Monday, December 5, 2011

Store: New Team Fortress 2 Design Available!

This weekend, I added a new design to my CafePress Store. Inspired by Team Fortress 2, "Is Credit to Team" - available in both RED and BLU flavors - lets everyone know who's got their back when the poodoo hits the fan.

Also available are:

Get yours today! I guarantee you'll be the only person wearing it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Announcing the Kingworks Creative Store!

I've finally done it. I've done what many bloggers and web-personalities before me have done and jumped into the world of hocking t-shirts online. Okay, there's more to it than that, but the long and short of it that I now have a CafePress store done up in the style of my other website. Hence the 'Graphic Design' in the logo.

Designs for sale will include artwork seen on this blog as well as some brand new designs I'm working on. I only have two designs up right now - Zombie Bite and Brother Ptolemy - with plans to add many more, including some brand new ones designed exclusively for the store!

For your convenience, there is a new link over in the right column for Kingworks Creative Merchandise.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome.

Your support means the world to me and will allow me to continue developing as an artist and designer. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Art: Skyward Sword

I decided to burn some nervous energy doing art (and some sort of poetry, I guess?). For some reason, despite not owning it, I felt compelled to do something related to Skyward Sword.

The clouds turned out nice.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Misc: Changing Jobs

2011 has been a year of self-discovery.

Back in the spring, I took an art course at the university where I work. As the semester progressed, I began to notice that I was really looking forward to class and really dreading the trudge back to my desk.

Things reached a head in October, when I finally put to words what I'd been feeling over the preceding months - my passion is not in programming, but the creative arts. The majority of my job was emotionally draining and required very little original creativity. Day after day, I languished in my cubicle, daydreaming about making things at which people enjoyed looking - work that inspired and endured.

So, after much prayer and discussion with my wife, I submitted my resignation. Come January 31, 2012, I will be 'sans employment.' The plan is be hired well before that. There are some hurdles, however - A modest portfolio and living in a rural area without a lot of tech-related jobs being the two biggest.

It's been eleven days - correction, it's been a long eleven days - since I gave my resignation. I've submitted several applications and even had an interview over the phone (I don't think they liked the idea of hiring someone who wanted to work from home over moving).

There are good days and bad days - times of optimism and despair. What I was unprepared for, though, was the effect all this stress and drama would have on me physically. I'm totally drained at the end of the day. It's as if I won't be able to rest - truly rest - until I know things are going to be okay. Which I kinda already believe - but I don't know how or when, and that's the distinction.

There's not really a point to this. I mainly felt like the blog needed dusting off and the recent lack of activity explained. I cannot tell you how eager I am to be in a creatively stimulating environment and getting the 'juices of inspiration' flowing again. And when that day comes - and it is coming - I will have such wonderful things to share.

Until then, send a good thought my way. If you're the praying type, I'd appreciate it if you'd offer one up for a stranger trying to follow his heart for once, instead of his thick head.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

DnD: Anti-Alignment Argument or Walking the Walk vs. Talking the Talk

What Is Alignment?

Alignment, as described in the two Essentials Player Handbooks*, describes a moral stance. It is a dedication to a set of moral principles, a universal force ‘bigger than deities or any other allegiance that a character might have.’ Further, ‘picking and adhering to an alignment represents a distinct choice.’ In game-play terms, if you have declared an Alignment, your PC is always going to make choices in a certain manner … or else.

The Problem

Or else what? The handbooks don’t say. There are also no guidelines on how DM’s should treat behavior that goes ‘against’ a PC’s declared Alignment. When I was playing a little (and a I mean very little) 3rd edition in college, ‘or else’ was being threatened with negative levels for wanting to cast sleep on a stable owner so I could steal a horse that he refused to sell me - despite the rest of my party rapidly outpacing me in pursuit of some critical mission element or other. Apparently, a neutral good character would “never do anything like that.”

That example illustrates one problem (of many) with dedicated Alignments. Unless everyone agrees beforehand on the exact definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the context of the game, they are subjective. When you have a defined element in a game system, you need also to have defined mechanics relating to that element - not so with Alignment. It simply is. How it actually affects a game - if it truly does at all - is anyone’s guess. However, the DM seems to have the most pull, by the sole virtue of his role. Besides, who else is going to enforce the proper Alignment-appropriate behavior?

