Posted by: NiTessine | July 23, 2014

My Ropecon Schedule

Ropecon is starting this Friday. I have a few program items that I hope I’ll be able to talk my way through coherently despite the sweltering heat.

On Friday, apart from puttering around the Pathfinder Society gaming area (in Takka, same as previous years):

  • 18:00 – 20:00, Klondyke: Along with Teemu Korpijärvi and Joonas Katko, I’ll be talking about the history of the British Empire from one Elizabeth to the other, how the Empire came to be, what happened to it and how all its myriad wars and crimes are excellent fodder for role-playing games.
  • 22:00 – 23:30, Room 26: With Ville Takanen, Miska Fredman, Samuli Ahokas and Jukka Sorsa, we will be discussing the present and future of our two gaming companies, Myrrysmiehet Oy and Ironspine, our games (especially the new Ironspine release Astraterra, which is absolutely great) and our future releases.

Additionally, I am doing the usual Pathfinder Society thing, helping games run smoothly and overseeing Saturday’s seven tables of Siege of the Diamond City, a game for up to 42 players. Overall, we have 34 tables of Pathfinder Society at Ropecon this year, mostly Season Five scenarios.

Apart from that, I may be reached either behind our sales table in Kaubamaja, hawking our wares, or in Cantina, enjoying a large pint of refreshing beer. There’s also a non-zero chance I will try and catch a program item I’m not participating in, such as one of the following:

  • Saturday 11:00 – 13:00, Auditorium: Our guest of honour Luke Crane expounds on the topic “How to write one to two books a year and not die”. This is relevant to my interests.
  • Saturday 20:00 – 22:00, Auditorium: Esa Perkiö, one of the most gifted lecturers we have at the convention, talks about yet another fascinating phenomenon of our world and how it may be applied to games. This time, slavery.
  • Sunday 10:00 – 12:00, Auditorium: If I’m awake at this ungodly hour, there’s Joonas Kirsi discussing the historical court intrigues of Japan. The reason he talking at this ungodly hour is that he’s good enough to be worth it.

See you there!

Posted by: NiTessine | July 22, 2014

Review: Dangerous Games Trilogy, by Matt Forbeck

About a year ago, I joined a role-playing game film club. The unofficial club’s stated goal is to watch every movie, every documentary, every episode of a television series, every reality show, every damn television advert and fan production that somehow references role-playing games or larps. This is part sociological research into how gaming is presented in media and part turkey film

We’ve watched a lot of spectacular turds, but that is a topic either for a later post or a teary-eyed rant at a convention bar sometime not too long before last call. For a taste of what we’re up against, see our host Juhana’s blog.

Anyway, in my opinion the best film I’ve seen there was The Gamers: Hands of Fate. Unlike most of the stuff we watch, it’s a genuinely good movie, made by people who understand not only their source material and the phenomena they are commenting, but also the limitations of their budget, the basics of filmmaking and screenwriting, and even comedic timing. (Better than Knights of Badassdom which was a bit formulaic and relied too much on CGI that wasn’t up to the task, or Zero Charisma which is a good film but tremendously uncomfortable to watch.)

What does any of this have to do with the post’s headline? Well, it turns out that Hands of Fate has a novel tie-in, a moment where a character slips from one work to another and then stumbles back, shocked by what he has found. Matt Forbeck, in his mad attempt to write twelve novels in a year, produced The Dangerous Games trilogy of novels. They’re short, NaNoWriMo length crime comedy thrillers, and they’re spectacular fun.

Mmm, graph paper…

Mmm, graph paper…

The trilogy comprises the novels How to Play, How to Cheat and How to Win, and traces the life of police-academy-trained game designerLiam Parker through three Gen Cons, each novel starting at the Diana Jones Award ceremony and then leading inevitably to murder and criminal investigations in the largest role-playing game convention in the world. Forbeck had fun writing this, and it shows. Well-known game designers, many of whom are undoubtedly his friends, are mercilessly stabbed, shot and thrown off tall buildings. Half of Ropecon’s former guests of honour make cameo appearances, such as Peter Adkison who ends up being Parker’s employer, and Frank Mentzer.

The moment when I truly fell in love with the trilogy was in the third novel, where Frank Mentzer gives Parker copies of the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks as a minor plot point. I went “squee”. It should be stated that not many things can make me go “squee”.

What I think Forbeck really succeeds at is in presenting a strong sense of place and atmosphere at Gen Con, and conveying his own love of the convention to the reader. I have never been to Gen Con myself, but I can recognize the sense of community from Ropecon, the one event that gathers together all of Finnish gamerdom from the four corners of the land, where weirdness reigns, games are played and shop talked into the wee hours. That shared experience translates across the ocean, from gaming con to gaming con. That’s what makes this trilogy special.

