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I just saw a post about this neat ezine, which is out of the UK.. It’s got some great art and includes some unusual content. They’ve come up with a remarkable range of articles, including everything from corsets and Vampire: The Masquerade to Ticket to Ride and 40K. It also lists gaming events for the UK/Ireland. Do check it out!

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So, that whole thing where I was going to update last weekend didn’t happen, largely because I had a massive headache on Sunday. Whether or not that was because of stress or because I sat in front of Mass Effect 3  multiplayer for five straight hours is up for grabs. I’m going to go with stress. Following that weekend, my workweek included four 15+ hour days in a row, but luckily, a broken water main in my city has rendered my place of work unusable, so I have today off! Huzzah!

Since I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had a lot of time to read RPG stuff, but there are two things that I might as well mention on this glorious, work-free Friday.

FFG announced its new Warhammer-themed RPG, Only War, focused on the Imperial Guardsman in the 41st Millennium. It doesn’t look like my thing, so much, since I primarily like the religious and fantasy elements of 40K, and this seems to be focused more on helmets, chains of command, and jungles, if the artwork and descriptions are any indicators. I’m not super interested in the romance and adventure of the military, so I doubt I’ll run this. Can’t say if I’ll pick it up, either, honestly, but we’ll see what the reviews say. (We all know, though, that if they put out a CE, I’ll be tempted.)

I’m not sure I follow FFG’s business model. Why are they churning out so many parallel rules systems dealing with slightly different iterations of the 40K universe (Rogue Trader, Black Crusade, Dark Heresy, and Death Watch)? Why would you not dedicate yourself to building a stronger fanbase for one or two of these products by introducing materials for conventions, instituting scenario competitions, or creating product for Free RPG day, then bolstering the line with many different scenarios? Why not put all of the additional types of play in supplements? I know I sound like one of the grumbling oldtimers here, but seriously…this seems a little flawed. I don’t really need a whole new set of ways to roll dice in the grim futuristic world. I need a set of things to do with the dice I already know how to roll.

Of course, I’m sure that FFG has a market analyst who tells them that creating different systems is the most lucrative way to milk GW’s IP, and who am I to argue with a professional? I mean, after all, having the professional assistance of the suits at Hasbro definitely helped WotC and the D&D line. Oh, wait…

The real problem with my going to the FFG website to worry about their marketing strategy, though, is that I find out problematic information like the fact that there’s a CE of Deathwatch that I missed. An awesome CE with chains on it. I need a CE of Deathwatch like I need another hole in my head, but let’s face it: it has chains on it. Who can resist chains?! Plus, my Black Crusade CE looks rather lonely on the mantelpiece.

For all my griping about output, though, I have to say that Warhammer’s fan base continues to amaze me with its high-quality and thoughtful submissions for play. I’ll talk a bit about some fan-based offerings in my next post, but for now, I’m going to get to a place that has running water.

I’m going into week two of being terribly sick, so I’m grouchy today. Instead of fighting it, though, I thought I’d take advantage and talk about some of my pet peeves that I usually avoid because I’m in a good mood when I write about RPGs. I’ll be honest; I’ve been relatively lucky as a female gamer. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve come up through a very male-dominated branch of academia or whether it was something about my upbringing, but I don’t tend to get patronized at the table or treated badly when I post on boards (although I do tend to be relatively careful about which boards I choose to visit; Paizo, for instance, is absolutely a no-go for me.) Still, even for me, there are three assumptions that get made about me because of gender that I absolutely hate.

#1) Because you’re a woman, you’ll just LOVE the chance to babysit my kid at the gaming table!!

Okay, so…no. I work with (much, much) older children, but I’m not keen on the little ones. I know most normal humans find it adorable when little Tommy mispronounces his pasta as “basghetti,” but I’m not normal. My initial reaction is to wonder why mom didn’t correct him so he can become more facile with language at an earlier age. I don’t think it’s “just kids being kids” when tiny Amy spills on the character sheets; I wonder why dad let tiny Amy, with her limited motor skills, have juice at the gaming table filled with papers and minis–and yes, I’m pissed about having to redo my character sheet. (I’m equally pissed when a drunken adult does the same thing–I’m equal-opportunity grump when it comes to people Messing with My Stuff.)

