Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beginning of the Ditlana, and remembering a voyage never completed...

April 10th, 1912 to April 15th, 1912

Every year on this date, the flagstaff out in front of our little house flies a red swallow-tail pennant bearing a single white star. A very similar pennant flew from the foremast halyards of R.M. S. Titanic on this day in 1912, and stayed there until the early morning of April 15th. It was, along with so many, lost at sea on that date.

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The Tsolyani have a custom of urban renewal, 'Ditlana', where cities and towns are razed and rebuilt; I'm in the midst of the same process, as I rebuild and renew my game room and game storage to better reflect this brave new world we live in.

Over the past year, and perhaps even a little before that, I've been looking at how and why I do my games, and how I can best reflect the way modern gamers play and game. It's been a difficult process; a lot of 'modern' gamers have no idea about what gaming was like back 'in my day', and we really don't have a lot of 'gamer culture' in common. Back then, it was customary for games to be part of extended campaigns - the term of art now used for RPG games originally came from the referee'd / GM'd map campaigns common in the historical miniatures genre. (Read Jon Peterson's "Playing At The World" for more information on this, if you would like to know more.) Here in the Twin Cities, the staff at The Little Tin Soldier Shoppe would announce that there would be a new campaign based in some historical period, and people would sign up to be commanders and then buy, base, and paint the units needed for the campaign.

When I discovered Tekumel, I started buying and painting the 25mm tall Old Guard miniatures, with the idea that I could run campaigns based in the Professor's world-setting. Bitter - and I do mean bitter - experience of gaming at The Tin and at the University of Minnesota Conflict Simulation Association mandated that I have all of the needed figures and scenery that would be used in such a campaign; it had been my unhappy discovery that the French would not be appearing at the Battle of Waterloo because Marshall Ney forgot that we were having the game that convinced me of this. (We sat around for six hours before the player remembered to call anyone...)

So, when I first started my current game group back in 2002, I sort of assumed that I should follow my old policy and make sure that I had all of the needful to hand for games. Sometimes this has worked brilliantly - see also my post on the recent "Then Darkness Fell" game, or have a look at my Photobucket page to see games where things worked out well. "Sometimes, the magic works..."

"Sometimes, it doesn't..."

Over a decade ago, I started building a modular set of city walls and towers, with the idea of being able to run sieges; I have a huge collection of siege engines and equipment, and it just seemed like a good idea to have something to attack. The set was made of nice stout wood, and hand-carved with stonework across the half doze towers (with removable decks) and the five running feet of wall. I was pleased; I had built up quite the little wood shop in the basement, and I love to build stuff.

Sadly, tastes had changed over the years amongst gamers; hand-crafted terrain and scenics like mine have become 'down-market' and 'tatty'; the current vogue is for 'PROFESSIONALLY BUILT" / "PROFESSIONALLY PAINTED" "OFFICIALLY AUTHORIZED FOR USE WITH (GAME NAME HERE)TM", "COLLECTABLE! SURE TO INCREASE IN VALUE", and "OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED AND APPROVED FOR AUTHORIZED TOURNAMENT PLAY!" commercial products. I got a lot of this at one of the local game stores, The Source Comics & Games; it's one of the reasons I don't game there anymore (My games also don't sell enough comics, apparently, and don't have enough of a commercial tie-in to be worth the store 's time and space.) or, frankly, shop there much either.

I lost interest in my hand-built set; I got very discouraged by the very negative reaction I kept getting from the shop staff about my work. The problem, I gathered from what they told me, was that I  didn't have "enough product placement" in my games; the most bizarre comment came while I was paying for a reasonably-sized purchase of 'NAME BRAND'TM miniatures for a 'NAME BRAND'TM RPG. The guy behind the counter told me that the 'OFFICIAL NAME BRAND - TM - RPG SOCIETY'  was playing the game back in the game room of the store. I politely said, "thank you, but I don't happen to play that game", and the guy asked me point-blank "Then what are you buying these figures for, anyway?" in the kind of voice usually used by harried Customs and Excise officers who have been presented by the traveller with a suitcase full of contraband merchandise. I felt very lucky that I didn't have to present a note from the shop owner permitting me to buy the figures; it was that kind of conversation.

For some reason, I can't imagine why, I started to lose interest in gaming there and in building things like the city walls. They have been sitting in the basement, untouched, for some eight years now...

So, through the kindness of the owner of another local game store, I got two complete sets of the GW 'Fortress' walls and towers for games. These look very nice, and are very handy despite being a real pain to build. (Big plastic parts = large beam clamps) I can still run sieges, and I have much better 'product placement' with a strong 'commercial tie-in'. I hope it makes somebody happy, at the end of the day.

