Random table format wars

In general I am wary of introducing technological prosthetics into tabletop roleplaying games. Often, I think such tools are patches over needless rules complexity. I would generally prefer to adjust the rules so that they can stand efficiently without machine crutches. However, one place where I relax my attitude in this matter is the combination of results from several random tables. Occasionally I appreciate the slow, ritual process of rolling dice, consulting a table manually, noting a result, repeating this process over and over again, and then finally reconciling the complete set of results. However, most of the time reducing a 20 minute operation to one that takes mere seconds is a trade I will take. So, what tools exist for automating the juxtaposition of multiple random tables? Ultimately, I will advocate using a simple spreadsheet, which I argue has benefits in terms of both flexibility and simplicity over many other more specialized solutions, but first I will survey the alternatives.

To my knowledge, the other major players are Abulafia, Chartopia, and Last Gasp Choose Your Own Generator. Abulafia is basically a wiki that supports syntax for random tables. Abulafia’s major benefits are the ability to reference tables uploaded by others and web sharing. Chartopia is a specialized web app for random tables that seems like a work in progress. Both use their own format for encoding data. Last Gasp will generate standalone JavaScript tables that you can store entirely in a bookmarklet but requires some external solution to manage and recombine lists of table data. All of these are good tools but none of them quite scratch the itch of blending results from multiple tables in a flexible and easy to manage manner, at least for me. Chartopia may have emergent potential from social media participation, but so far lacks the user base and requisite functionality, such as intuitive hash tagging. Chartopia supports uploading tables as CSV files, but the process of creating a full generator ended up feeling cumbersome to me.

Using a spreadsheet, once you know a couple simple tricks, is flexible and quick, and the social media aspect seems easily handled with Google Sheets, Dropbox, Google Plus, Twitter, Reddit, or whatever. The main benefit for me of using a spreadsheet though is encapsulation. All the other solutions I have experimented with involve a mess of files, links, or other elements, which end up difficult to organize or share. In contrast, the method I outline here keeps all the subtables together in a single spreadsheet workbook file, with one column per table in the second sheet. This ends up interoperating easily with the most natural format for storing random tables, which is a plain text file having one result per line.

Basic Excel random tables

These instructions assume that you have basic knowledge of spreadsheet concepts, such as cell addresses and formulas. That said, to make this accessible, I try to be as explicit as possible, and apologize in advance for boring those with spreadsheet experience. Spreadsheet files (the files with xls or xlsx extensions for Excel) are called workbooks, and each workbook can contain multiple sheets. Beyond these basics, all you need to know is how to name a region of cells and how to use one, admittedly ugly, function to select a result randomly from a named region. To create a multi-table generator:

  1. Create a workbook
  2. Enter the table data into the workbook’s second sheet, one table per colum
  3. Name the column regions so you can reference them by name
  4. On the first sheet, reference the named regions using the ugly function

As a basic example, I will automate Telecanter’s excellent Magic Item Spur, the content of which is released under a creative commons license. This is a roll all the dice generator, meaning there are six tables corresponding to the classic handful of polyhedrals: 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12, and 1d20. (The d10 table here is basically just the number, but I have left it exactly as Telecanter originally specified, for clarity of example.)

First, switch to Sheet2 within the workbook and enter the data. Check the lower left tabs to access the different sheets within the workbook (you may need to click the + button to create a second sheet). I left the sheet names Sheet1 and Sheet2 in this example so they match the Excel defaults. I use the first row for column names, but this is just superficial:

Excel example – enter random tables

Next, name the ranges for each column so that you can refer to them by name elsewhere. To name a region, highlight the column data and the type the name in the upper left cell address box—the text in the blue box below. Do this for all columns (there are six in this example).

Excel example – name region

Finally, switch to Sheet1, which will contain the randomly generated result. For each table, draw a result randomly using the following function, replacing TableName with whatever you named each column region:

=INDEX(TableName,RANDBETWEEN(1,ROWS(TableName)),1)

You can organize Sheet1 visually in whatever way you want. I have the generated content in cells B2 through B7 here, with labels to the left and credits below.