Here’s another problem: what if a player wants to switch Alignments? What is required for that to happen? What forms get filled out and who processes them? What, if any, should be the penalties for Alignment-shifting? What about characters whose powers are derived from deities who themselves are aligned - Clerics for example? It seems like they would be most at risk for behavior that goes against their Alignment. Rogues, on the other hand, would be masochistic or just plain crazy to declare themselves ‘Lawful Good.’

Fixing Alignment

I see two solutions to the problem outlined above, neither of which are mutually exclusive:

First, if you are using declared Alignments in your game, when a PC makes a choice that goes against her declared Alignment - and sooner or later they will** - let them do it. Furthermore, let them get away with it. If you are going to have consequences, make them realistic. Negative levels and lost healing surges are not realistic. Getting chased by the City Watch because you stole something and end up going to prison is realistic. So are a Cleric’s prayers falling on deaf ears until he makes up for whatever it was she did to piss off her patron deity.

The second approach is more to my liking: Before the game even starts, establish with your players that Alignment is not something chosen beforehand, but develops throughout the course of the game as a result of their actions. Someone might claim to be good, and talk like a ‘good’ character - but do their actions bear that out? Do they ‘walk the walk?’

The Cleric may declare to be a follower of Bahamut, but do the decisions they make keep in line with the precepts of the order? If so, his powers should work (provided the rolling allows for it); if not, any faith-based skill checks might turn out to be harder than they thought they’d be. Maybe one (or all) of their prayers ceases to work at all. Of most interest, will the player figure out why this is happening to them - assuming you didn’t just up and tell them why.

What about the Warlock who willingly makes pacts with devils and demons, but ends up saving the kingdom from the powers of darkness? How might the source of his power be affected by acts of sacrifice and altruism? He might need to do some fast talking with his dark patrons to stay in their good*** graces.

What I like about this approach is that the players are a moral blank slate when the game starts. They are not tied down by a bunch of made-up backstory that often has little-to-nothing to do with the game and everyone is allowed to experience a path of self-discovery as both individuals and as a group.

What if …?

A potential obstacle to the “no Alignment ‘till you earn it”**** approach involves the PC’s finding themselves in a situation that requires them to be clearly identified as being good or evil. This will likely not be an issue later in the game, but if the party has just started out, it is quite likely that they have not done anything to push themselves in either direction along the moral spectrum.

If such a case arises, I would have no problem telling the PC’s (via NPC’s, mystical means, etc.) that they need to prove themselves to continue.

Boom, side quest.

It then falls to the PC’s to decide for themselves if the effort needed to become good or evil is really worth it. Canny***** players may prevail with reasoning that their desire to complete the quest is itself proof of their Alignment.

Granted, if you like to run your campaign on rails, this might be more frustrating than not, and you should feel free to dispense with it.


A PC is not ‘good’ or ‘evil’ simply because they declare themselves as such; a PC is ‘good’ or ‘evil’ because that is how they act over the course of the campaign.

It can be quite exciting (and perversely exhilarating) to discover that the PC who thought he was a paragon of virtue actually turned out to be a greedy opportunist and fame whore - not because they had to act like that due to their predetermined Alignment, but because they chose to act that way.

* page 43 or 44, depending on which one you’re looking at.
** Especially if, like me, you enjoy throwing them into morally grey conundrums
*** Evil?
**** I really need a better name for it.
***** Or extremely lucky, depending on how their Diplomacy/Bluff check rolls out.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Video Games: Get Lost, Galactrix

Found another time-waster.

I loved playing Puzzle Quest on my Nintendo DS. It was intuitive, inventive and, whenever I ran into a challenge I could not beat the first time, I was excited to try it again. Eventually, I ran across a copy of the follow-up, Puzzle Quest Galaxtrix, at Big Lots for somewhere around $3.00 - a great deal, I thought. I mean, it was a "Best of E3!" pick, so it had to be good, right?


This game is frustrating, dull, and un-engaging. I found myself skipping through dialogue and flipping off the screen more times than I'd care to admit. So what the heck went wrong with Puzzle Quest Galatrix? How could it be so different from the addictive fun of Puzzle Quest?

