Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Skylanders Tabletop RPG Part 2

Back in 2013 I posted an article about Skylanders & The Future of TableTop Gaming. With Christmas of 2014 having just passed we have a few new Skylanders here. On the youtube video advice of Skylander Dad, we built a new shelf. And with some new Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition core rulebooks given as gifts to my sons, (if you want your kids into RPGs they need their own core rule books, even if they are beyond their current reading level) the custom RPG gaming urge has begun again.

Skylanders as a video game is a lot of fun for my younger son. Now
Our Skylander Shelf
I've read articles (I'll post a list of good and bad ones below) that these toys and their in game avatars are taking our kids further away from imaginative play. I'm not going to use expletives here regarding that sentiment, but if I did I would not be out of line. It's complete and total nonsense. Skylanders has sparked my younger sons creativity way beyond rote video game play in ways I never would have though possible.

For One, my son is constantly drawing and imagining Skylanders that do not exist. He uses science and nature books to help his ideas.

LEGO Skylander RPG
Second, is that my son plays with the Skylanders as stand alone toys all the time. He mixes them in with his Ninja Turtles toys and blends genres in ways that would have copyright lawyers fuming if an adult did the same thing large scale without permission. From watching him play this way I can say that all the worlds copyrighted properties rarely mixing with one another is a sad and horrible thing. Children no nothing of these corporate properties and copyright lines in the sand that separate Star Wars from Star Trek and so they mash everything together in awesomeness that the world definitely needs way more of.

Third, is that he was the one, (at age 6) who started using the Skylander toys for RPG tabletop gameplay—not me. Sure he was introduced to RPGs by me, but I did not grab his toys and bring them onto a table and start using them as miniatures, he did. He actually started by putting them on a LEGO game-board he constructed.

So Skylanders helps bridge the video game wold and the real world in a way only Kevin Flynn from Tron has previously experienced firsthand. The Skylander video game/toy is good. And I think we can see it's obvious appeal and success with the addition of Disney Infinity, Nintendo Amiibos, and Prodigy—basically Skylanders for adults.

So last night my son ran a short Skylanders RPG for my wife and I. The game was simple. He took a
huge wet erase map and drew up his adventure quickly with a dry erase marker. He then grabbed many D&D monsters and put them on the table. We made our characters very quickly. We rolled the new custom Skylander Element Dice we now have to determine what element we got to chose our character from. And that was that. We rolled a d20 for AC and HP and that was about it. As the DM my son rolled AC and HP for the monsters. He used some smaller dice so we were not overwhelmed by powerful creatures. See, no books, no heavy rules, no fuzzy math to muddle through and slow us down.

We got to use traps to capture monsters we beat. We could then use them to aid us as we moved on. The whole game lasted under an hour. In the end my wife and I were able to free some innocent creatures that had been imprisoned by the bad guys. It was just as much fun as any adult run adventure i've played.

For anyone looking to do something similar at home all you'll need, aside from the Skylanders I will assume your kid already possesses, is a wet erase map, wet erase markers, A few sets of polyhedral dice, and pencil and paper.

I do wish that the Skylanders manufacturers would make some element dice, maybe a wet erase map with 2 inch squares, some simple blank character sheets, simple how-to RPG rulebook, etc. But this is not necessary to play your own Skylander RPG.

Intended by the manufacturers or not, Skylanders is much more than the sum of it's parts. You just need to get creative and imagine!

Here are a few articles by others who have considered Skylanders as an RPG too:

Anyone know of a Skylanders RPG?

Custom PVP Mini Tournament Rules Inside (WOT)

Here are a few articles about kids and Skylanders and video games in general. Some for them, some against them, some not so sure what exactly they are writing about. I'll let you decide.

Playing With Us

Video Games, Childhood Development & A Skylanders Give Away!

Why Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures is a Terrible Game

Skylanders: Giants Makes Violent Video Games Seem Small

PAX East 2014: Prodigy is Skylanders for adults and full of potential

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Skylanders Tabletop RPG

We need a Skylanders Tabletop RPG

Another custom Skylander by my son

I recently built a shelf for my sons Skylanders based off the rough guide on the Skylander Boy and Girl youtube page. The results greatly impressed my son and kept the fire hot for more new home-brewed Skylander material. My son already imagines and draws new Skylanders all the time.

His custom Skylanders got me thinking of character creation in D&D. Then in the Skylanders Trap Team video game I saw d12 dice with the element symbols on their faces. This led me to help my son create a custom d12 out of Sculpey modeling clay. The results were not great but we will try again soon. For hand sculpted dice, bigger might be better. 