They’re by no means perfect – I think the second volume suffers from the usual problems of the middle book in a trilogy, and the third is a bit too dark, but these are flaws I can forgive. Apart from all the stabbing and shooting and murder, that’s what a gaming convention looks like. It’s what a gaming convention feels like.

It also looks like they’re on discount at DriveThruFiction for the rest of the month. They’re cheap and short, 192 pages each. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Posted by: NiTessine | July 17, 2014

Finncon 2014, Part II: The Obligatory Literary Snobbery

Continuing from my previous post, this is a sort of appendix about my thoughts on the Hugo fiction categories. Quite a few of them are available online, and links have been supplied.

The panel. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

From left to right, Tommy Persson, Marianna Leikomaa, Jukka Halme, yours truly, and Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

I tried to read all the material before the panel. I got everything else done but had to give up on Wheel of Time after the fifth book. I simply cannot see the appeal of the series, and I object to the length. I think that in a novel, the first 300 pages are free. That’s a good length for a novel. It may suck, but it’s a decent pagecount and whatever else its successes or failings, will not feel too long. After that, though, you have to earn every page with something more than just “entertaining”. You need to have themes, depth, ideas, beautiful prose, something to bring it meaning. Neal Stephenson can pull it off. Eleanor Catton can pull it off. Umberto Eco, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, J.R.R. Tolkien himself can pull it off. Should Hannu Rajaniemi someday be possessed by the imp of the perverse and pen an 800-page doorstopper, I am sure he would pull it off and look good doing it. Robert Jordan did not, in his first five novels, even remotely pull it off. The length of the series is respectable, yes, but apart from the distinction of numbering among the longest works of literature ever written, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s your Chosen One, complete with whining about his destiny, your Prophecy, your guiding Obi-Wan dudes, your orcs and your Dark Lord and your plot coupon collection. To top it off, it’s so damn humourless. David Eddings told the same story, but he only took five to three novels per telling and he could be funny when he tried.

I admit that I cannot speak for the Brandon Sanderson novels that cap off the series since I never got that far. Perhaps they are better, perhaps not, but I am separated from them by a gulf of thousands of pages I’ve no intention of reading.

That said, the Wheel of Time is not the most objectionable thing on the ballot this year. It merely bores me and takes up far too much space. It does not actively offend me in the way that Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” does, for instance. Apart from what thoughts I have of the author’s political views (he’s something of a caricaturish embodiment of all the negative stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists), it’s some remarkably bad writing, with clumsy English, clumsier pseudo-Latin, and a vestigial plot that has the tension of an overcooked noodle. It feels like background worldbuilding for a larger series and the entire payoff of the story is tied to that some other series. There are also enough descriptions of medieval monastic interior decoration to make a novelette-length story somehow feel bloated. Then, it’s probably necessary for the story because it would never have made the shortlist at short story length.

I am also not entirely taken by Brad Torgersen’s stories, “The Exchange Officers” and The Chaplain’s Legacy, which read like someone found a couple of unedited first drafts written in 1956 and decided to print them as-is.

Larry Correia’s Warbound, on the other hand, I was predisposed to dislike, but the entire trilogy was in the voter’s packet so I read it all and was quite entertained. The 1930s superhero setting works, and reminds me of Godlike in a number of very positive ways. It feels gameable. The story keeps going, it maintains a sense of humour about how goofy it is (Count Zeppelin was an Active supergenius) and has a nice touch in Hitler getting executed for his troubles after the Beer Hall Putsch and the bad guys being Imperial Japan. I’ll read any novel where Ishii Shirō gets offed. That said, I still don’t think Warbound has much of a place on the ballot. It’s not nearly as strong as the trilogy’s first part, Hard Magic, and for all its virtues as fun entertainment, it simply has no depth. I am also not enamoured with the occasional gun porn or the overly gory descriptions of violence. They feel off and out of place.

Read this.

Read this.

Ranting over. Like I said, we all thought Ancillary Justice was the best of the lot. It’s science fiction doing what it was born to do, exploring the what ifs and why nots of the human condition. The novel focuses especially the concepts of identity and language. The main character is actually a part of a spaceship, whose native language has no gendered pronouns – and she defaults to she in English (it also just occurred to me that “Radch”, the name of the empire that is the main character’s home, is probably pronounced /ɹɑːdʒ/). It is a simple and elegant way of highlighting and problematizing something that we take for granted, the male as the default. It also probably renders the novel untranslatable into any language that doesn’t do gendered pronouns, like Finnish.

It’s also a bit of a send-up of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, another favourite of mine. It’s already deservedly picked up pretty much every other major award in science fiction, and the Hugo would be a logical extension of the series. I mean, I won’t cry if it loses to Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross at his internet puppiest, complete with an extended Monty Python joke, clever ideas by the bushel and a rather too abrupt an ending), but it really shouldn’t.