In a word: leapgates.

The map of the galaxy is made up of sectors that you have to jump to using leapgates. Unfortunately, they have all been disabled by some kind of virus, so you have to 'hack' them. Hacking involves matching colored sets in a specific order before time runs out. It's similar (in concept, if not in practice) to training monsters in Puzzle Quest. The game's core play mechanic is where this becomes almost unplayable.

Whenever you make a match, there is a short animation that plays where the crystals turn to energy and zap over to the player info. New tiles then fall in and, if any other matches happen, the animation plays for them and you wait until any subsequent matches from incoming tiles are over.

During this process, the timer never stops counting down - even during the animations and new tiles appearing. You don't get any bonus time for matching regular tiles. Instead there are special 'timer' tiles scattered across the board that will give you 10 seconds if you match them; by which time you will have burned up most of your timer. Unwittingly setting off a cascade of matches - which is easy to do, since you have no idea what will be falling in - will eat up most, if not all, of your time.

The easier gates have more time and/or less required matches, while the harder gates have less time and/or more required matches to open them. And what do you get when you open a gate? Another sector whose gates must be opened before you can proceed. And not all sectors have anything worth getting to, either - but you won't know that until you open the gate and fly your ship there. Imagine my joy at taking 20-something attempts to get a hard leapgate hacked, only to end up in a sector that nothing worth buying/mining, and no missions to take.

As I was collecting missions, I noticed a bunch of them had zero connection to the plot and required me to cross the galaxy. For example, one planet had a set - more than one! - of missions concerned with delivering food. I played every single side mission in Puzzle Quest; at least they involved people in need of a champion to right wrongs and fight evil. In Galactrix, people are literally looking for an intergalactic delivery boy. It's bad enough having to do that across one sector map, but a across ten (or more)? Screw that, man.

I don't know who was responsible for giving this game a "Best of E3!" award, but I cannot believe they played it for more than half an hour at most. I made it about three and a half.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Misc: So ... I'm a writer now?

Things have always been a bit slow around here, I will admit.

A large part of that is due to the fact that I, myself, am slow. I have a regular, 40-hour per week job that eats up most of my life, then there is family, then there are the myriad hobbies which jockey for turns in claiming the couple of hours or so I have each night before bed - a time that, like some creeping, time-gobbling glacier, inches earlier and earlier into the evening every year. Team Fortress 2 has not helped at all, and that is an understatement.

The short version is that I jump into a lot of different projects and they rarely get finished before another project comes along. At least projects offer the potential for in-progress updates and content.

What do you do when the project being worked on does really exist until it is finished? A story, for example?

I began writing what I thought was going to be a short story. Nevermet is putting together an anthology of short stories and, like with almost every other project they announce, I tried to get in on the action. But the story kept going ... and going. And going. It now currently sits at 15,467 words (shooting for at least 20k) and I think I'm halfway done with it.

I won't have the 50,000+ words publishers want to see for a novel. It will fall somewhere in or around the category of being a novella, depending on who you ask. A young adult novel, perhaps, though the content may not lend itself that demographic.

But what can I say about it? I don't want to give away plot or characters or anything that might be worth stealing - I'm paranoid like that - but I do want to draw in any potential readers' interest.

I read somewhere online (Peter Shallard or Lifehacker, I think) that if you tell people what you are working on, you are less likely to finish it. That the act of sharing some how equates to the act of finishing in our brains and gives us enough of a 'rush' that we grow bored or impatient with having to continue working on it and move on to the next project.

So why the heck am I writing this post? Have I shared too much? Does letting the few of you who know this blog exists what I've been up to put the whole story at risk?

I think (hope) it obligates me to finish.

But really, I'm writing this because, in my mind, I think I'm staying relevant. I feel like, by saying "I'm still here!" the few you who have this feed bookmarked (or whatever) will stick around to see what happens next, that this isn't just another exercise in vanity someone started and let fall by the wayside.

I WILL have something to offer. I just don't know what. Or when. So ... see you around?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

VG: You Never Forget Your First(time playing TF2)

Last night I played a video game on the internet with other real live people. Not a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, since people have been doing it for years now. Just not this person. I've been so terrified of getting annihilated and verbally abused by obnoxious douchebags to the point that I avoided any serious online gaming.