The formula in cell B2 (which resolves to distance in the result) is:

=INDEX(range,RANDBETWEEN(1,ROWS(range)),1)

The formula in cell B3 (which resolves to weapon in the result) is:

=INDEX(type,RANDBETWEEN(1,ROWS(type)),1)

And so forth.

Excel example – Sheet1 generator with formula

That’s it.

Now, every time you recalculate the sheet, you will get a new result. In Excel, press F9 to recalculate the sheet. In Google Sheets, reload the page.

Share, or embed in blog post

Upload this to Google Sheets, and you can share it with others, or embed the result in a blog post or other web page using the following iframe code.

<iframe src=”https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1am-3-CfNcIV4ICCr6jysJckVr03iWBphdeIaeSOtEBY/edit” width=”600″ height=”600″></iframe>

Just update the URL. Every time you reload the page that includes the iframe code, you will get a new result, as you will see below. (Try reloading this page.) I have highlighted the random content area in red to make it clear for this example.

Use on phone or tablet

This approach is portable, both in the software compatibility sense and in the will work on your phone sense. I tested these sheets on the Google Sheets, Numbers, and Excel apps for iOS. They all work, even when offline, though there are some minor differences in the user interface, and the free version of Excel for iOS prevents saving. Generally, to generate a new result using a phone or tablet spreadsheet, close and reopen the document. The Google Sheets app seems to be the most full-featured and flexible, but really as a simple viewer any of these works.

Opening this file unmodified in the Google Sheets app on my phone presents this interface, which is just about perfect for use during play:

User interface on a phone

Deleting or editing names for regions

Once you have created one of these, it is relatively straightforward to make a copy the workbook file and edit the copy to make another generator out of different tables. To do this, you may want to delete or rename existing region names. I explain how to do this next.

In Excel, you can delete existing names for ranges using Insert > Name > Define Name, highlighting the name, and then clicking the minus button.

Excel – region name menu

Excel – delete region name

In Google Sheets (access via Google Drive on the web), the relevant menu is Data > Named ranges… and at the time of this writing looks like:

Google Sheets – Delete region name

(Just do a web search for “named range” and your spreadsheet software of choice if using another tool.)


Comparing solutions

Okay, now that you have seen a simple proof of concept example, how does this compare to the other solutions?

  1. It functions without the network
  2. It only relies on standard spreadsheet functions
  3. Easy to share by uploading to Google Sheets
  4. Easy to organize using folders in Google Drive
  5. Easy to copy one-per-line text files into columns
  6. Keeps a collection of related tables together in one file
  7. No reliance on domain-specific language
  8. No reliance on continued existence of whatever cloud service
  9. Easy to embed in a blog post using iframe (will regenerate on each page load)

That seems like a pretty compelling list of advantages to me. A while back, I considered and decided against using a spreadsheet, but I have now changed my opinion. For a few more examples:

  • The Vornheim aristocrat generator is one of the classic examples for me of this kind of multiple table generators. Here is an automated excel version (content used with permission). Buy Vornheim; it’s great.
  • Random Devilspawn from this post (note how easy it was to embed the generator at the bottom of that post as well).

The other solutions are mostly unitaskers, unlike Excel, which is a useful tool in its own right. And keeping all the subtables nicely contained in a single workbook file is extremely helpful, especially in comparison to the mess of files I have to automate, say, some of the chapters from Seclusium (such as this chapter that is basically a magic item generator).


Adding Functionality

Though the above example provides all the functionality most generators require, spreadsheets have almost unlimited flexibility, and you can make any particular generator as complicated as you want, if your time is worthless. I tried to keep the example above as simple as possible for ease of use and portability, but there are a few other functions that might be worth the effort.

RANDBETWEEN (for dice values)

For slightly more complex generators, two other functions may be useful. The first is RANDBETWEEN(), which can serve as a basic dice roll. For example, =RANDBETWEEN(1,6) yields 1d6. =RANDBETWEEN(1,6)+RANDBETWEEN(1,6) yields 2d6 (and so forth). Use this function to instantiate values for elements such as number of monsters appearing.

CONCATENATE (for joining two random results into one cell)

To join two or more elements so they occupy a single cell, use CONCATENATE(). For a simple example:

=CONCATENATE(“Number appearing: “, RANDBETWEEN(1,6))

I use this in my Devilspawn generator to join the number of attendants and the description of attendants into a single result (check the contents of cell B10 in the first sheet).