In the novel category we also have Mira Grant’s Parasite. I do not have a lot to say about it since it brings together medical horror, which I dislike, and zombie horror, which I hate, and the pacing is off. Almost the entire first half of the novel consists of doctor’s appointments, treatments and the protagonist’s everyday life. It does pick up once the zombie outbreak gets going, but it’s too little, too late. Additionally, there is a revelation at the end that was implicitly told to the reader a hundred pages previously. Even I caught it and I was skimming at that point. Sometimes figuring out the big reveal ahead of time makes the reader feel smart, but this one was too obvious and felt like sloppy writing. Personally, I think the zombie novel has jumped the tapeworm.

In the novella category, we get Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is a fascinating blend of western and fairytale. The story is beautifully written in this frontiersy, Deadwood kind of voice, and I ended up reading it aloud to myself to better appreciate it (as well as the sound of my own voice).

There’s also Equoid by Charles Stross, which is a worthy instalment to the Laundry series, with H.P. Lovecraft and the coolest unicorns anywhere. my favourite thing about the story is how the writing dates it between the second and third novels of the series, sometime in 2007 or 2008 – someone has a MySpace account. The category also features Wakulla Springs, an evocative story of the early days of filmmaking. And swimming. It has a very strong atmosphere and a powerful sense of place, but I find the speculative fiction elements kind of lacking. Someone commented that it should be read as a work of American magical realism, which I guess works, but does not quite do it for me.

This, too.

This, too.

In the novelette category, my favourite is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, a sentimental, beautiful and sad retro-futurist story about getting old and the pull of the final frontier. It’s just good enough to pull it off without becoming cloying. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” was interesting and well-written, with an intersting way of tying the two seemingly unrelated narratives together. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” I felt was somewhat distancing and cold, a very methodical exploration, perhaps even a dissection, of its themes. It was too explicit about them, and I think I would have preferred a subtler approach.

Finally, there are the short stories, the only category where I did not feel the necessity to field the dread “no award” option. My favourite was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, very closely followed by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, which is seriously funny. I think too many writers forget that humour is sometimes necessary to offer contrast to the bleakness and even more often that something being legitimately funny in its own right is a valid thing to aspire to. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” and Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” don’t quite do it to me in the same way, but neither is bad.

The darkly funny thing about the inclusion of Correia and Vox Day and Torgersen on that list is that they’re all known for being politically somewhat to the right (sufficiently to come around into being politically wrong), and there is a certain temptation to frame this particular year’s ballot as a true test for the fandom, to reject the bigotry and the outdated values of yesteryear, to once and for all declare that science fiction and the people who love it truly stand for progress, for looking into a better future. However, it really isn’t. If it were Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons on the ballot, that argument could possbily be made. What we are up against here, though, is one decent entertainer and a couple of guys whose work has the subtlety of a political manifesto, the finesse of a boot to the head, and a grasp of language easily rivalling that of an an eight-year-old English-as-second-language student. I can come up with no metric of literary quality that would see any of these men walking away with a rocket statuette. It is defeat enough that they’re on the ballot. While I would have no problem voting No Award over any of their works simply because there is a point in political discourse where I can no longer in good conscience agree to disagree, it is not relevant to the situation because their works are not the Best Novel, or Novella, or Novelette of the year, or even among the ten best, or in most cases any good at all.

Rant over, hopefully for good this time. We’ll see next month.

Posted by: NiTessine | July 15, 2014

Finncon 2014, Part I: A Little Song, a Little Dance…

The science fiction convention Finncon 2014 took place last weekend in the sunny city of Jyväskylä. Along with Ropecon, it’s one of the two conventions that I consider my home away from home.

It’s kinda like that, actually. Except with more aliens and alcohol-based humour.

I was originally only scheduled for one program item, the Hugo discussion panel on the Friday before the con proper. The Finncon Friday in Jyväskylä sort of gently eases into the convention, with only a single program track and a smaller venue at the Writer’s House, close by to the university buildings where the remaining two days took place.

The panel was great fun. 90 minutes with Guest of Honour Jukka Halme, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Tommy Persson and me talking about the nominees in the four fiction categories for the Hugo Award this year, moderated by Marianna Leikomaa. We all agreed that Ancillary Justice is the best novel and Wheel of Time is too damn long regardless of whether you like it. More on these in a later post that I already wrote up last night in a sort of a flow state before realizing that leading my convention report with 1,000 words of literary criticism is not an idea with merit.

I was also there to promote Ropecon, which led to a lot of sitting behind a table next to the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid table. Ropecon is in two weeks, and we handed out lots of fliers. It was interesting to note how many people were not really aware of the convention even though the overlap between Finncon’s and Ropecon’s target audiences is great and Ropecon’s been around for over 20 years now.