For some reason, kids have a tendency to flock to me during gaming conventions. Here’s the thing, parents: just because I’m not openly hostile or rude to your kids doesn’t mean I don’t resent it if you don’t pull them off of me and redirect their attention to someone or something more appropriate. All too often, I’ve seen kids dragged to gaming conventions or taken to games in which they can’t participate or can’t participate fully because of their age. My heart goes out to kids whose parents didn’t bring them something to do, but just because I gave the child a sympathetic look, it doesn’t mean that I want to provide him with something to do. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ended up with strangers’ kids glued to me for the duration of a convention day just because I wasn’t a chilly ass to the kid. You brought him, you pay attention to him. That’s what you signed on for when you became a parent. I just want to get back to concentrating on my game, and the only reason I’m not being a jerk about it is because I think the kid will take it more personally than the parent will.

#2) Because you’re a woman, you obviously put the sisterhood of women above all else and want my girlfriend/aunt/friend/cousin at your table because she’s a girl, too!! You can talk about shoes together!

Also no. Here’s the thing: I like having a relatively gender-balanced table. Right now, I’m really grateful that my game includes a vibrant, intelligent, witty, educated female player whose great social skills often pull the party out of tight situations. But while I like having another female at the table, what I like most about her are all those other descriptors; I like her as a person and as a player, and that person/player just happens to be female.

I think gender balance can open some opportunities for game play that might not otherwise exist. I know that there are bits of story I couldn’t have presented as easily without a female player; the men wouldn’t have made the same assumptions about the hook or have been as interested in it at least in part because their cultural programming is different from hers. On the other hand, I don’t just want any player in the world because she’s female. If you’re disruptive, easily distracted, uninterested in narrative, rude to the other players, or self-centered, you’re a nonstarter for me regardless of gender. If you think that because I’m a female GM that game day is the time to have girly talk, we have a problem, because I’m way more interested in getting my scenery on the table than chatting about nail polish. And while I’m more than happy to help ease women who haven’t had a solid background in fantasy or in gaming into the worlds and rules of RPG play, I’m not more than happy to act as a crutch for a player with crippling self-doubt because of her gender or who can’t be bothered to put in some of her own time to play catch-up if necessary. I’d expect the same of a male gamer who didn’t know anything about the rules or setting; I’m not patronizing enough to have different expectations for females.

#3) You must really be excited that WotC has Shelly Mazzanoble out there representing you! Isn’t it great to have high profile women in gaming?

Again, not so much. For various reasons, I have very little in common with many of the high profile women in the RPG industry and blogosphere. I’ve already posted about how I feel about Shelley Mazzanoble. In fact, since I’m grumpy, I’ll take this opportunity to talk about exactly the kind of move she makes that drives me crazy. Check out this quote from Dice Monkeys’ interview with her:

9.   There’s been a lot of talk recently around the blogosphere about women’s portrayal in the art of RPGs. They’re seen as eye-candy rather than as serious warriors like male characters are seen. What’s your opinion?

I think this is a very worthy discussion and one that our Art Director gets into every day. Not too long ago we were looking at art from 1st edition books and laughing hysterically. The women were not warriors. They looked like victims, complete with palms over forehead and looking upwards at their male counterparts to save them. Since when does being well-endowed imply weakness? But that was a product of the time and the times are a changing. In a good way. The art of D&D today will look very different from the art of D&D tomorrow. And it will look very different ten years from now. Art will continue to change and evolve as long as these discussions are happening. Why does the armor on a barbarian female leave her navel exposed while her male counterpart is fully covered? Why does the female wizard look like she stuck her dry-clean only robes in the dryer? First and foremost, your armor should protect you! It’s not an accessory you put on to go clubbing.

Personally I would never let my character go out in tight leather armor and a breastplate. I’d be like “Button up, young lady! You’re not going into the dungeon looking like that!” But that’s just me.

Instead of saying something meaningful here about how WotC’s art directors actually address the issue, she pretends that the problem with images of women in games an “old school” problem that we no longer have anymore. Golly gee, that problem’s so archaic that we can just laaaaugh at it! Please. If we take hobby books as a whole, you’ll still find more women without clothes than with–and don’t get me started on miniatures. It’s not “yesterday’s issue,” and it makes the problem worse when a prominent female in the hobby says it is, even if it’s in her company’s best interests to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.