Ennies publisher guide

It can be difficult to keep all the game studios straight, especially with the proliferation of personal brands. Since it is Ennies season, and the voting page for publishers is awkward to use, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some publishers that I consider notable, along with my reasons. I have included a few big players as well that any reader of Necropraxis is probably already familiar with, that want to note for particular actions.

(Inexplicably, Lumply Games, Meguey & Vincent Baker’s brand, and the publisher of Apocalypse World, does not seem to have been nominated. What? Moving on.)

Chaosium Inc. deserves praise for reprinting classic RuneQuest titles in high-quality editions, keeping the back catalog available digitally, and reinvigorating Glorantha with a beautiful new edition of RuneQuest that builds on the classic version.

Cubicle Seven did a great job with the 5E Adventures in Middle-Earth line, though the art is a little brown for me. The mechanics are thoughtful in how they try to support the feel of Tolkien’s stories. I think the 5E Middle-Earth books would be a good mechanical base for a low-magic 5E game, even ignoring the setting.

Dolorous Exhumation Press is “Dungeonesque” Jack; I consider his first Tales free compendium an OSR classic and Krevborna is great.

E.M.D.T. is Gabor Lux, writing some of the best current AD&D style content, but more usable and with less verbosity.

Fria Ligan (Free League) is relatively new to me, but Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy, looks to be a promising fusion of old school mechanical goals with focused design principles. Not sure whether the final result will match my tastes, but worth keeping an eye on. (They show up twice for some reason on the list at the time of this writing. I hope someone fixes that.)

Goodman Games, along with work on DCC, deserves praise for keeping other old school classics, such as those by Judges Guild, in print and bringing them to the attention of the mainstream, such as with the 5E conversion of B1 and B2 (my review).

Hydra Cooperative is the non-commercial hobby collective behind Operation Unfathomable, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and many other key OSR publications. (The entity itself is non-commercial, but I think individual creators may earn profits.)

Jarnringen publishes the Swedish Symbaroum setting and RPG (see the Iron Pact fan site). The rules of Symbaroum are a bit mainstream for me, but the art is wonderful and evocative (I ran a short-lived campaign in the setting using my own rules). Symbaroum is also somehow associated with Modiphius, which I mention below.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess probably needs no introduction here. James still deserves support for being unwavering in commitment to quality of physical product and willingness to take risks. Frostbitten & Mutilated is also up for a number of awards.

Lampblack & Brimstone publishes supplements associated with or brand-adjacent to Dungeon World, but their pubs are just as useful for OSR play. Freebooters is a slick ruleset and I consider Perilous Wilds one of the classic hex-crawl supplements. Servants of the Cinder Queen is a short module worth checking out. The taste in art is impeccable too.

Lost Pages is Paolo Greco, fellow book snob, meticulous bookbinder, and the publisher of my own Wonder & Wickedness, along with games such as Into the Odd (my review) and his completely sui generis masterpiece, Cthonic Codex (False Machine review).

Melsonian Art Council: Undercroft zine, Troika, Fever Swamp, Crypts of Indormancy.

Modiphius Entertainment is assembling an intriguing catalog of what I might call hybrid mainstream-indie games… is that a contradiction? Mutant: Year Zero, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (an Apocalypse World derivative), and so forth.

Necrotic Gnome Productions is Gavin Norman and an always reliable source of good B/X style content and rules, such as Dolmenwood, B/X Essentials, Theorems & Thaumaturgy (my review). Necrotic Gnome has plans for expansion and fancy editions, about which I am excited.

Olde House Rules does Pits & Perils (my review).

Red Box Vancouver is Johnstone Metzger, of Metamorphica (classic edition is pay-what-you-want), innumerable trad-friendly adventure modules such as Evil Wizards in a Cave, the Nightmares Underneath OSR game, Dungeon Full of Monsters, etc etc etc. He has also done a lot of work on powered by the apocalypse style games and so may be slightly less well known among the DIY D&D crowd.

red moon medicine show does Vacant Ritual Assembly, one of my favorite zines, though it has recently been dormant. Issue one is one of my top used-in-play supplements, for the ghoul market (my review).