Oddly enough, this fear never stopped me from accepting challengers way back when arcades existed (Ryu 4 life!). For some reason, though, playing online just seemed much more ... exposed? visible? I'm not sure what the word should be, but the idea behind it being that if/when I crash and burn, the whole world be able to see it.
So Team Fortress 2 goes free and it's simply too big, too famous, and the 'Meet the' movies too entertaining to pass up. The first two times, I relegated myself to playing Dustbowl with some Easy bots. Did okay, but was far from getting on the leaderboard during those practice sessions. Despite some of the anti-F2P sentiment I was noticing online, I finally decided to heed some advice I read on the Penny-Arcade forums and simply jump in with real players.

So I decided to go with the Medic, since I figured he's useful to have regardless of the situation. And then the most amazing thing happened ....

I didn't totally suck.

In fact, after an hour's play, I had my self a nice collection of Medic achievements - 6 or so AND I managed to kill a Spy with the bonesaw (Very nearly had a Sniper, too, but he got away)- which felt REALLY good, given the number times I was stabbed in the back.

Now, I'm under no illusions that I'm some kind of prodigy. But overall, I felt positively reinforced by the experience. Which is the point, I guess. As for the abuse, the worst I got was "Hey Medic, with the ubercharge at the end, that would've been a good time to use it."

So, if you run into me (kingworks) playing TF2 sometime, do me a favor and slow down so I can heal you already - or, if you're on the other team, hack you to death with my saw! ;-)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Art: Two Zombie Pics

A couple of recent pics done for Nevermet Press' stock art catalog, it should be up on soon. These are obviously scaled down for the web, the ones available for purchase will be print quality (300 dpi). Both were done in Photoshop CS with a Wacom Graphire 4 (6x9) tablet.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Video Games: Sayonara Supreme Commander

The latest victim of my campaign against time-wasting video games is Supreme Commander.

I picked this up at Ollies' for $5 - not a bad deal at all. It looked nice, despite being a few years old, and I was in the mood for sci-fi RTS - additionally, I'm too poor to get SCII and do not yet have a high-end machine to the game justice.

So what went wrong? The problem came to a head in the third mission of the UEF campaign when the Aeon were constantly attacking my bases and denying my attempts to expand the southernmost island. It took me FIVE HOURS to beat it. Needless to say, the wife was not happy when I came to bed at 2:30 am.

The game has this annoying approach of adding to the map and mission objectives incrementally. So you think you're building towards one corner of the map and when you finally get there - Oh, by the way, you have to clear out this base way over here that you had no idea existed, because we wouldn't let you explore that part of the map.

I looked up a walkthrough online and, from what I can tell, nearly all of the 15 missions are structured that way. Assuming each mission takes four hours (benefit of the doubt), that's 60 hours of enemy forces throwing themselves against my massed banks of turrets while I slowly pick away at their defenses. Also, I was so annoyed with the talking heads continually bugging me with comments about needing to check my objectives and that there are still alien scum that need killing. I get it - I'm slow!

60 hours of game play might be fine for your average gamer - heck, it would have been fine for me in college - but it's more than I have to give these days. Especially for a setting and story I really don't have any interest in.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

40k: Games Workshop has lost its [hive] mind

I should probably not write while I'm angry. I should wait until I've calmed down and assembled an articulate, organized, in-depth study on the topic. I should also quit drinking so much Mtn. Dew and get outside more.

I should do a lot of things.

It's bad enough that Games Workshop raise their prices every year. It's worse that they have decided to cut off half of the planet from ordering their products.

The straw that has broken this camel's back is the new Dark Eldar Haemonculus GW has just put up on Advanced Order.

I don't care about the new line of "Finecast" models replacing metal figures - it's just resin (cheaper for them to make, but they're going to sell them for more).

Okay, fine, whatever. It's a jerky move, but I was willing to see how things turned out ... But to try and sell A SINGLE model with NO OPTIONS WHATSOEVER for almost $20.00 !?!? My kustom Haemonculi looked cooler and cost way less to make.