I respect Shelly’s right to describe her own experiences playing DnD and I respect the women who identify with her; what I dislike is the fact that she’s being held up by WotC as the face of female gaming. I find 99.999% of what she says profoundly alienating (and I have a feeling she’d say the same about my writing, to be fair.) Because we have such drastically different interests as gamers and as human beings, I wouldn’t invite her to my game, and if I were the sort of person who tended to think in terms of reductive social identifiers, I might be loathe invite any other woman to my game if her books represented the only sample I had of the intersection between “women” and “RPGs.” I get what WotC tries to do with her writing; they’re trying to claim a demographic that they haven’t had as purchasers before, but why not have several different kinds of women stand up and become the voice of female players? After all, we have a bevy of different kinds of male voices represented in WotC’s magazines and online sites; why not at least a handful of women, each with a different but equally strong perspectives?

To go feminism 101 for a second, Judith Butler and other post-structuralist feminists of the late 80s and early 90s worked tirelessly to undermine the assumption that there is “a female identity.” No single identity defines women’s needs and desires; for heaven’s sake, we’re 50% of the population. How could we possibly agree on anything? The only thing we have in common is the assumptions you (male or female) bring to bear when you sit down at the table about who we are. So, you know…don’t.

Whew! It’s been a busy week, but I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the gaming store tonight. Although it’s been available for awhile, I was pleased to see Gale Force 9’s outstanding Dungeon Master’s Mat set on the shelf. I’ve already discussed how impressed I was by the map of the Welcome Wench. Made of high quality materials with great graphics, the GF9 mats are sturdy, attractive, and easy to write on/wipe off.

That being said, some of the previous mats had strange graphic details that made made me leery of using them. The King’s Road map seemed, at first glance, to be infinitely useful; how many times a game does a GM need a plain path with a few rocks strewn here and there? Yet the handful of graves alongside the road had me cringing. I could get away with ignoring them once, but by the second time the mat came out, my players would be harping on the repetition like an insidious Internet meme: “My God, these roads are deadly! Is it a pothole epidemic? Should we stop drinking the water? And why do the people always die in sets of three?” If you have a group like mine, minor details in the art can lead to the players asking a major NPC in the next town about “all those graves,” and then you have to make a GM call about whether or not to roll with it and bring their metagaming into the fiction by having the NPC respond–and God help you if they decide to ditch the quest you had planned and instead go after the metaquest, which you’ll now suddenly need to create on the fly. Ugh!

That’s why I was glad to see the plain DM’s mat set available. One mat has a plain grassy background; the other has stone tiles. They’re perfect for placing under cardboard scenery, and since you can write on them, it’s easy to set up the buildings ahead of time, mark where they should go on the map, and wipe the outlines off after your session ends. Further, these mats would be great to throw in a GM’s convention gaming kit, as they have a bit more flair than plain brown grid maps.

I generally prefer detailed and evocative art, but sometimes, simple is best, especially if simplicity serves to focus your players on the details you want them to see.

I use images pulled from the Internet for handouts, slide shows, and videos to enhance my games. It’s not hard to pull useful images from the internet–and to avoid the worthless ones–if you know a few tricks about Google Image Search.

Here are a few tricks I’ve learned from a couple of art history minors, a few years of teaching, and a bunch of GMing:

General Search Tips

  • If you want to find something for a fantasy game, use appropriate historical tags. The three best words you can add to any search are “medieval,” “Renaissance,” or “Anglo Saxon.” Medieval will often return a lot of modernized pseudo-historical stuff or very fancy late medieval French stuff, because those pictures are more colorful and gets more clicks than earlier medieval pictures. Renaissance will often get you that half-timbered architecture that you tend to see in fantasy villages, although it’ll also get you Ren Faires. If you want gritty and simple, go with Anglo Saxon.
  • If you want specific, be specific. “Castle” will get you a host of pretty pictures, but “battlements” may be what you’re really looking for. Wikipedia the article about the appropriate architecture or item if you’re not sure what to call a particular part of what you’re seeking.
  • Don’t forget to -. If you look, say, for Warhammer Orcs, you’ll find many images from WAR Online. If you’re looking for GW concept art and miniatures instead, just throw -online into your search term, and Google will filter out images with the Online tag. It won’t get rid of everything, but it will help.
  • Teach Google. When you look at your search results, go ahead and click on results you like, even if you’re not going to use them right now. This helps Google find more images like the one you clicked in future searches.
  • Use your own computer whenever possible. If your kid is searching for Disney Princess castles, (God help you,) her clicks will throw off your future search results and will filter in a bunch of animated junk you probably don’t want. Same goes for a spouse who thinks “giants” are some sort of sports team. The computer I’ve used to research and pull only historical images at work for years can practically read my mind–largely because I seldom do other types of searches on it. If you’re lucky enough to have multiple computers for your family, keeping yours to yourself will do wonders.
  • Go with the flow. Often, I’ll find an image so awesomely bizarre that I just have to work it into my game. Recently, I was searching for medieval village festivals, and found this great picture of a guy with a yellow cap and a purple face who was leering crazily at the camera. Nothing modern was in the shot, really, so in he went as an NPC. (Of course, my PCs slaughtered him instead of talking to him, but what can you do?)

