Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Game Table Interview: GM Beej

I don't actually know GM Beej that well.

His name has come up on the Alliance of Eclectic Gamers and Interactive Storytellers (AEGIS) mailing list, most recently announcing the release of a D&D 4E supplement titled Tikbalang: Guardians of Kalikasan.

He became aware of me, however, through this blog and my recent post on Filipino fantasy settings. We got in touch with each other and so I sent him the interview questionnaire. Here's the result:

What was the first RPG you remember playing?
I have some dim memories about playing a sort-of RPG with a bunch of classmates back in 3rd grade. One person would be the storyteller, while the rest enacted characters in a familiar TV show (at the time, the most common would have to be the first Power Rangers, and everybody wanted to be green and avoided pink like the plague). We had no dice to roll - we instead used the DBZ "Charge" kid-game to handle combat.

An aside: Charge is a very fast game that we used to play as kids, and I'm sure many kids of my generation played a version of it. Here's how our version worked: Two players would choose a cartoon/sentai/fighting game/anime character. Each turn of play is done by clapping both hands together and then making a move. The moves are either a charge, or attacks that the character is known to do - kamehameha, hadouken, ray gun, slice with green ranger's dagger, etc. Each attack, however, will only damage the opponent's life by the number of charges the player already made. The other rules, like how much life a player has, how many charges it will take to have your kamehameha destroy a planet (50?), blocking, etc are as mutable as the whims of a nine-year old.

Now that I think about it, the nine-year old who thought of incorporating such a simple game with storytelling is a genius. Six kids could sit in a circle, clap at the same time, and  resolve a combat scenario in one or two minutes - not even the fastest pen-and paper RPGs could do that.

It would be a full ten years before I rolled up my first D&D 3.5 character, so I guess Storytelling Charge qualifies as my first.

What was it about the hobby that made you want to continue playing?
Let's fast-forward to D&D 3.5 and beyond from here on in. 3.5 had just come out, and I had money then, so I decided to buy the Player's Handbook on a whim. My character was a wizard, and you could say that I was spellbound. I kept reading through the various spells in the PHB, and I was mesmerized by the promise of eventually learning ever more powerful spells.

Eventually, however, it evolved from just wanting to get to epic levels. While my fellow (optimizer) players jumped from character to character, I stuck with my wizard all throughout. As such, my DM at the time was able to weave my character's story really well, and I became as invested in his character development as a dedicated viewer would become invested in a telenovela's main heroine.

Character growth, which began with getting more and more experience points and evolved into watching my characters grow from "naive farm boy" to "contemplative Jedi Grandmaster," remains as my motivation to keep playing to this day.

What was it about the hobby that made you want to run RPGs?
I first became a GM out of convenience - our constant GM at the time was suffering a burnout, and he wanted to become a player, for a change. No one else wanted to take the role, so I took initiative and grabbed it. What kept me coming back, however, was how much I sucked at the job initially: I let a total of ten people join in one game, I gave them outrageously powerful opponents to compensate, characters died left and right, and so people kept making new characters. My only saving grace was that I knew the mechanics of the game (D&D 3.5) very well.

My games were a mess, and to me that was a challenge. I was challenged to run something worth playing, and luckily, I had players that stuck with me through all that disastrous gaming. There were a lot of hits and misses, but sometime during the third or fourth campaign I was running, someone told me, "That was a great game!" From then on I was hooked. Why do I want to run RPGs? It's because I'm a sucker for praise. That may sound selfish, but it also means that I'm always doing my best to run a great game.

What 3 novels have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Brother's War, a novel set in Magic: The Gathering's world of Dominaria. - The brothers Urza and Mishra grow from young best of friends to bitter old rivals, and the novel was the first one that taught me how to use grey areas instead of black-and-white "good vs evil." Jeff Grubb also handles the passage of time really well, not just showing characters growing old, but having changes in the objects and the environment as well.

Other than that, however, I haven't read too many novels that inspire my games. My focus is instead in short stories. It takes skill to craft a world in a limited number of words. While campaigns may last for months or even years, it's best to settle on the story. Sometimes, novels take too much time exploring the world at the expense of the story's progression.