Screw you, Games Workshop. I'm done.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Art: Harry Caricature

Final assignment for the Advanced Drawing class I took at work was a caricature in the style of the late, great David Levine.

Monday, April 25, 2011

40k: Paint Stirs for Basecoating Infantry

This is a quick painting tip for applying base coats to batches of infantry models: Tape them to paint stirs (I used duck tape).

 You can get the stirs for free from any paint store; the models can be turned to get at any angle you need, they don't fall over or get pushed around by the pressure released by the can and you won't get as much paint on your wrist/hands. I don't remember where I first heard this tip, but I tried it the other day on two units of Dark Eldar Wyches and I can confirm that it works.

I will undercoating all my infantry using this method in the future.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Misc: Random Update - Spring 2011

I'm still around and busier than ever. Unfortunately, that means I don't have a lot of time to put blog posts together. Here's a quick update on what's happening in my own little world:
  • The semester is almost over and that means assignments, projects, papers, etc. are being assigned and coming due all over the place - even for a guy like me who is only taking a single drawing class for the "fun" of it.  It's been wearing a bit thin, lately, so I'll be glad when it's over (so will Jonathan over at Nevermet Press when I finally start submitting stuff again ^_^")

  • I started writing a short story, only, I think it's growing into a full-blown novel. Have to wait and see. One of the challenges is the setting - I know very little about late 1800's France and Bavaria. I've been reading up in Wikipedia and looking for movies (especially sci-fi/horror) set in that period for information and inspiration. Suggestions are welcome.

  • Warmer weather means yardwork (boo!) and vacations (yay!) - both of which are non-conducive to project advancement.

  • Spiral Knights - I found out about this FREE online game from Penny-Arcade. Lovin' it so far. I'm on there as Kingworks after dinner (~8pm GMT-5/EST). Say 'hi' if you see me on there. ;-)

  • Not a huge distraction at this point, but the third Humble Indie Bundle (called Frozenbyte) went on sale yesterday. I donated for the first two and have been immensely satisfied with them; so getting the latest one was a no-brainer. I will happily make a donation for quality indie games that supports charity.

  • I got a Kindle 3 (the $130 Wi-Fi version) and Patrick Rothfuss' wonderful new The Wise Man's Fear (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 2) (sequel to the equally wonderful The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1)) - both were immensely satisfying purchases. There is also a fun little puzzle game I got on sale for 99 cents called Triple Town. I've seen not one, but two (!) Kindle RPG's by Steve Jackson, but have yet to justify handing over $3.99 ea. for something that will eat up even more of my free time. Besides, I'm still eying the Essentials Monster Vault, Deluxe DM's Screen, and Dungeon Master's Kit (just in case anyone was feeling super generous. :-))

  • At some point, I'm expecting Games Workshop to release some early photos of more new Dark Eldar models. At the top of the list of kits I hope they produce are the Venom gunship/transport and a set of 3 Haemonculi in plastic w/weapon options. Oh, that reminds me, I really need to finish painting the 2 units of new Wyches and 2 new Ravagers sitting on my shelf ... *sigh*

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DnD: A New Approach to 4e Skill Challenges

I've read a lot of posts and tweets about making Combat more efficient in 4e; often frustrated that I didn't really have any good ideas or suggestions to offer. So I began to look at another oft-discussed aspect of the game: Skill Challenges and how to make them easier to manage for DM’s and provide a more organic, in-character experience for players.  

I am very interested in any and all feedback from DM’s and players concerning this approach.
Handling a Skill Challenge
A Skill Challenge is a discreet event that occurs within a role-playing session. They have a beginning, operate across a series of turns until a predefined end-state has been reached; at which point the consequences of the players’ performance is determined. I propose that this structure exists primarily for the benefit of the DM; helping them stay focused and organized as they direct the game.

But what about the players? Frankly, I feel that announcing the start of a structured experience - such as a Skill Challenge or Combat Encounter - takes the players out of the game. Handled carelessly, it is tantamount to saying “Okay, we’re going to stop role-playing now and start rolling dice.” Not only does that interrupt the narrative flow of the game, but I think it tends to put players in a meta-mentality and hurts spontaneous in-character role playing that might have otherwise occurred. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments)

Consequently, I would not recommend announcing when you begin a Skill Challenge. Simply let the party know that there is a goal or objective that needs to be achieved, and that they will be using their skills to do so. If there is someway to impart this information to the PC’s through an NPC or environmental clue, so much the better.