Schwalb Entertainment is Rob Schwalb, industry veteran, who has created the mechanically innovative Shadow of the Demon Lord (my review), which may be slightly heavy rules-wise for someone with B/X tastes but is nonetheless worth checking out.

Sine Nomine Publishing is Kevin Crawford, creator of many products useful for old school exploration-focused games, including An Echo, Resounding, which is a must-read if you are interested in new takes on domain play. Additionally, he has created several free publisher tutorial products, such as this guide to TSR layout and Exemplars & Eidolons, a playable old school game which is also an InDesign layout tutorial.

Squarehex is Peter Regan, of Oubliette, a stylish old school zine from the early phase of the OSR, and is also involved with the practical side of the Black Hack second edition Kickstarter.

Steamforged Games publishes the Dark Souls board game.

Swordfish Islands is Jacob Hurst, who has singlehandedly created a couple books with production values higher than Paizo or Wizards of the Coast and also happen to be fantastic old school hex crawl resources. Swordfish Islands is also up for product of the year.

Wizards of the Coast, despite managing Dungeons & Dragons, the Coke brand of tabletop RPGs, and needing no further promotion from me, deserves praise for making Fifth Edition D&D a versatile version that can be used for old school or new school play, and for keeping the TSR back catalog available.

State of the art

Old school, smooth ride (photo credit)

There are several rules trends that I have come to see as evolutionary improvements. That is, there are a few rules that seem to be simply superior approaches to solving certain game design problems, at least most of the time. Below is a list of rules I would place in this category. Improvements are always relative to some goal, so I have organized this post around the game design problems that the various innovations address. Many of these ideas have older pedigree, and the innovation may be in application to traditional fantasy roleplaying games rather than pure invention.

Though simply superior is a strong claim, and of course there are exceptions, I think anyone writing or hacking rules, especially for OSR or DIY D&D type games, should think carefully before ignoring these developments.

Goal: make chargen fast and easy

Even in games heavy on characterization, quicker character generation is advantageous. Who wants to spend a full session on character generation, especially if people must make decisions which will ultimately influence play minimally?

  • Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping. Ideally, the possible starting gear packages will be varied and evocative while still always being gameable. For example, a butterfly net made of silver thread for catching fairies rather than just bedroll and torches. This set of tables for OD&D starting gear by class could be more evocative, but for sheer utility are still one of the tables that see the most direct use in games I run.
  • Support fully random character generation. Players who prefer to make all the choices themselves can still do so, but random characters are invaluable for the casual player or the player who needs a replacement character quickly. For example, see the one-click total party kill online character generator.

Fast character generation also makes lethal consequences more tractable.

Goal: minimize bookkeeping

Resource management adds weight to a game, in both good and bad ways. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics. There are simple systems which yield benefits for gameplay similar to complex calculations of weight carried.

  • Approximate encumbrance. One significant item per point of strength or some flat limit are both well-tested. Abstract encumbrance rather than bothering with details such as weights, which probably requires players to use a spreadsheet or other computerized prosthetic. See the Lamentations of the Flame Princess encumbrance rules (2013 Rules & Magic, page 38, free no-art version; still too heavy for me, but usable) and Papers & Pencils (making encumbrance work) for the recent ground zero of usable encumbrance rules. Historically, Dragon Warriors (by Morris and Johnson), back in 1985, used a flat limit of ten significant items, with minor adjustments based on character strength.
  • Overload the encounter die or use a hazard die for timekeeping and event engine. Winter can be a potential downtime event outcome (with a nod to Torchbearer) as can various other events. This makes a setting live without requiring complex tracking or Tolkien-style world building on the part of the referee and builds such fictional developments into the core gameplay workflow.
  • Randomize the exhaustion of consumables, such as with a Black Hack style usage die, event engine outcome, or overloading an action test (such as attack roll or ability check). The illogical edge cases are easy to handle. Similar rules have been around at least since the Necromunda ammo roll1, and probably earlier, but have only become popular in D&D type games over the last few years (see archive of this 2011 intwischa post).