Custom Dice & layout Sketch
With dice and a hex or square grid map with 2 inch area it would be quite easy to get a tabletop Skylander RPG going. Sure we can and have already done it with traditional maps and d20 and other poly dice. A few true Skylanders items would help seal the deal though. A d8 or d10 with the element symbols on the faces would be amazing to roll. I'm not sure why the game has a d12 spinning around since there are technically only 10 elements. My guess is a d12 looks cooler than a d10 and the dice in the game has no real functionality so a few elements doubling up on the faces mean nothing to the video game play. Rolling a d10 to decide which Skylander element you can chose from for a tabletop RPG would be awesome.

The bottom line is that the existing real life miniature toy Skylanders are the perfect way to seduce kids away from video games and the TV, and onto a table with pens, paper, basic math, and infinite imagination.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Homemade Skylanders Shelf

Hi everyone. Happy Holidays! Happy New Year!

Our very own Skylanders shelf
My younger son is a huge fan of Skylanders. I've posted here before about Skylanders and what a great game it is for kids, since it breaches the wall between virtual video game play, and real physical toy reality.

My younger son watches Skylander Boy & Girl on youtube all the time. No one ever showed him this on youtube. He just uses Google like we all do to search for things he loves. In doing so he found videos made by Skylander dad of himself and his family, and all things related to Skylanders. They are arguably the biggest fans of Skylanders in the world. Here is a link to their youtube page. You can also find them on Facebook.

I often find my son buried in an iPad giggling away at the antics and goings ons of Skylander Boy and Girl and their Skylander-centric family. It's harmless fun. Or so I though. Hehe. On December 23rd, my wife came to me to let me know that our son was very much enamored with this custom built shelf that Skylander dad had built for his kids. The video is on youtube.  Here is the video. If the video does not play, use this link.

So as you can see, the shelf is insanely big and pretty impressive. I'm getting this news on December 23rd. In the video there is a link to another video with rough instructions on how to build the shelf. I'm pretty handy already and have been known to build many custom toys for the kids in the past. I knew I could build it but I was just worried about the wall space. We do not have a big house and wall space is already at a premium here, especially for kids' toys, which are only allowed in the basement boy/man-cave. 

For some reason the video of Skylander Dad explaining how to make the shelf will not embed. Here is the link.

So very early on Christmas Eve my son and I went to Home Depot to price out wood and see how we could best build or buy something similar. 

At Home Depot very early on Christmas Eve 2014
So once we were at Home Depot I could see that the project was not going to be too difficult. Many problems with custom built projects arise when the wood needed to build the project is too large to get home. Home Depot too, never seems to have enough people staffed to easily get wood cut down quickly. The place is nothing like the commercials. Luckily we found 6-foot long, 4-inch wide pine boards. Skylander Dad used spruce, which is slightly cheaper. I could have picked up 8-foot length pre-painted pine boards, but that was more costly. Mostly I did not get the pre-painted white boards because they were 8-feet long and I could not fit that in my car. I knew I'd have to paint the shelf myself. Not a big deal.  I then grabbed 2 boxes of 2-inch wood screws. I only needed 1 box but I hate going back if I did not buy enough. Extra screws are always handy to have, too.

I already have a drill and a jigsaw, so once I was home building the project went quickly. I also don't like spending 100 hours on a project. Getting something done quick at an 85-95% quality is way more important that spending countless hours getting it to 99-100% quality. 
Building the shelf in the basement
I was not going 8-feet wide like the Skylander Dad did. 6-feet wide was as big a space as we had, anyway. I also decided I was not going to mount the shelf from the wall either. I did not like the wooden board running through the Skylander Dad shelf. After the shelf was done I placed it atop 3 small drawer units we already had on the floor. I then found 2 studs in the wall and used 2 L brackets to secure the shelf to the wall so it won't topple over. Simple. 

The shelf went on the wall later in the day on Christmas Eve. Every Skylander we own, and the new ones Santa delivered were put onto the new shelf on Christmas day.

Fast forward to December 26th and we went out for paint and colored craft paper. I had originally wanted to use pressboard for the back on the shelf and paint the colors for each element. The pressboard I would have needed to buy at Home Depot was too big to get home. I know from experience that the colored paper will not last. I used the colored paper anyway. It was easier and faster. I could not find my staple gun (which is still bothering me) but regular staples luckily worked fine on the soft pine. 

Here are the final shots of the shelf in it's various stages. We still need to make the element cards for each shelf. Maybe later today I'll get to that. :) 

Logos printed and mounted to foam-core

Thanks to the TheSkylander Boy & Girl and Skylander Dad over at youtube. You gave us a great project to make together that we will always have and a memory we will never forget. 

