit you might have that would get him to Atlantis. He's a big man, strong, stalwart and intrepid. A trained soldier who also knows a little about steam machines and is eager to learn more.
His younger brother Torin Smeaton is a different character altogether. He also grew up around the family business, but was more interested in the product of the distillery than the equipment used to make it. He was fascinated at the thought that barley could be transformed into something entirely different. As soon as he was old enough, he began to travel to other distilleries in other countries, learning more about the art of distilling spirits. In Italy, he discovered that different herbs could be used to infuse multiple flavors into a product, such as Strega:
He also had a brief affair with mysterious Italian woman (at least he thought she was Italian--they met in Italy), who introduced him to more exotic herbs, herbs which acted on the mind and psyche. In attempting to learn more about these substances--telling himself it was only to develop a new product for his family's company--he traveled to Atlantis in search of herbs unknown in Europe. In Atlantis, his studies on herbs brought him into contact with students of the Dark Arts, and almost without consciously deciding to do so, he found himself learning magic instead. When he looks back on it later, he'll wonder if perhaps his winding path was actually directed from outside, by Fate or by some other Power.
So there you have the forgotten Smeaton, as well as a first look at what would eventually evolve into the Smeaton we now know. Sargon expressed a preference for Dougal and suggested that he might be an officer for greater latitude of action. But I saw Dougal as more of an NCO. Which led to a bit more exploration of his possible background.

Thinking about this further, the Coldstream Guard/1st Atlantean Rifles obviously is the way to go. If there's any kind of technology exchange with Atlantis or something, he might have joined for that reason, which would have caused some hard feelings with his father, who would have preferred he join a Highlands unit..
As far as his age, I'm thinking he's probably mid-20's, like 25 (Torin is younger, closer to 21 or 22). And as far as freedom of action, what if he had been cashiered from the service, dishonorably discharged for some offense he didn't commit. It wasn't bad enough to get him thrown in jail, but it was bad enough for them to dismiss him (or maybe it _was_ bad enough to throw him in jail, if the case against him had been stronger). So he's military-trained, but not actually serving. Too broke to go home (and his Dad might not welcome him back with open arms anyway, after leaving Scotland to join some crazy Atlantean unit, then getting thrown out for dishonorable conduct).
As far as his military job, I don't know enough about the tech level of the Rifles to speculate. Maybe artillery or a mortarman, or a driver of some sort if they have war machines. Crewing one of those would have improved his engineering knowledge, also, I would think.
Best ideas I can come up with without more detailed knowledge of game world.

There was a little more back and forth, but it was mainly about what kind of engineering he might be good at. Finally, by the first game day, we had a more-or-less finished character: Dougal Smeaton, ex-artilleryman, engineer at the Phoenix Steamworks, engaged in building a steam-powered submersible for Sir Walter Graves and then pressed into service to help find him. It took a few weeks to really find his rhythm, and then it was a really fun ride. I can't imagine how the group would have looked with Torin in there instead.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Should Be Writing

SO I've got a ton of projects that need doing, but I can't concentrate on any of them, because I'm getting so revved up about starting a new game. I was a little iffy on the concept of the campaign world when it was first being described, but now my character is really starting to take shape, and I think he's got the potential for about eight different kinds of cool.

I've got the basic parameters of the character mostly figured out. There are some setting-specific details that need to be ironed out, either by me or by the gamemaster. I've tried to set him up so that there are some mysteries in his background that may or may not come into play down the road. I've tried to set it up so that he can be interesting both in and out of combat, while also being totally different from either Cole Chen or Dougal Smeaton (for that matter, he's not really like any character I've played, although he shares some similarities with a couple).

It's been fun coming up with his personality, his history, his abilities and the way they fit together. It's fun imagining what kinds of scenes he might play with other characters, to help me define his personality more clearly in my head. But he really won't take full shape until we're actually playing and he has other characters to react to. And that's one of the coolest parts, because at that point, I'll really be getting to know him at the same time as everybody else.

Monday, August 08, 2011

It Wasn't All Perfect

One might get the impression from past posts about the Atlantis campaign that it was some sort of perfect experience. Of course, it wasn't. So just what sorts of problems were there? I mention these not to be a buzzkill on our fond memories, but just as a reminder of things to watch out for. If I ever do get my nerve up to try to run a game, I will want to keep these things in mind myself.

One continual worry of mine at the prospect of running my own game is the fear that I won't be able to provide enough interesting things for the players to do. That was not so much a problem in Atlantis. In fact, we sometimes had the opposite problem: too many things going on simultaneously.