One reason I like Finncons in Jyväskylä (the hosting city rotates between Helsinki, Turku, Jyväskylä and Tampere) is that they’re generally smaller and there’s this social signal-to-noise ratio that is a lot clearer than in the other cities, where there are more people who just drop by on a whim or come to gawk at the spectacle (Finncon is free, so the threshold to do that is very low). Thus, a larger portion of the attendees are into the fandom. It feels like home. As the fan guest of honour Jukka Halme commented: “Fandom is love.”

Because I spent most of my time at the Ropecon promotion table and because it was frankly rather hot in there, I did not go see a lot of programming. On Sunday, I caught the duel between Shimo Suntila and Tuomas Saloranta for the title of the Last Trash Writer of Finland, where the two prolific (the Finnish small publishers are currently releasing anthologies at a sufficient clip that I can no longer afford to buy them all, forcing me to start writing short stories so I can get author copies – my first story is going to be in the Hei rillumapunk! anthology, which is coming out this autumn) authors and editors talked smack and went at each other with boffer swords. Judges were bribed, illegal weaponry was utilized, the electric kannel sang, and the end result was a tie.

“You interrupted my story, you scoundrel!”
“It was bad!”
“You’d still publish it!”
- harsh men, harsh language

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

The duelists. Photograph © Antti Kiviranta.

I also managed to catch Jukka Halme’s guest of honour interview, though it was late in the day and I’m afraid I nodded off at one point.

The guests of honour, by the way, were magnificent. I might ascribe Finncon’s success with guests of honour to luck, but really it’s about skill and experience in first inviting cool and interesting people and then treating them with the honour they deserve, which in turn brings out the best in their own speeches, panel discussions and general attitude at the convention. They’re kept happy and in turn they make the attendees happy. This year we had Hannu Rajaniemi, the erudite author of the sublime Quantum Thief, Fractal Prince and Causal Angel; the just as erudite and staggeringly prolific Elizabeth Bear (winner of Hugos for “Tideline” and “Shoggoths in Bloom”); Jukka Halme, a great man of wit; and Scott Lynch, a man of great wit (and author of The Lies of Locke Lamora). Also featuring, as ever, a horde of other authors both foreign and local and the honourary Finn Cheryl Morgan, who reported on the convention daily (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6).

And then there was the masquerade. Oh boy, the masquerade. I was asked to do some minor co-hosting for the masquerade a couple of hours before the event itself, with the actual hosting being done by Cheryl. I was just supposed to announce the halftime show, during which the judges deliberated and passed their final judgments on the contestants. The halftime show was Juha Jyrkäs reading poetry from his Kalevala poem workshop and excerpts from his own epic poem Ouramoinen, likewise in troichaic tetrameter.

Sounds easy? Yeah, well. Because of reasons, the length of the halftime was rather in excess of the amount of material that had actually been reserved to fill it, and our professional entertainer had a rather tight schedule himself, as he had to go do that thing professional entertainers do and head off to an actually paying gig. This left me with a mike, an audience and a somewhat awkward situation.

So, I improvised some stand-up comedy, danced a bit, sang a bit and was fortunately rescued by some of the masquerade participants who picked up when I could no longer come up with more material. I’d like to thank Laku, Paavo, Eemeli and all the rest for helping me salvage the situation. The audience was entertained.

This is one thing that I love about Finncon. The audiences are intelligent and understanding. There were a hundred people in the room and not a single heckler.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Best in Show, Geralt of Rivia. Photograph © Joonas Puuppo.

Mind you, I prefer the traditional model for the masquerade, where the awards ceremony is separate from the contest proper, giving the judges all the time they need. A halftime show like this requires a different skillset from panels and presentations. It calls for showmanship and stage presence, and I am not sure how easy it is to dig up the people who can pull it off. This is something to keep in mind for Finncon 2016 in Tampere and next year’s Archipelacon (because of reasons, there’s not going to be a Finncon next year so to fill the gap we’re banding together with the Swedes and producing Archipelacon in Mariehamn).

I also bought a pile of books. The sci-fi flea market is the bane of my existence. It’s not that it’s expensive, since it really is not, it’s just that carrying all the books home is a lot of work. I even picked up some French children’s comics because they were only one euro apiece. My French is not particularly good. Also, neener neener neener I’ve got The Causal Angel.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

The haul. Photograph © Jukka Särkijärvi.

This Finncon was the end of an era. It is the final convention of a nine-year period when there was a Finncon every year, the longest such unbroken streak in the history of the convention. Next year, we go to Archipelacon, while Finncon will make a victorious return in 2016, in Tampere.

So, that was Finncon. It was lovely, one of the most fun conventions I’ve been to. I am proud to have done my small part in making it happen, and proud to be a part of the community that produces such joyous events, and creates a place where people of all backgrounds can come together, united by their common interest in strange fiction and all of its modes of expression. It gives me this warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Photographs used with permission, courtesy of http://usvazine.tumblr.com/.