Now, I should say that in addition to the storage shelves n the game room proper, where I keep all of the 'ready use' gaming stuff, I have a little shed out back in the yard where I keep all of the large and little-used items. I can store 40 large plastic tubs out there, and I've now purged the modular city walls and towers - it took three 55-gallon trash bags for both the wall set and the little modular gladiator arena, but I did win back ten tubs' worth of storage space. I'm very happy with that; I now have much better storage for all the resin scenery and terrain bits I get (cheap!!!) from the pet store, and more room in the game room itself.

The arena set, which I built about ten years ago, was also one of my hand-made items; it was 30" by 60" in the usual configuration, and I had gotten all of the basic building and painting done. We had one very lovely game with it, where our Vriddi fought a duel with a number of upstart nobles, and it never got used again. The problem, for me, was no spectators in the stands - there are no seated figures that look Tsolyani available. I had thought that adding canopies over the stands would disguise the lack of people in the seats, but while this would look quite good it would never survive a day with gamers leaning over the thing to get at the figures in the arena proper.

And, since it would fail the same 'standards test' that the walls failed, I added the arena to the trash. No sense saving something that never gets used, I thought "Never reinforce failure!" is an old military maxim, and so the two failed dead-ends of model-building have been disposed of. If and when I come up with a viable solution to the arena problem, my thirty or so Foundry gladiators that I use for Tekumel will fight their battles on a sand-colored sheet of cloth. They look good their, and eventually I think of something.

I always do, it seems...

25 comments:

  1. Sad to hear of you having dump pieces of your hand-made scenery, although I suppose it clears space for more there is something to be gained from that. Also sad to hear to the attitude you encountered in the shop - I'm afraid I buy bits and pieces from an assortment of games that I'd never play in a million years just because I can repurpose them to my own ends.

    It's these blinkered "corporate" attitudes to RPGs that will eventually drive the final nail into the hobby's mainstream life and send it back into the gamesrooms and basements of geeks who believe in the DIY ethos and don't require the "blessing" of an official system.

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  2. Thanks for your very kind words! I've had a lot of very negative experiences over the past forty years from the people I've tired to please and help out, and it's nice to hear something positive.

    I do sort of regret tossing the stuff in the dumpster / skip; it's not the time or the money spend that I regret, as I love to make things, it's the long-term shift in gamers' attitudes that I am very saddened by. I've had "Well, it has to be the authorized and approved..." shoved down my throat for so long that I now think really hard before I do anything new or even creative. I invest my time in other things, like the game you liked; there are a lot of 'found' and 'repurposed' items in that game, and that's where I put my efforts these days.

    Pet stores. In the fish tank and reptile sections, in the 'decor'. I just got some very nice ruined temple bit with which to amaze and terrify players, as well as a lovely NOT-Barsoom rocky outcrop with several cave entrances - and all for under $20, too. Or cake decorating suppliers, for that matter.

    So it goes, I suppose, but I don;t have to like it... :)

    yours, chirine

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  3. Although I completely understand your frustration, I think changing your methods to adapt to current gaming culture is a mistake. Obviously you recognize the corporate culture that dominates the scene and its baleful influence on an essentially DIY hobby; why encourage these behaviors?

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    1. Well, I'm sorry that you think I'm making a mistake; I'm working within my particular set of circumstances. Part o the 'deep background' of this is that I've been local gaming's 'cash cow' for some forty years - the refrain has always been "Chirine will do it!". I've always been the one to make things, fix things, organize things, and generally clean up after other people mess things up and make promises that they can't deliver on.

      In return, I've gotten a lot of very nasty and very personal crap from these same people, and I have gotten very, very tired of it. I simply refuse to pay, anymore, and refuse to give them my limited time, limited energy, limited resources, and limited storage space.

      I have a house and garage full of other people's crap; it's always been "Hey! Let's do (something)!" followed by "Hey! Chirine! You know how to (something) - can you do this? We'll help!!!) and then they never show up; gamers and fans have the attention span of mayflies, and I've been left holding the bag for them for a very long time. (Need a Klingon starship set for your television show? I have one; it was left here by the local Klingon fan group after they lost interest in their own production.)

      Case in point: There's a local 'indie' RPG author who did a game based in a Meso-American setting that I really enjoyed. I invited the guy to visit and possible run games for me and the gamers in my group, and I sourced and bought some nice and reasonably priced miniatures for the game. The person never responded. It's now been over a year, and I finally gave up. I salvaged what I could from the miniatures, and dumped them into my favorite stripper to clean them off. They are now surplus to requirements.

      (Hey - maybe El Grego might want them ! I'll e-mail him...)

      I quit. Get another chump. :(

      yours, chirine


      yours, chirine

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  4. We played a non-commercial game (unpublished) at the Fantasy Flight Games Center. No one questioned us. Apparently they don't care if you play their games or your own. Then again, we bought snacks and drinks (beer) from them to justify our existence (not that they checked).