Making Friends with Google

Most of us know how to type search terms into Google and then click on the Images tab at the top to bring up just images, but Google actually gives you quite a bit more control than that over your image searching.

Here I’ve used Google to search for an Anglo Saxon farm; it has already given me a pretty promising image on the right, there, that would be perfect for a poor village.

Check out the left side of the screen and you’ll find a whole set of tools that will help you refine your search. If your search has returned a set of infuriatingly useless little thumbnails, you can click on Image Size Large on the left to return only big images. If you want only purple-hued pictures, you can click on the purple box and it will filter out images with dominant colors that aren’t purple. Below, I’ve clicked on line drawing to refine my search. Naturally, this filters out a whole bunch of potentially viable pictures. In this case, it actually returned a bunch of crap–but now that I look at it, that bull in the top row is pretty nice. Maybe I could use him on a coat of arms or in a puzzle.

Finally, don’t forget Google’s Advanced Search Options. You’ll find them right underneath the little blue magnifying glass in the top of your screen. When you click the link, you get the following screen:

I sometimes find it useful to limit my searches to certain websites (the Victorian Web, the BBC, or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, DeviantArt,) because those sites will return predictable results of a certain flavor. Here’s the search for “Anglo Saxon shield” limited to BBC sites:

I’ve generally found that I can find almost anything I can imagine somewhere on the internet if I’m willing to spend the time seeking it out.

Useful Image Collections

Morguefile will give you royalty-free images of general interest. You won’t necessarily find fantasy-themed stuff here, but if you’re looking for a particular thing, (a manuscript, a cow, a mountain,) you can probably find an aesthetically pleasing and free picture here.

Olga’s Gallery is an online collection of famous paintings. If you’re lucky enough to be a part of an educational institution that pays for academic databases, check ArtStor, too.

A Feast for the Eyes has some awesome images of medieval food and beverage. The same site also hosts a gallery of medieval woodcuts.

Although I’m not the hugest fan of the style, Wizards of the Coast put their archives of PC portraits from Dragon magazine online here.

If you’re running a Steampunk or Victoriana game, The Victorian Web‘s art galleries may have what you need.

So we stopped by our FLGS last week to pick up a copy of Finca. They didn’t have a copy of Finca, unfortunately, but leaving empty-handed isn’t really our style, so I picked up a D&D Game Mat of the Inn of the Welcome Wench. It’s a 30″ x 20″ vinyl gridded play mat that’s supposedly wet-erasable, although I haven’t been tempted to marker it up yet. It comes in a durable tube and has a nice feel to it when you take it out; it’s not ridiculously heavy vinyl, but it’s certainly going to stand up to the rigors of having miniatures placed on it again and again. My only criticism is that it’s single sided. You get the Inn and a bit of land outside, but the back is just plain white. The depicted interior of the inn is fairly detailed, including a food prep area, stairs to a basement, private dining rooms, and a fireplace and a bar area in the main room, with different types tables and chairs scattered throughout. It’s a huge inn and fairly distinctive, so if you’re using it in your own campaign, you’ll want to use it to represent a place you’ll return over and over again or face the smartass comments of your players, if they’re anything like mine: “Hey! This looks exactly like the last inn we visited. How do they all get the same rugs?”

At $20, it’s a bit pricey, but if you’re looking for a playmat that will make it easy and quick to represent a place your PCs visit repeatedly, this will make a nice addition to your gaming library.

Welcome Wench

All packed up in its tube.

Welcome Wench Unrolled

The interior of the Inn.

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