Goal: maintain tension at desired level of difficulty

Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games. One easy way to maintain this tension is to keep hit points low and have zero hit points mean death, as the rules of OD&D and B/X dictate. However, low HP and death at zero can be more punishing than many groups desire. Witness the wide variety of house rules to increase the survivability of first level characters, even among hardcore old school players. For example, max hit points at first level is a common house rule and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has minimum hit point thresholds (2013 Rules & Magic, page 7, free no-art version).

Goal: develop content that will see play

This includes character options, powers, and abilities. For player-facing rules, this generally means removing level gates on powers. In-fiction requirements, in contrast, such as locating an ingredient or seeking out a teacher, create concrete goals and prime adventure, as opposed to the more abstract idea of just get more gold and at some point 9th level will roll around.

Goal: minimize numerical inflation

(This has some relation to developing content that will see play, as flatter power curves mean balance violations are less mechanically shocking.)

Goal: keep content fresh

Are these referee techniques or house rules? Either way, I am including them here.


Thanks to people that suggested commonly used house rules when I asked on Google Plus (private share; opt-in here).


1. Thanks to Paolo Greco for mentioning this a while back.

Good reviews

A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.
—Murray Kempton

What makes a good review? This is my take, and is unapologetically opinion. There are plenty of useful reviews out there that fail to hit all these notes. But these constitute my ideal. This post was prompted and informed by several Google Plus conversations (here and here, at least).

Constructiveness

Reviews of tabletop RPG products generally concern finished products, so why bother with thinking about improvement? The ship has already sailed. First, focusing on constructive feedback forces the reviewer to really think about why something is a problem rather than just following feelings. Second, writing constructive reviews helps avoid snark. Third, providing constructive feedback reveals reviewer priorities and biases concretely. Simple criticism is often underspecified. For example, if a reviewer says that the monsters were too generic or too simple, the reader has to infer the meaning of generic or simple from past experience or make their own best guess. If the reviewer says that the monsters would be improved by adding attack routines and combat weaknesses, then the reader knows that the reviewer is specifically looking for tactical complexity in monsters and can weight the review accordingly.

Thesis

The best reviews use the review form to express a more fundamental idea, rather than simply evaluate a product. I imagine this criteria may be somewhat controversial. I understand preferring a focus on functionality and simple facts. However, reviews have audiences beyond just immediate buyers. They also inform future creators, including creators other than the original product’s author. For example, when I discussed Courtney’s Megadungeon zine, I framed my review around the idea of presenting a megadungeon piecemeal using the zine form. I make no claims about how insightful that particular thesis is, but that is what I mean by more fundamental idea. Someone else might run with the baton you provide. Reviews shape the form in addition to describing and evaluating.1

Focus on value

Price is what you pay, value is what you get.
—Warren Buffett

Apart from ease of use, which is in some ways a measure of future opportunity cost, when I review something, I try to pay attention only to the value. I do not see the role of a reviewer as to judge whether product X is worth Y dollars. First, who knows what the cost will be in the future? For example, maybe a product will get new pricing (such as becoming pay what you want), be included in a bundle, or go out of print and become scarce. Second, I lack the info to evaluate how the value I see might match up to any particular reader’s resources. One person’s extravagance is another’s impulse purchase. On reflection, while writing this post, I decided that it may be useful to include how much I paid, and when, for commercial products, as that makes it easier for a reader to make a judgment and also makes the source of the product clear. So when I get a chance I may go back through my reviews and include that information. And that serves as a nice transition to considering free copies for review provided to reviewers by producers, and the attendant incentives.

Absent conflict of interest

The best reviewers do not accept complimentary copies. I believe Bryce buys all the modules he reviews (“I bought this stuff and read it so you don’t have to”). Consumer Reports buys the stuff they test (“Our shoppers pay full retail and purchase all the products we test to generate our ratings from the same places consumers do; we accept no sample products for testing”). I would never review something I was given a free copy of for purposes of facilitating a review. A commitment to this principle has been in the about section of Necropraxis since before it was called Necropraxis. I think this helps to maintain editorial independence.

For a given individual reviewer, of course ethics can outweigh incentives, but in the ideal case the incentive will be absent. I need to know more about a reviewer to have a sense of whether the incentive will matter compared to a case where there is no incentive. Similar concerns justify why people often prefer to pay for a fee-only financial advisor, because conflict of interest is less likely. I don’t think this is a categorical taint, but it is a factor that must have an effect in aggregate. I believe a norm against accepting free copies for review would be beneficial.