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    1. Yes, FFG's Event Center is a very good place - which is why I've moved all of my public gaming there over the past three years. Great facility, great staff, and great environment for games. (I have a number of blog posts about them, and have posted photos of some of the games I've run there.) I'm delighted that you, John, and the rest of your group are gaming there - I think you'll like it a lot.

      yours, Chirine

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  5. Swear to god that first shop had to be run by Games Workshop. I've had more negative experiences with them over the years than any other gaming shop. That said, the Do it Yourself nature of the hobby ebbs and flows. Lately it seems like we're starting to see a return to the DIY attitude that dominated the early days of the hobby - at least we are in my area of the country.

    Which means I need to get back to building that dungeon . . .

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    1. The problem with the Source that's been developing over the years is that the original owner, who played General Karim Missum out at Phil's back in the day, loves games and gaming; his co-owner and business partner is a comics fans, and feels that the gaming side of the house is a drag on the comics and comics collectables side of the business. Since the comics guy controls the web presence of the store, and actively pushed comics over games, it's gotten harder and harder to book events there; at the same time, the push is for more and more 'commercial tie-ins' for the store's product lines. Miniatures don't pay the bills; the sales margins on them are way too low, the games take up too much space, and the stock doesn't turn over very quickly.

      Now, having been in the retail trade myself, once upon a time, I can understand their issues. What's been getting my goat is the negative comments made by the staff on everything from the choices of game subject I do to the 'suggestion' that I pay somebody professional to pain my figures for me.

      I'll let my photos of my games answer that one.

      And yes, some of it is a GW approach - the shop is an indie, but the GW business model has leaked through in places; I don't play like that; never have, and probably never will. I'll take my time and money someplace else, thank you...

      yours, chirine

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    2. For a differnt experience at The Source, may I suggest having a look at Rachel's 'NJW Games" blog? She's done a very nice post giving her diametrically opposite experience at the store, and you can reach it via the link in the left-hand column.

      Rachel's the author of "Blade and Crown", a very nice RPG, and one of our local 'indie' authors. She sells her game directly, as well as through the usual retail outlets - including The Source, I'm delighted to report!

      yours, chirine

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  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Removed because it was spam, not for content. I don't do that.

      -chirine

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  7. I am disappointed that you have been forced to succumb to the corporate mindset just to keep the games going. Not that you're at fault for doing so, but that our hobby has moved so far away from the DIY ethic that birthed it. There are few enough of us grognards around who remember what it was like when even getting figures was a trial.

    And I might actually know a group who might want that Klingon bridge set. Lemme ask around...

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    1. Thank you for your comment! I agree with your main point, but I think I have to take exception to your thought that I'm succumbing to the corporate mindset. From my perspective, I think I'm doing the opposite - I'm deliberately walking away from the modern game environment, and concentrating on what I've enjoyed doing for the past four decades: making stuff and having fun.

      I have limited time, limited energy, and limited stamina after my brain bleed, and I have to make the most of what I have left. (For a more detailed account of The Incident, see the September 18th post on this blog. Don't look at the picture in the post that follows it, if you have eaten; the scar is pretty gross.)

      I am still doing the DIY thing and building settings and props for my games; the terms I use, 'sets' and 'props', are the give-away to where I'm coming from. I worked for over a decade at the Guthrie Theater here in the Twin Cites, where I got a very practical and quite first-class education in theater production.

      I approach my games with the same set of references that a producer or director beings to a script - what do I need to tell this story? I build stuff to tell stories, and to tell people about Phil and his world setting.

      Over the years, I've put in a lot of time, put out a lot of money, and expended a lot of treasure building stuff for people who lost interest in their own projects and walked away - leaving me with what's basically a warehouse full of other people's stuff.

      That's ending; I'm going through the warehouse, and purging all of the crap that's been left behind by generations of people who had Bright Ideas and no staying power. The materials I'm getting rid have, in quite a few cases, not been touched for five years; why keep them, if they never get used?

      So, from my perspective, I'm building what I like to build and enjoy. I am no longer catering to what other people might want, and I feel a lot better then I used to. Now, I do apply the production techniques that I learned in the Prop Shop to my activites; if I can't make an object for less then the cost of the object on sale in the surplus store (Ax-man Surplus - it's wonderful!) or pet supply place (Pet Smart seems to have the best selection of aquarium 'decor', and they usually have very deep discounts on sale items), then I buy. If I can make something unique, then I do so.