In the same way, DM's shouldn't feel obligated to divulge every reward or penalty earned in the challenge. Obviously results that have an immediate impact on what's happening need to be conveyed to the group, but imagine your PC's surprise when an unexpected ally pops up in a dire situation due to their success in a Skill Challenge a while back - or their dismay when attempts to rally support in a village fall on deaf ears due to their inept handling of a negotiation in another region. Regardless of how a DM chooses to implement this, it needs to plausible.
Complexity equals the number of rounds participants have to complete a Skill Challenge. Example: A Skill Challenge of Complexity 3 lasts 3 rounds; each player will make 3 skill checks. Likewise, if any opposing NPC’s or monsters are working against the PC’s in the challenge, they will also get 3 checks each to negate a PC’s individual success.

Complexity should be in direct proportion to the amount of effort or the number of smaller tasks the PC’s would ordinarily have to put forth in order to accomplish their goal. Note that Complexity is NOT the same thing as Difficulty - which is how hard a task is to complete. A Skill Challenge can be simple and hard, or complex-yet-easy to accomplish.


DM’s decide ahead of time which skills will be Primary Skills. The players WILL NOT know which skills are Primary, nor will they be given any pre-written examples of how to use a skill. Instead, a PC may use any skill she wishes. Primary skills will, naturally, be the most effective; Secondary skills are slightly less effective and take a -1 to their final score; Other skills are a bit of a gamble, but still have a chance to succeed - especially if the player using them offers a particularly clever description of what they are doing; in which case, no penalty should be subtracted.

Primary SkillsNo penalty
Secondary Skills (optional)-1
All other skills-2

You may still wish to implement skills that auto-fail during a Challenge (which almost always seems to be Intimidate). I would recommend against letting players know how the scores are adjusted, but it is ultimately up to the DM.
DC’s (Difficulty)
How hard is it to accomplish some (or all) part(s) of a Skill Challenge?

Each skill listed as Primary or Secondary needs a DC assigned to it; the level of DC’s selected in a Skill Challenge remains the same. See pgs. 158-9 and 126 in the Essential Rules Compendium for details.

All other skills should default to a level-appropriate Medium DC, unless use of a particular skill is especially risky, in which case it should be Hard.
Accumulating Successes
There are two types of success : individual and group. Individual success occurs when a PC meets or beats a given DC in a round. Group success occurs when the majority of a party succeeds in a given round. If there are an even number of PC’s in a party, DM’s should decide ahead of time if an even split will result in a success (nice DM’s) or failure (mean DM’s). Regardless of the choice, STICK WITH IT - at the very least for the duration of the Skill Challenge; ideally for the entire campaign.
Success or Failure of the Challenge
The number of group successes needed is always two less than the Complexity, making things easy to remember. I would not recommend Skill Challenges of very high Complexities; instead, consider where it might make sense to increase DC’s.

ComplexityGroup successes neededComplexityGroup successes needed

Complexity 1 challenges are essentially a single Group Skill Check and thus, not included. A DM could run a Complexity 2 skill challenge, requiring one success - that might be easier to conceptualize as a Group Check with a ‘do over.’
Consequences: Success and Failure
There are four possible outcomes to every Skill Challenge:

1) Perfect: Target # of successes are accumulated with NO failures - The best possible outcome, this should be reward over and above the basic storyline goal of the Skill Challenge - perhaps with a boon or additional advantage to what the PC’s would normal get for accomplishing a Skill Challenge. DM’s may want to leave the Perfect finish off of Challenges of Complexity 1 or 2, since they are so easy to obtain.

2) Normal Success:  Target # of successes before failure - The PC’s did what they needed to do and the story may progress as they hoped it would. If any additional rewards are given, they should be to a lesser degree than they would get for a Perfect finish.

3) Normal Failure: Failing to accumulate target # of success before failing - The PC’s failed to do what needed to be done. The story continues, but now they are at a noticeable disadvantage. Additional penalties may be awarded, but - as with Normal Success - should be to a lesser extent than those awarded for a Critical Failure.