One short story that I keep going back to whenever I work on Buan (my Filipino-themed Campaign Setting for D&D) is the "Sugilanon of Epefania's Heartbreak" (by Ian Casocot available online at the PSF sampler). That story was able to balance the feel and power scale of our epics with a feeling of being fresh and new. Through Buan, I hope to do something similar by interpreting the stories of old into the newer medium of storytelling that is D&D.

What 3 TV shows have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Sliders - It may have bombed from the 3rd season onwards (darn you Kromaggs!), but I stuck to this series from the beginning up until its cliffhanger ending. Sliders is an inspiration because it shows that worlds can become drastically different from our own by simply altering one element. What if Egypt is still a world power? What if penicillin was never discovered? What changes, and what stays the same? These questions are especially useful when running a game set in the modern world.

Rome - Historically inaccurate in many respects, HBO's Rome nevertheless presents an array of characters that fit very well into any fantasy world. From the badassery of the soldiers Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus to the literal backstabbing of the the Roman senators, I was able to model numerous NPCs to populate my games.

When I next run an Eberron game, I will be sure to take inspiration from both shows of the Fullmetal Alchemist series. Militaristic nations, forbidden arts, and the fusion of magic and technology are prevailing themes in both shows, a trait that they share with D&D's latest campaign setting.

What 3 movies have most inspired the games you run? Why?
Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick - My main game system right now is D&D 4E, where the player characters are a cut above everyone else. Riddick is the perfect example of such a character.

The Dark Knight aka the Joker movie - The joker is the poster boy of the chaotic evil alignment in D&D, and whenever I have a chaotic evil villain these days, I use this movie's Joker as the measuring stick. He is also a a good model for most recurring villains - the types that really get to the player character's skins.

That already makes three, right? No, I have to mention one more? Well, then it will have to be all six Star Wars films. A lot of people don't like the prequel movies, but they did give us Darth Maul, the purple lightsaber, and Yoda fight scenes. (Of course, the original movies are still hold a place in my geeky heart.)

What is your favorite published RPG of all time, and why?
I think it's fairly obvious that I'm a D&D guy, and 4E for me is the best interpretation of the game to date. I am aware that in many ways, the whole class and level system limits D&D somewhat. And from time to time, I run or play in other RPGs to clean the gaming taste buds (did that make sense?). Right now, I'm running a Dark Heresy game, and I've been itching to run a Changeling: The Lost game - diwata style.

But I will keep going back to D&D because of two things. 1st, I know the rules inside and out, and whenever I think of a creative scenario, I can model it with the D&D rules without consulting the books too much. 2nd, when casual gamers think of pen and paper RPG's, the D&D brand simply wins out. So when people are interested in trying out RPGs, D&D is usually the game they have in mind.

What is your favorite published game supplement or adventure of all time, and why?
I would have to go with the Fiendish Codex series of late D&D 3.5. These are actually two supplements, with the first focusing on chaotic demons and the second focusing on the tyrannical devils. I love these two books because there's so much information on the 666 (infinite) abyssal layers and the nine hells, as well as its denizens. Also, unlike their predecessor (The Book of Vile Darkness), the codexes don't give me that ever-so-slight Catholic guilt from reading them.

Even though I don't run 3.5 anymore, I still keep going back to these two for motivations in a 4E campaign. 4E supplements, in contrast, are easy to reference in game, but there's really no motivation to just sit down and read the books.

What RPG have you always wanted to play, but never got a chance to?
Always is such a strong word. For the longest time I've wanted to play in NWoD without any supernatural powers whatsoever (I hear Hunter: The Vigil does that pretty well).

But recently, I shelved that idea, and I instead want to play Fantasy Flight Games' latest rendition of Warhammer Fantasy. They have unique dice (no numbers!), decks of cards, various counters, and even something that's called the party sheet to determine how well the characters work as a group.  Added together, it actually kind of looks like a CCG rather than an RPG, but I personally like a lot of visual aids for my games.

What upcoming RPG releases are you looking forward to seeing?
Mostly, I'm looking forward to my own releases. I have another supplement for D&D 4E coming out soon, entitled, Asuang: Shapechanging Horrors. It has eight new monsters (nine, if you count the manananggal twice), mostly for the early levels of play. Beyond that, I really want to see myself releasing more and more Filipino-themed supplements. My hope is to get D&D players everywhere to become more familiar with our own fantastical creatures.

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