      So, that's where I'm coming from. Does this help explain what it going on here at The Workbench, or have I obfuscated matters completely? :)

      yours, chirine

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  8. While sadly the DIY attitude has been replaced with the corporate sponsorship attitude among most players, the DIY mindset has not completely died out. In fact, as with all things, interest can be rekindled by encouraging others. Take for instance the story of GM Scotty. Who? A couple of years ago this GM started posting youtube videos, instructing others in his technique of terrain building. Since then he has uploaded 279 videos, has an active community forum and facebook page, and has inspired at least two others to start their own video series and blog. His efforts have created dozens of new DIY crafters worldwide, and through their players, introduced hundreds of players to the value of DIY terrain. The old adage of one person making a difference really is true. Sometimes you have to be the change you want to see. Is this guy's method "the one true" method? Of course not, He is not the first, the best, the most talented, the most etc, etc. but he DID share and encourage others, he DID open people's eyes to the idea that they didn't HAVE to buy the official product X in order to play game Y. Personally, I'd like to see more people like DM Scotty join in this trend and possibly turn the tide away from commercialism and towards the older DIY mindset.

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    1. Well, precisely. URL, please?

      yours, chirine

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    2. I believe this is the DM Scotty that SpiralBound wass referring to: https://www.youtube.com/user/theDMsCraft

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    3. Correct sir. DM Scotty's forum is here: http://dmscraft.proboards.com

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    4. Wonderful! Thank you both!!!

      yours, chirine

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  9. I don't understand some people's attitude. The idea for me is to have fun, and if I can save some money by using figures I already have, or building something myself, I'm going to do that.

    If the store is treating you poorly, or fellow gamers never follow through on their plans after you've put in the work, I don't blame you for walking away. Do you have a gaming group that appreciates all your work?

    Regarding the do-it-yourself ethic, I'm not as DIY as you are, but I have no problem repurposing figures from one game to use in another (for example, rebasing Warhammer miniatures for Hordes of the Things). And I did create one army from dollar store spiders, and another from erasers in the shape of Space Invaders.

    I also have no problem using prepaints from Heroscape, DDM, Mage Knight, and even Heroclix for various fantasy/sci-fi skirmish games and even D&D sessions. And we're all about scratchbuilt terrain, converted aquarium decorations, and so on.

    The important thing is to have fun!

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    1. What you said; it's all about the fun. I do exactly what you do - if something works for a game, I use it and I don't worry about 'official' and 'approved'.

      Re my game group, I still have a few appreciative stalwarts left; I'm now doing less frequent but better games, and that seems to be working better then the old twice-a-month schedule. I've pretty much abandoned my attempts at 'outreach'; there just isn't much interest locally here in the Twin Cities for my older style of 'social' and 'large-scale' gaming. The trend is for quick, fast games with as little infrastructure as possible, and that's where I simply don't have a place.

      I'll still be here, doing what I've always been doing; I enjoy what I do, and people are welcome to come along for the ride if they want to.

      yours, chirine

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  10. I blame GW for a lot of bad habits, this one included. I really can't stand those guys.

    Building things are fun, and look far more interesting than those exotic plastic materials they can sell you.

    Some people bemoan the fact that game stores are dying out. No shit. No wonder. That's what I say.

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    1. Yep; GW's polices drove me away from them as a retail customer. I got mush better service and support from one of the local game shops that is primarily a GW retailer, and I've had very good luck with them.

      My feeling is that the rot started early, with TSR's emphasis on 'official tournament play' at Gen Con in the early 1980's. The prizes were worth enough to make the game play extremely competitive, just as the institution of 'National Championships' had a bad effect on historical miniatures gaming some years earlier. (I dropped out of historicals because of it; too much nit-picking and rules-lawyering for my taste.) A lot of DIY creativity went out the door with the need to pay the multitude of Blume family members who collected TSR paychecks.

      GW's massive tournament prizes (Slayer Swords, Golden Demons, raw cash) fostered the same attitude; 'official' armies became the norm, with changes to those armies with new codexes and rules editions - 'turnover' became the mantra, and the very high retail prices began to drive a lot of the game play and marketing at the retail level. Plastics are cheap - high initial tooling costs, but very low costs per unit - so they could have flooded the market with inexpensive products. Instead, the sales strategy has been to sell plastics at collector prices, and then make sure that one has to pay for the wins on the table with hard cash at the retail counter.

      And yes, it does affect the game stores. I can buy flock and other scenic materials at the local model railroad hobby shop for under ten percent of what it costs me at the game shops; buildings and scenic items cost a small fraction of what they would cost at the game store if I get them at the hobby shop.

      I certainly understand the retailers' dilemma - I just can't afford to pay the retail prices...

      Sigh.

      yours, chirine

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    2. It's true, the mentality was there back in the TSR days when they bandied about the word "official". I had tried to suppress those memories...

      But, GW is still around and I like to try to tell people where we're heading if they keep supporting those leeches. Surest sign I'm an old grumpy man...

      If I had a BattleTech opponent close by, I'd start crafting terrain this very minute because I get energized by looking at what you have built...

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    3. Well, I *am* a grumpy old man, so... :)

      Battle Tech, eh? Cool!

      yours, chirine

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