Posted by: NiTessine | June 3, 2014

The Secret Treasure of Raguoc in Acirema Dungeons!

The Obscure RPG Appreciation Day went a couple of days ago. There was a project related to that, which overshot its intended release date by a day. However, the files are now online, and I can tell you all about it! (My excuse for overshooting it by two days is that I spent most of yesterday with my RPG film club. Zero Charisma: very well-made film but I still didn’t like it.)

The Secret Treasure of Raguoc in Acirema Dungeons, the first ever Finnish role-playing game, has been made available in English! The books are free PDF downloads at the Rogue Lantern blog. I was involved in the project as a proofreader, and for my pains I have been immortalized as the Zombie in the Dungeon Book. The translation itself was done by Jonas of Vankityrmiä ja louhikäärmeitä.

All new art, too!

All new art, too!

Written by Risto “Nordic” Hieta and first released in 1986 and very difficult to find nowadays, Acirema is a rather basic dungeon crawl RPG – indeed, no other mode of play is really discussed, and the core of the game is about the characters venturing into the bowels of Acirema Mountain where the evil Raguoc has hidden his treasure. There are dragons, and giants, and dwarves and evil wizards guarding it. Nevertheless, as far as introductions to role-playing go, it’s a pretty fair work. There’s an emphasis on creative solutions and advice on handling negotiation between player characters and NPCs. There are also a couple of clever ideas that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Primarily, there’s the Zombie character class. The Zombie is the ultimate tagalong player class, usually reserved for younger siblings or uninterested significant others of players. It hits hard, doesn’t think a lot, and can be directed by the other players when the Zombie’s player misses a session. It is not one of the undead and possesses some measure of self-control, but there are no complicated rules involved with it. Also, the Zombie on page 5 of Dungeon Book is a particularly handsome chap, if I do say so myself…

Another interesting bit is how the combat system handles fights with multiple combatants. The default assumption is that all fights are single combats mano a mano, and any archery or spellcasting against the monster happens from the sidelines, not really part of the fight. If there’s more than one player character fighting the same monster in melee, though, they all roll to attack, but only the highest result is counted. However, if the monster hits one of them, the damage is divided between the characters. It’s actually a pretty good way to balance action economy against a solo adversary.

The new books have all new layout (I’m not sure how it was done back in 1986, but the scanned PDFs that I have look like photocopied typewriter pages) and all new art. Otherwise, the translation attempts to be entirely faithful to the original, including its use of the terms “player” and “player character” interchangeably. One concession to modernity was made in the use of gendered pronouns, which Finnish does not have. The game master, Raguoc, is always referred to as male (which he is in the backstory of the game), while players are referred to as female.

So, there it is. Go download the books. Read them. Play the game!

Posted by: NiTessine | April 1, 2014

The State of the Scene

A while back, Sami Koponen requested a number of Finnish gaming bloggers to write articles about their views on where the Finnish role-playing game scene is now and where it is going.

Me, I think it’s doing pretty great.

First, a preface on what’s my background for all this. I’ve been gaming since the mid-90s. From 2009 to 2013 I worked in the organizing committee of Ropecon, Finland’s most important gaming convention, the first four years as the role-playing games manager and the last as part of the program team. I’ve also been consulting for Tracon, which is the second-most important. Additionally, I’m a minority partner with the Myrrysmiehet game company, wrote a book on RPGs in 2007, occasionally do some minor freelancing for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other publishers, write every so often for LOKI, dabble in academic games research, am involved with the RPG clubs of both the Universities of Tampere and Helsinki, and last but not least, serve as the Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain for Finland.

No, I don’t know how I find the time for sleep either, but I do have a pretty decent overview of the lay of the land. Nevertheless, I’ll be doing a lot of speculation and there are a lot of invisible quantities involved here that I can only guess at and some things I just can’t plain talk about before they’re publicly announced. Take what I say with a grain of salt.

The Convention Scene

The convention scene is livin’ it large. Ropecon is financially stable, the attendance is stable, and it’s been going for 20 years now. We have an excellent reputation abroad for taking good care of our guests of honour, and the convention is generally the venue of choice for new releases. Ropecon has the biggest Pathfinder Society participation, more scheduled tabletop RPG sessions than every other Finnish gaming convention combined twice over, and is the convention where I feel most at home. This year’s Ropecon is in July from 25th to 27th, in the Dipoli conference centre, Espoo.

I foresee Ropecon going on for another 20 years, no problem. However, there’s a challenge in the near future, since the conference centre was just sold to a new owner, and will likely be renovated either next year or the year after that. It is possible but unlikely that this will not affect Ropecon. More likely, we’ll have to find new digs for a year and I have no idea where those will be. This does not make me think happy thoughts, since Dipoli is the best damn venue in the country for a gaming convention.