We also put all the Skylanders cards into a binder finally so that they will not get lost. Enjoy!

Friday, December 12, 2014

D&D Lost Mine of Phandelver Adventure, season 2 Roll20 Gameplay

Here is a video of my first ever participation in a Roll20 D&D game.

I had a great time playing and you can even hear me, (my voice sounds odd) and see video of me after the rough 1/2 way point. For some reason the video of us did not record during the first half.

As long as these sessions continue and our DM records them I'll be posting them here in the future.



Below are some screenshots of the gameplay. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Tim's Vermeer & What Makes an Artist an Artist...

I just got finished watching the Pen and Teller-directed film, Tim's Vermeer. The film follows Tim Jenison, a wealthy, eccentric, technology inventor who spends years working to uncover how the 17th century master artist Johannes Vermeer may have employed optical techniques to paint his otherworldly paintings.

Employing his smarts, computer technology, the David Hockney book, Secret Knowledge, and a huge pile of money, Tim spends years to achieve his ultimate conclusion—reproducing Johannes Vermeer's painting, The Music Lesson. Tim is not a trained artist, but through much hard work he is eventually able to very accurately reproduce The Music Lesson. The film was amazing and should be seen by anyone and everyone with a love of art.

Throughout the film, the question often arises as to what art is and if a device is used to aid the arist, is that cheating? As an artist myself, I know this debate well. Sitting down nude before your canvas with nothing more than paint and brush is considered by many to yield the truest and purest form of what an artist should be. The more tools, aids, contraptions, lenses, devices, cameras, and now today—computers, one uses takes the creator further away from being a pure and masterful artist. As an artist myself I have given this much thought and debate, especially since I have often been known to employ many tools, specifically a camera, to help me achieve my artistic goals.

Do aids and contraptions used by the "artist" to help in the creation of the art, make the artist, not an actual or authentic artist? Or less of an artist? Or an artist far, far down the rungs? This is certainly open for debate, although I have a very firm opinion on this.


So what does make an artist an artist? It may seem a complex and terribly unobtainable answer to glean from history and art. For me, after not too much heavy thinking, I concluded that if all the gadgets in the world are employed to create a piece of art, then it's still art. Why did I conclude this, you might ask? I decided that there is only one major difference between a non artist and an artist, and that difference is the drive to create. The will and desire to make art is the one hard line that separates artist from non artist.

Drive makes an artist an artist.

Is Tim Jenison an artist? Well, while he was driven to reproduce the Vermeer, for a bit of time, perhaps he was. He was creating a reproduction like I did back in art school. He also did get as sick as can be of painting the mind numbing detail required to finish his Vermeer reproduction. He needed to get the detail to a masterful degree so that anyone could look at the finished painting and conclude that with the optical techniques he employed, and the drive to finish it, yes, anyone can do this. Mostly, though, anyone does not do this. Watching the film, it almost seemed as if Tim might not finish. Vermeer likely did use some form of optical technique to make his paintings. Does that make anyone an artist? Potentially yes, but in realty, no. The reality is that most people could care less about creating a work of art, even if tools are available to make the job easier. From the modern abstract to the ultra-complex masterworks from the 17th century, art is created by people driven to make it. Those not driven, well, they are busy doing other things. Just wishing you could make art is not enough. You need to make some. Even if you see something and you think, "I could do that," it's still not enough. You need to actually do it. You need to be driven.
Tim's Vermeer vs Vermeer's original The Music Lesson
Tim's final result is fantastic. A tremendous accomplishment. It is technically excellent, even more well-rendered than Vermeer's in some ways. But Vermeer's original, despite its age, pops more. Tim's is lacking the full range of skill and creativity Vermeer possessed, because Vermeer had skills beyond route reproduction. Tim focused equally on color detail all over, being as exact to what he saw as possible, where Vermeer, it seems, let some detail areas go a bit so we focus on others. Vermeer's original has colors that pop out in various areas too, and remember the Vermeer was painted between the years 1662–1665 and its colors still pop! Vermeer may have exaggerated some areas of color so your eye would wander around the painting. This is akin to a contemporary artist burning and dodging areas of a photo in Photoshop. These were creative choices Tim did not make that could have made his fantastic reproduction/exercise/theory into a great work of art like Vermeer's.