For instance, when the group returned from the Ghul city, we had several sub-plots going at once. We had come back with a ton of treasure which we had to deal with (and never actually did--the game ended with a ton of golden artifacts still locked up in a room of the late Lord Waugh's estate, assuming no one had just come in and looted it). Victoria had come up with a plan to marry Lord Acrisian, so much of her time was involved in planning that. In addition, someone had sent assassins to kill Victoria, so there was a lot of running aroud trying to figure out who had done it, which dovetailed with the wedding plans.

At the same time, Smeaton was seeing the princess in the tower while trying not to get sidetracked from what was supposedly our main quest to finish the submarine and go hunting for Sir Graves. Gentry's messing with this mirror he got, and Amice is trying to figure out what to do about the hydra goddess we had bargained with.

And the whole time, the gamemaster is trying to throw out these hints about deaths down by the shipyards, but no one is taking the bait, because we all had a dozen other things to worry about, and frankly, with that group, you needed a little more to motivate them than "I smell a mystery. Come on, gang." And eventually, I decided to go ahead and pay attention to the ever-more-obvious signals that the waterfront thing needed looking into, and it led to a good series of encounters. But there may have been a few too many balls in the air at that point for us to focus on the one he wanted us to focus on.

Which leads to the ever-present question of railroading. This is a tricky subject, because on the one hand, as players, you don't want to be led by the nose. But on the other hand, especially in the early game, you don't know enough about the world and your characters to act confidently. You need to be led a little and shown what the possibilities and parameters are. And if the gamemaster has gone to the trouble of preparing an adventure, it kinds of sucks for everybody if you deliberately avoid it. Now he's just wasted a ton of effort, and probably not happy about it, while you're sort of wandering around at random wondering why nothing really interesting is happening. Um, it's because you decided to avoid the interesting thing, genius.

But having said that, it became a little obvious at times that there were tracks that we just weren't going to be allowed to go outside, which got a little frustrating sometimes. And there were a lot of situations that were just so complicated, where we really didn't know enough about all the pieces of the problem, where we would just be lost. Like planning the defenses of Avalon and Atlantis. To really set up the defense correctly would have required maps and detailed order of battle information, and a series of encounters sending out scouts and probes to get intelligence back, which would have stretched things out interminably and probably bored the hell out of the other members of the group. And what the GM would almost inevitably fall back on was an NPC channeling Sean Connery and saying, "Perhaps I can be of assistance." The NPC would detail the plan, and we would just sort of say, "Yeah, let's do that. Tell me when to roll dice."

Which ironically is why it's a good thing all these RPG fantasy worlds look mostly the same. The more unfamiliar the world is, the harder it gets to figure out your options. A good thing to remember for my own game if/when I ever run it.

And then there was the Dawn Forge. Great concept. Wonderful, impressive movie moment as we go in and see this incredible device with the glowing plasma discharges and all. But then we try to use it, and are required to roll dice.

And here's the thing: there was no reason to roll dice, except to make it feel gamey. There were no consequences to failure. There was no way we were going to spend a year-and-a-half getting to this thing, only to die because of a random bad roll. And the gamemaster wanted us to have kewl gear as much as we did. So failing a roll didn't mean you couldn't have the gear. It only meant you had to roll longer to get it. Which made it all kind of pointless. If there's no prospect of failure, why bother rolling at all?

On an almost totally unrelated note, I found out that while my daughter was off visiting my mom this past week, she printed out the rules to a role-playing game. It's a very simple one, looks like, that uses chips instead of dice. Instead of rolling dice for skill or combat resolution, each task has a difficulty, and as long as you have a skill level high enough, you succeed (you also have a pool of chips to buff up certain skills-- not having read the rules thoroughly, I think the challenge level remains secret from the players, so you can fail if you fail to bid enough chips to perform the action or something).

On the one hand, I think it's really cool that she's interested in my kind of gaming, and part of me would like to play the game with her and share that experience. However, it's based on the Warriors books, and I just don't know how much patience I would have playing a game about a tribe of feral cats. Urgh. Difficult question.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Farewell to (Hairy) Arms

So this is it, the last Smeaton post (probably). This will be long, but I want to get it out, so bear with me.

The Atlantis campaign is officially over. We played the last real session on Thursday night and had a brief epilogue/wrap party last night. Scotch was sipped, secrets revealed (more plotting to kill Smeaton by the other party members than I was totally comfortable with, actually--don't blame them, but still...), and songs were sung. There ended up being a total of thirteen song parodies inspired by the game, which is just... Oh god, I'm almost a filker. It's seriously embarrassing. It may have been one of the dorkiest evenings I have ever spent in my life, which is saying something, but it was also one of the most fun.