Second in line is Tracon, which keeps growing. It is actually the largest convention in the country at the moment, but accomplishes this through the anime fandom. The RPGs are a small but significant part of the convention and in the past few years it has become the place where the game publishers converge to talk shop, with fewer distractions than Ropecon. Tracon also invests well in their RPG guests of honour and last year’s Ross Watson is one of my all-time favourites.

There are also smaller conventions such as Maracon, run by the gaming club of the University of Oulu, CRYO. It’s a two-day event twice a year. I am occasionally able to attend, but it is a bit far for me. It’s nice, but the Oulu gaming scene feels somewhat insular.

There’s also Conklaavi, an event of comparable size in Turku. They’ve been plagued by really poor communications for a number of years and I’ve traditionally only found out the dates after I’ve booked the weekend for something else, but this year I’ll be there to run a couple of sessions of Pathfinder Society. The convention actually takes place next weekend. Expect a report.

An interesting curiosity was also Pampcon, a Swedish-language convention in Bennäs, which is one of those places I have trouble placing on a map. It was organized for the first time this year, and I have no idea how it went or if it is going to happen again. I couldn’t make it, but I’d be interested in trying next year.

I don’t think we’re going to see the rise of another major RPG convention anytime soon. However, as proven by Pampcon, smaller conventions can pop up quite easily. I also think there is demand for a small convention sometime in the first quarter of the year. As it is, there is nothing south of Oulu in the five-month gap between Tracon and Conklaavi. I can scratch my convention itch with the Tampere kuplii comics festival, true, but I believe there’s an audience for an RPG event in Tampere or the Helsinki region at around this time. Anyone? Build it and I will come?

The Industry

Okay, let’s admit right off the bat that the Finnish tabletop RPG industry is not a major economic force. Nobody is making a living off this, or at least not much of a one.

Currently, there’s a crapload of small RPG publishers in Finland. Some of them are proper corporate entities, like Myrrysmiehet, Ironspine and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, while others are private individuals like Tuomas Kortelainen or Sami Koponen. The biggest players are Lamentations of the Flame Princess, whose stuff is in English and is not constrained by the limitations of a language area of 5,000,000; Burger Games, whose Praedor and Stalker have both cleared the magical 1000-copy sales threshold; and Mike Pohjola’s Heroes of the Storm, which has an actual company with multiple full-time employees moving some marketing muscle behind it. Below the surface we have something like ten other companies that turn out, on average, more than five but less than ten new products a year.

So, the industry is lively, there are lots of people publishing lots of stuff, some of which is damn good, and selling it mostly to each other, which is basically what happens when you have a niche hobby and primarily operate in a language that nobody speaks. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. Many people do not want to turn their hobby into something that their livelihood is directly dependent on because that sucks away some of the fun. It’s no longer voluntary. On the other hand, is not the job of the professional game designer one of the coolest in the world?

Apart from the small audiences, another thing that’s holding back many companies is the business model. Burger Games is probably the best example of this. Both their games are magnificent works, some of the best game design I have ever seen. Their mechanics are elegant and their prose clear. You get everything you need to play in one book. That’s all you need and that’s all you get. There are no supplements, just standalone games. Apart from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Northern Kings’ Bliaron, this is how everybody operates. There’s nothing more for the player to buy even if they wanted to. The end result of this is that my Pathfinder RPG collection alone is bigger than my entire collection of Finnish RPG material.

Recently, though, more publishers have figured out that it’s possible to break into the English-language market. PDF publishing and companies like DriveThruRPG and Lulu.com make storage issues and warehouse costs obsolete. “Out of print” is becoming an archaic phrase. The investment of creating a presence in the market is becoming trivial. I foresee more and more companies taking advantage of this, possibly in languages beyond English.

Another trend I am observing is trying to aim for the next generation of gamers and designing stuff that parents can run for their children to introduce them to the hobby. Heroes of the Storm was the first, and Myrrysmiehet is following that up with Robin Hood, and Ironspine with Astraterra.

Is anyone going to make it big? If I could predict a thing like that, I’d be writing this in a much larger apartment.

Everything Else

The individual gaming communities is where things get really hazy. The thing about RPGs is that while it’s a social hobby, once you have those four other people to game with, you’re set for life and there’s no strict necessity to meet anyone else, or tell anyone else, or even know about anyone else. This makes it difficult to estimate how much gaming there’s actually happening. To my understanding, there’s even an active Pathfinder Society GM somewhere in Finland with no contact with the rest of the community. It’s somewhat maddening.

For instance, I know there’s a number of active gaming groups in the Tampere region, but the university gaming club has been in hibernation for some time. The sense of community is weakening, which is sad. I think there’s a real value to meeting your fellow gamers and sharing what cool things you have come up with.