4) Critical Failure: NO successes accumulated before failing the Challenge - The PC’s blew it. Big time. Not only did they fail to accomplish their goal, but they  used up additional resources/goodwill in the process and took a blow to their reputation for it. The PC’s have additional negative results - such as damaged reputation with townsfolk, which causes prices to be higher when paying for goods and services - in addition to the now-altered story.

The consequences for failure should ALWAYS be considered when building a Skill Challenge and not put off until the moment the PC’s fail. The additional boons and penalties for particularly good or poor performance in a Skill Challenge can (and probably should) be generic and easily applicable to a variety of situations.

Example Skill Challenge

DM's Notes
Complexity: 4 (need 2 group successes)
Primary Skills (DC): Diplomacy (Med), Bluff (High), Insight (Med), Perception (Med)
Secondary Skills (DC): Arcana (High), History (Med), Streetwise (High)
* Intimidate will auto-fail
Goal: Keep the infected people on the wagon from entering the city

DM: An outbreak causing people to turn into zombies has begun to ravage the countryside. You three (PC's) must try and convince the guard at the gate to raise the draw bridge before a wagon full of plague-infected farmers crosses into the city. One of the city residents - a relative of the people on the wagon - refuses to believe that they are infected and is arguing to let them in; he will make an opposing check against one of you at the end of each round. The guard will listen for 4 rounds before making up his mind. So, PC-1, you start and we'll go around the table.

Round 1

PC-1: Guardsman! You've got to close that gate - many innocent lives will be put at risk if you let that wagon cross without verifying if those people are infected or not. I rolled a 12, add 5 to diplomacy; 17.

DM: (makes a check mark on a sheet of paper for the success) Surprised, the guard looks at the wagon. 'Really? Infected?' he asks, looking concerned.

PC-2: I climb the wall, granting me a better view of the wagon. It definitely looks like the people are unwell. I got a 16 on Athletics.

DM: (-2 since Athletics wasn't a listed skill, it’s a failure; makes an 'x' on beside the check mark) The guard looks at you skeptically.

PC-3: Sir, you must know that this same incident occurred five years ago in the kingdom to the north. If only they'd taken the extra precaution of stopping the wagon and checking the people, a village could've been saved. History check of 19!

DM: (-1 for a Secondary skill, but it still passes; DM puts a second check mark down) The guard seems to nod his head thoughfully. At this point, the man speaks up angrily.

Man (DM): Those people are loyal subjects of the crown and have every right to enter this city!' (10 for Diplomacy fails the check).

DM: You can tell the guard doesn't appreciate the man's tone. 'I need something else to go on before I can close the gate,'he turns back to the party. (2 successes is enough to win the round - 1 group success so far)

Round 2

PC-1: I can tell you're unsure, maybe even a little nervous about closing the city in the middle of the day - but this is the right thing to do! A ... 12 on Insight?

DM: (No penalty, but 12 is too low; so an 'x' is marked below the first three marks) The guard seems to have taken your words the wrong way. 'Nervous?' he asks, somewhat crossly.

PC-2: Look pal, we're trying to save this city! If you won't raise the bridge willingly, we'll make you! Sweet! Natual 20 for Intimidation!

DM: (A second 'x' mark, as Intimidate auto-fails) The guard takes a step back, but refuses to throw the lever, instead putting a hand on the hilt of his sword. 'Are you threatening me?'

PC-3: Sir, please, I am sensitive to magic and I tell you that the people headed towards this city have been infected by a dark spell! 24 for Arcana after bonuses!

DM: (Takes off -1, but it still passes; check mark) The guard takes in your attire and magical acourtrements and seems swayed.

Man (DM): Oh please! These people are outsiders to our city! Who knows what ulterior motives they have in shutting our kinsmen out like common highwaymen? (DM decides that Streetwise bets fits and rolls 19; a success - which negates PC-3's success; the PC's have been shut out this round)

DM: The guard considers the man's words and turns a cold eye on your party. 'I've nearly made up my mind,' he says, 'you've one last chance to convince me, else I let those people in and report you lot as troublemakers to the city watch.' (The group now has 1 success and 1 failure)

Round 3

PC-1: The wagon is close now - you can see how pale and sickly the people on it are! They do not look well! Perception of 22 after modifiers.