Because this game was something special to all of us, I think. Besides the 13 song parodies, the game also inspired faux tintype portraits, physical props, various other illustrations including portaits of efamar as her character:

Smeaton's original, but too small and plain, sub design:

And Smeaton's letter to Gentry after the night of the demon battle:

As well as a few side porn stories for the ladies, the copious notes written up by the GM for campaign background including a world's worth of locations and a huge cast of NPC's. And then there were my own piles of research for Smeaton, including research on making Scotch, info on early submarine designs, research on period poetry, and even a full manual of light artillery from 1896 I found on Google books. Oh yeah, and the recipes. Seriously. (ETA: And how could I forget that bat-cheva recorded something like the last 10 months of game sessions? Or the CD of soundtrack music and naamah's description of the game's proposed movie trailer that inspired me to construct an audio track of my own version of the trailer?)

And the thing is, it wasn't clear from the start that things would turn out so well. Our previous superhero game had been wildly fun, a laugh-a-minute gonzo ride through space and alternate dimensions. But for the new game, we were not only taking a more serious approach, but also adding two new players, efamar and jormungandr. Jorm had played years ago, but not recently, while efamar had not really gamed at all. Bat-cheva had only one campaign under her belt, and sargon and naamah had been gaming solely with each other for years, and so had developed a very personal gaming style that might not translate to a bigger group.

The early sessions were erratic, trying to find our place in the world and our dynamics as a group. Efamar was very shy and unsure, jorm's character had trouble finding his niche, and bat-cheva felt unequal to the leadership role she found cast upon her. As for me, it took me a while to find Smeaton's voice, but between the first moment I obeyed the impulse to have Smeaton deny the reality of magic and the time I gave the speech about Smeaton's goal in life--selling Smeaton's Own Steam Man whisky from town to town back in Scotland--I think he fell into place.

And about the time jorm dumped Dr. Travis for Strego, the entire group began to click and things got seriously fun. And now we're looking at the next game with some anticipation--because though we loved Atlantis, I think we were all ready to move on--but also with some trepidation, because what if we can never recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle thrill we got during the best parts of the Atlantis game?

Sargon is unsure of the campaign setting he wants to run. I had been planning to propose taking my own turn GMing after Atlantis ended, but I'm barely keeping up with my blogging commitments now. I don't think I could sustain a decent campaign as things stand right now, though I am keeping the notes I've prepared in case circumstances change and I want to try at a later date.

One of the coolest things about the game for me is that the game ended, in dramatic terms, with a kiss between Smeaton and Amice, his secret crush for most of the game. Games are played in basically two modes: dramatic mode, when players speak as their characters in scenes of discussion or action, and narrative mode, when time gets compressed and information in discussed at a higher impersonal level. And as far as I can remember, the last actual scene was between Smeaton and Amice. In a movie, it might look something like this:

Amice plunges the enchanted dagger into Smeaton's chest. He jerks and gasps as magical life flows into him. His eyes fly open to see Amice sitting in his lap--covered in blood, still flushed and panting from the battle, her concerned face only inches from his own, her eyes gazing into his.

Impulsively, he leans forward and kisses her, heedless of the blood. After a moment, she kisses him back. FREEZE FRAME. FADE to sepia as Waylon Jennings narrates.


And that's the story of how Mister Smeaton freed the hydra goddess and then killed her ass, with a little help from his friends. Smeaton and Amice never really discussed the kiss afterwards. They had both already made other choices with their lives.

DISSOLVE to sepia toned shot of the palace.


Smeaton eventually married the Empress Leda, while High King Valor returned to Avalon to wed his queen. Lady Victoria and King Acrisian, not to be outdone, had two weddings, and in the years to come, there were children, kittens and puppies for everyone.

DISSOLVE to shot of the mountains in sunset.


Strego, Son of Thunder, led his followers back to their home in the mountains, where they learned the art of breeding dragons from the Dorks of the North, who were much impressed by Strego's boots.

DISSOLVE to shot of Atlantis as the sun sets over the distant ocean.


And Amice Belden, the true hero of the Battle of Bel-eth? She assumed the throne formerly held by the late Lady Celaeno. History doesn't record whether rumor ever reached her ears of Empress Consort Smeaton's favorite concubine, a petite brunette redhead who was always seen dressed as a British librarian, and if anyone ever drew a connection between the concubine and the fearsome Witch Queen, they were probably smart enough not to speak such suspicions out loud.

And so everybody lived more or less happily ever after, until Smeaton's son, whom he always called Alfred after his favorite poet, assumed the throne and declared himself Caesar, which never works out for anyone. But that's... another story...


So that's out of my system now, and I move on to a new character (though if anyone wants to write their own alternate ending, go for it).

I'll be back.