Pathfinder Society, my personal bailiwick, is doing fine. I think the play numbers have plateaued, more or less. I figure that with the size of the gaming community, having two conventions a year capable of supporting a five-table special module is sufficient. Now the thing is in trying to expand to other cities and get something going there, however small. With Oulu I failed, but Turku looks like it might have potential.

The blogosphere is active, at least, as evinced by the wealth of responses to Sami’s original call for articles. The English-language ones are at Heidi Larpwise, and Domain of Man, and new players have stepped on the field as old ones have fallen silent, which is as it should be. The Pelilauta forum is still going and still a source of interesting conversations, as is Majatalo.org.

As for the inevitable question of whether RPGs, the RPG industry or the RPG scene is dying off, I have too much respect for anyone who’s read this far to waste their time with that particular topic, not to mention better things to do with mine.

Over and out.

Posted by: NiTessine | January 26, 2014

Happy Birthday, Hobby

Some forty years ago, the first copies of Dungeons & Dragons were sold. The specific date is a bit fuzzy, but Jon Peterson has laid out the evidence on his blog and January 26th is one of the likelier candidates, and why not?

A forty-year-old franchise is a big deal, and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson deserve our respect for creating something that could so adroitly carve out its own niche and endure and sustain itself on a changing, competitive marketplace. However, D&D is only a small part of what came out of that Lake Geneva garage in 1974. It launched an industry, created a new genre of games and birthed a peculiar strain of cultural influence that pops up in unexpected places.

To me, the most important thing is that it originated a social hobby. Now starting on their fifth decade, role-playing games have brought people together around the same table, same online chatroom, same larp venue – and unlike sports, they are not competitive. It is just “us”, the “them” are in the fiction. I’ve sat at that table for some seventeen years now, and around it I have seen lifelong friendships form and romance bloom. It brings people together and facilitates communication.

It is also a creative hobby, a “game of the imagination” as the Dead Alewives once described it. Around that table, stories come into being, from slapstick to tragedy and all things in between. I have seen sonnets, songs and short stories arise from that table, and witnessed the formation of epic legends. I’ve also laughed so hard I fell off my chair.

Sure, it’s not always all these things and sometimes it’s none of these things, and not everyone plays for these things. It is these things sufficiently often, however, that I keep returning to that table. Those are the things that make this the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

So, I wish Dungeons & Dragons and the entire role-playing game hobby a happy birthday.

And here’s a couple of songs from way back:

 

Posted by: NiTessine | January 10, 2014

Greyhawk Lives! River to a Sea of Choices

A couple of days ago, I was contacted by the Living Greyhawk module author Grant Featherstone. He had stumbled upon the collection of Living Greyhawk modules by Sampo Haarlaa and myself from a couple of years back, and wished to contribute his own module to the collection, the Splintered Suns metaregional ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices.

I remember playing the module. It is a fairly straightforward piece of work, but it showcases what was from my point of view one of the central tensions in the Splintered Suns plotline, the conflict between the United Kingdom of Ahlissa, which represented a strong military and rule of law, and the Iron League, who had weaker militaries but more individual freedoms. Law vs. chaos, basically. The military strength was relevant because the Scarlet Brotherhood posed a threat to everybody in the region and the kingdom of Onnwal only was liberated from Brotherhood occupation during the campaign.

ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices, by Grant Featherstone

The revenue brought in by gemstones panned from the River Thelly is vital in the maintenance of the war-damaged city walls and defences of Nulbish. The Royal Guild of Merchants need guards to protect a barge full of grain and gemstones destined to be sold at Kalstrand for the Windmarch fair. The Ahlissan army after all routed many bands of outlaws and humanoid tribes during the recent campaign around Wyverntor, and these are desperate for coin and food. An adventure for APLs 2-8.

And here is Mr. Featherstone’s commentary:

This is the first and only adventure I wrote for the RPGA. It took a little over a year from the first contact I made with the local Triad when I whimsically offered to write a module to finally getting it polished enough for release. I did have an idea for a follow-up adventure but I do not think the Triad wanted to wait another year for it.

The title came about as a bit of a poke at the railroaded adventures most of the other RPGA modules were. However, once you take on the knowledge that someone else has to run it and with a group of any PC type you can think of, it actually becomes very challenging not to railroad the adventure and ironically the choices generally came down to help the Good guys or the Lawful guys. Or the other choice being to pay 25 gp to get off the boat! Apparently from the feedback I got most PC’s are tight with their gold and refused to pay for an additional roleplaying scene. The other feedback I got ranged from the encounters were easy “we backstabbed the cleric game over” to it is so dangerous its broken.  Ideally its APL 4-6 being a bit too deadly at APL 2, and too easy with the high level magic available at APL 8.

Apparently, he also received only one report where the party sided with the cleric of Hextor against the Nemoudian Hounds.

I’m pretty sure that was my table. I’m so proud.