Vermeer too, was driven to create his paintings not to prove some technique and then stop there. Vermeer was already an accomplished artist when he made the The Music Lesson. Tim Jenison only reproduced something, like a student might, to learn and grow. Tim was driven to prove a point. I think he succeeded completely. If Tim continues to create art, especially original pieces, he will grow as an artist. If he moves on and never creates art ever again for the rest of his life he will have still left a huge mark on the art world. I'd say a very valuable contribution, too. But he is not an artist. He's a masterful Padawan learner, not a Jedi yet. By his own admission, at the start of his journey he says he has no training. He did train himself, consult with other artists, and read lots of books. It is possible to self-train too, especially when you already are very smart, as Tim clearly is. Certainly many varying levels of skill, knowledge, tools, insight, creativity, inspiration, drugs, and more are all used to create all the art in existence. Some artists are driven by some inner beast that needs constant unleashing or else the artist will go mad. Other artists just want to make comics and draw superheroes. Others crave fame. Many crave money, and in all fairness we all need money. Some sit in a room their entire lives making art only for themselves and then die. Some want to work on art for video games. Some want to work on art for movies. Some just have the skills to pay the bills and are employed by other creatives to create. Some just want to stand with the cool kids. Others just want to get laid. And most are driven by a viscous mixture of varying degrees of all of the above.

Vermeer                     Darger                   Koons
If you feel the urge to create and you are not sure why, that's likely the first and best indicator that you are probably an artist. All the rest listed above will enter your life should you continue your pursuits to create art. You may very well start out with all the best intentions to paint masterworks, and then one day find yourself designing orange juice containers in an office on a computer. It is up to the artist how and why they chose to make their art. I'm always thankful, above all, for my own brain and body. We are all so opinionated that were even the slightest amount of control over myself relegated to those around me, I'd surly have lost my shit. People everywhere will constantly tell you the way everything is, and the way everything should be, and how the way they are doing it is the best and only way and the way you are doing it sucks.

Stay far away from those people.

Learning is one thing, and that's fine. As an artist you need to take what you learn and then jump off a cliff with that new knowledge and reinvent it all before you hit bottom. Only do what others suggest if it feels right. How will you know? You just will. Trust your gut. And never let anyone tell you that your camera, opaque enlarger, tracing paper, a computer, iPhone, or even Google Glass will make you any less of an artist than someone who spends countless hours at a canvas on one piece all done by hand. They are not arguing with you, they are arguing with themselves. The length of time it takes to create a work of art and the skills one employs are the individual choices of the artist to create the work of art they want to create. Very early on in school we were all forced in class to reproduce an old masterpiece. The piece I chose is by Rogier van der Weyden, and is hanging in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. I was almost brought to tears when I saw the original recently for the first time. Mine does not even come close, but I knew I needed to learn what was being taught back in school if I wanted to gain the skills needed to create the art I wanted to create years later. The art I create now would not be possible without that training, but training is not always necessary. Often times, for any profession, you learn much more than you will ever use. But the vast knowledge helps you focus so you know what you enjoy as opposed to what you don't enjoy. It's called style and focus in art.
My poorly executed
 student exercise
from 1989

The masterful original by
Rogier van der Weyden
Masterful levels of skills sitting dormant inside a person mean nothing if they do not get used for creating art. Nor does pitiful, untrained, child-level skills and execution detract from a driven individual being an artist.  Huge skill sets and varying degrees of knowledge may separate Vermeer, Henry Darger and Jeff Koons, but like it or not, they are all artists.

Harper Lee may have only written one book. Perhaps she never wrote, even privately, ever again after To Kill a Mockingbird. An artist can go dormant for sure, but you need to have been driven to create something at some point to call yourself an artist.

My kids make art. Most young kids do. Kids play sports and do math and read and write too. No one thinks of them as writers or artists  or baseball players just yet. The real reason we look at some kids and say they are artists is because something inside them won't let them stop making art. Some kids can't stop playing baseball. Some can't stop singing. That something that keeps us from stopping a childhood hobby and continuing it for life is drive. We love it and we can't stop, and so we are driven to continue.

The other night I woke up at 2am and made the above piece on my iPad. I drew on my tablet with a stylus, used apps, employed filters and more. Someone could look at it and decide, It does not require a lot of skill to create. He used a computer. It's all pixels. It does not exist on a canvas. Almost anyone could make it. However, almost anyone did not make it. I made it. I was driven to make it. It is art, and I am an artist. 

If you are driven to make art, you are an artist. If you need, or want to use any tool to create art—go right ahead! Don't listen to anyone! Johannes Vermeer very likely used lenses and mirrors. Many others used the Camera Obscura. There is no shame in using a tool, rule, or technique of any kind to create what you want. 

Now go create!