DM: (starts a third row of marks with a check)

PC-2: Have you not seen the fliers around town about the illness that has befallen the countryside? Citizens are being warned to stay in the city; this is common knowledge! Got a 19 for Bluff.

DM: (another check mark) The guard looks around the street. It does seem like an unusually small number of people have passed through the city's gates today.

PC-3: Look! In the sky! Those are vultures circling - they can smell the stink of illness and decay emanating from the wagon. You do not want that in the city. I rolled a 20 on Nature.

DM: (a third check mark) The guard looks to the birds, then to the wagon, then back to the birds. He seems to be considering your words.

Man (DM): Oh come on! Birds!? You're seriously going to consider raising a drawbridge because of a couple birds? I just came here from Gustav's stall in the market; he's not heard anything 'bout no 'dark magic' or 'infections' - and GUstav knows everything that happens around here! (natural 20 on Streewise nets the NPC a victory over one of the PC's individual successes; however, two other individual successes win the round for the PC's)

DM: The guard nods in agreement. 'You're right, I haven't heard anything about it. But,' he starts winching up the draw bridge, 'better safe than sorry! We'll check them out. If they're clean, they come in; if not, they can stay outside.' (There is no need for the fourth round as two group successes net a Normal Success for the party) The people on the wagon are checked and found to be in the process of turning into zombies! The mayor is grateful and asks if the PC's will help direct the city defenses should a horde of undead assault the city (which, of course, they will)

When a large force of zombies assaults the town later that night, the PC's don't have to worry about a sudden zombie outbreak in the town; had they failed they would have been attacked from both sides.

So, there it is! I'd love to hear about any experiences in trying this approach - good or bad. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Art, Misc: Da Vinci and Me

A few years back, I was getting counseling as part of an effort to overcome some personal struggles I was having as a result of my insecurity, anxiety, and undiagnosed low-grade depression. I found myself repeatedly mentioning how I loved to create and to be creative - despite the very uncreative existence I was living at the time - and that my attempts to pursue a 'practical' life was in conflict with the person I was created to be and the life I was called to lead.

red conte on paper, 18 x 24"
"Who is it you want to be?" I was asked at one point. It took all of a half-second to decide. "Leonardo da Vinci," I replied, completely serious. I went on to explain that the man was a genius, fascinated by everything, threw himself into everything he did, and while he didn't produce a huge number of works in his lifetime, what he did finish mattered - he lived passionately, if impractically.

Not to sound arrogant, but I'm pretty smart, pretty good at art - I want to produce all sorts of creative works in a variety of media, and I have the tendency to jump headlong into everything I try ... up until the point at which I'm distracted by the next shiny thing that catches my attention and I jump into that, leaving a dearth of half-finished projects in my wake.

Fast forward to a week ago. I'm taking Advanced Drawing; free classes being one of the perks at the university where I work. Our assignment it to pick a Renaissance artist and copy one of his sketches. Then, produce an original sketch in the artist's style. By now it should be obvious who I picked. And, to be honest, I was pretty proud of the sketch I copied. It turned out well and I got a good grade on it.

However, when it came time to do the second piece, an original sketch in the selected artist's style, I was so burned out from trying to do justice to da Vinci's self-portrait that I honestly didn't care. I approched it like a regular drawing and drew like Paul, not like da Vinci.

pencil and charcoal on paper, 18 x 24"
The grade on the second drawing wasn't as high. Below the class average, in fact. Initially, this bothered me - I like to excel in everything I do and below average is not excelling. Then I started to compare the pictures and realized something: There is more of me in the self-portrait - literally and figuratively, than in my attempt to ape da Vinci's self-portrait.

It's real. It's honest in a way the other picture is not, flaws and all.

Don't get me wrong, there are certainly things I could get hung up on and criticize - the face, for example. But that line of thinking always pits me against myself: "I'm not da Vinci!" I'd gripe as I started to chafe at the differences in skill between myself and a dedicated Renaissance master; an all-to-common conversation, I'm embarrassed to admit.

And then, for the first time, it hit me: No, I'm not da Vinci, I'm Paul.

And I'm okay with that.