Posted by: NiTessine | January 6, 2014

New Year, New Tricks

So, that was 2013.

For Worlds in a Handful of Dice, it was not a particularly remarkable year. I managed to pen a total of mere 15 posts, mostly convention reports. The year’s main event seems to have been in February, when I reported about Laborinthus, my peculiar find in a Zurich game shop. Reddit found it and showed up in great force.

The conventions were largely the reason it was so quiet over here. Between Ropecon, Tracon, and a third non-gaming event, I had way too much on my plate and came close to a burnout in the spring. I managed to muddle through Ropecon, had fortunately very few responsibilities for Tracon, and then had another annoying load of metaphorical bricks come down on me in the autumn, leading to me blowing a number of deadlines and generally not getting a whole lot done.

The year’s gaming was mostly Pathfinder Society, which has now reached sufficient autonomy that it barely needs my intervention to continue and grow. I also ran a game of Stalker late in the year, which I thought went rather well and drew my attention to an interesting fact about the system: it is possible for the GM to keep it entirely hidden from the players if they so wish. There was additionally a session of Paranoia XP, my first since the 90′s, which I shall not talk about any further. I played some Lamentations of the Flame Princess, too, and did some Myrrysmiehet playtesting. Alongside the Pathfinder Society campaign, a friend of mine started running Curse of the Crimson Throne, which is about one session away from wrapping up the first book.

I also larped for the first time in April. I am happy with both the experience and the blog post, partly because of the excellent photography of Tuomas Puikkonen.

The gaming world at large, then?

Well, Myrrysmiehet came out with the GM book for our game Vihan lapset. My contribution was primarily editorial, and I am very happy with the game. We also released Lännen maat, a role-playing game about the Egyptian afterlife, written by Risto J. Hieta, the Father of Finnish Role-Playing. The Glorantha Association of Finland released their translation of HeroQuest, which is also a very solid piece of work. There’s also Melidian, the spiritual successor of the elfgames Rapier and Elhendi. This is the only time you will ever see me use the term “elfgame”, by the way. I make an exception for games where you explicitly play only elven player characters. Tracon also saw the release of Lohikäärmeliitto, an OSR-like curio, and late in the year, Burger Games produced the free PDF of Crimson Rovers (scroll down a bit), a game about exploring and colonizing Mars. It’s in English, by the way. There was also the usual pile of Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, such as Vincent Baker’s The Seclusium of Orphone and his charmingly titled Ropecon scenario Fuck for Satan.

Paizo ran the open playtest for the Advanced Class Guide. While I am not strictly certain of the necessity of adding yet another pile of base classes to the already teetering tower, the hybrid class system seems to be a good way to do it. It limits multiclass dipping, and some of the ideas seem fairly clever. I am not fond of the hunter being married to their pet, though.

This year, I shall endeavour to have a higher rate of actual content-to-hamsters. Thanks to being involved with the Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid, I will also be digressing to that side of the fandom more frequently. These Hugo Awards are utterly fascinating…

Posted by: NiTessine | December 25, 2013

Paranoia Drinking Game

Recently, I was requested to run a one-shot session of Paranoia XP.Paranoia_XP

As a drinking game.

I am trying to ignore the fact that a person hitting upon an idea involving irresponsible drinking behaviour would immediately think of me as the ideal person to facilitate it.

The game is to be run this coming weekend, and I have been hard at work perusing the rulebook and preparing the adventure. However, the drinking game portion also needs rules. Ideally, the last third of the scenario will be unnecessary due to players being incapacitated, everyone running out of clones, or both.

Also, a drinking game, much like a game of Paranoia, needs to proceed at a reasonably fast pace to keep up the inebriation. To this end, the beverages should have sufficient alcohol content or be imbibed in sufficient quantities per ‘drink’. It is up to the players to supply their own poisons, though. However, I must note that red wine would be within their security clearance, while, say, white wine or cider would not.

To any players reading this, the Gamemaster may or may not be open to bribery, and prefers Scotch whiskies, noble spirit, and Russian vodkas. Full-bodied red wines are also appreciated.

The Players Shall Drink When…

  • …they lose a clone.
  • …they kill or are otherwise responsible for the death of another player’s clone.
  • …someone mentions Bouncy Bubble Beverage.
  • …their character is accused of treason.
  • …they accuse another character of treason.
  • …they roll a natural 20.
  • …another character gains a promotion.
  • …an experimental piece of equipment or a bot malfunctions.
  • …a mutant power misfires.
  • …their secret society briefing tells them to.
  • …the Gamemaster tells them to.

Drinking makes you happy. Happiness is mandatory. Therefore, drinking is mandatory. The Computer is your friend.

The Gamemaster Shall Drink When…

  • …ever he feels like it. It is good to be the Gamemaster.

Report to follow. No it won’t. We will never speak of this again. Good gods, that was a dumb idea.

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