The scene is small enough that there will always be some degree of nepotism in reviewing materials created by friends. This problem is different than the appeal to material self-interest inherent in free review copies, but is related, and is probably harder to systematically combat in a small hobby scene, but we can still try. I disclose in a review if I feel this is a potential factor. All I can say here regarding this principle is to do your best and perhaps try to put on a slightly more critical hat when reviewing something by a friend or acquaintance.

Absent numerical ratings

Numbers, or star ratings, when applied to reviews, are heuristics, designed to help the reader avoid deliberative thinking. Tabletop roleplaying products are way more complex than Uber rides, and Uber rides are about the most complex product or service that I think might benefit from using such heuristics. I prefer drawing attention to particular strengths and weaknesses, with explanations, rather than just providing numbers. Numerical ratings provide only an illusion of objectivity, unless they are tied to specific definitions, but even then I think ratings are more likely to get in the way of actual consideration.

Absent snark

Good reviews are entertaining, because who wants to read hobby material of any kind that is boring? Trashing someone’s work for the shit-stirring is the low road to entertainment, and can be particularly tempting when writing a review, as the mindset of reviewing is generally critical. As a writer, snark can be easily confused with wit. Unless you are Nietzsche or Wilde though, your snark is probably not witty.

Further, the Internet attention economy and social media feedback loops incentivize snarky reviews. In the short term, and maybe even in the long term, snark will probably get your blog more views. It might even be a road to low-rent celebrity. However, I would rather be respected by a small number of people for civility than known by a large number of people for being a clown. Of course, good reviews will honestly point out shortcomings or problems and avoid pulling punches, but there is always a way to do that without snark. Given the social dynamics and the technological affordances of the Internet, I am probably spitting into the wind here, but mean spiritedness and snark are the bane of thoughtful discourse.

Basis: play versus perusal

For RPGs in particular, it is also helpful to be explicit about whether the review is based on using the material in play or simply reading the product. Reading a product for inspiration or entertainment is a perfectly legitimate use of a game product, but the review reader may be looking for something else.

Consideration of format

I am a book snob. I like the physical objects, and poorly bound books make me sad. This means that, generally, I avoid print on demand books for anything other than small booklets or pamphlets. If it is hardcover, I want stitched bindings. I realize that others may have different concerns, but if I was reading a review, I would always like to know whether a hardcover book was produced using a traditional print run using offset printing and whether the book has a stitched or glued binding.


One of the more thoughtful professors I have had so far in grad school provided a template for writing reviews of academic articles in one of his classes. Though the task of reviewing an academic article differs from reviewing products in several ways, I think this template could still be a reasonable starting point. A functional review can often handle each of these points with a single paragraph.

  1. Description. Restate the core idea or main function of the work in your own words. Mostly avoid evaluation here. This ensures that you understand the author’s goal and potentially reveals misunderstandings earlier rather than later. In an RPG product review, it might be reasonable to foreshadow the overall evaluation either in a topic sentence or final transition sentence, but minimize judgment. If you have an idea around which you are organizing your review, here is where you provide an overture.
  2. Praise. List strengths. If there are no strengths, why are you even bothering? Deciding to review a product at all is a form of curation and publicity. There are no RPG products that are so bad that trashing them is a public service.
  3. Major shortcoming. Discuss the biggest problems. If possible, explain potential fixes. Keep this to one, or at most a handful, of issues, and prioritize.
  4. Minor shortcomings. Here is where you can unload on everything else. Again, explain potential fixes. This often works well as a list with bullet points.
  5. Conclusion. Tie everything together and summarize the overall judgment. Here is where you can best most effectively unfurl your opinion flags.

1. Tangentially, I think the same thing is true of good session reports. A good session report has a thesis beyond just a chronological list of what happened in play. Grognardia was particularly good at this. But that is a topic for another post.

Game designers are overrated

OD&D Afterword

At the end of the final OD&D booklet, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, Gygax and Arneson wrote: … why have us do any more of your imagining for you? There are several reasonable objections to that sentiment. When I want bread, I usually buy it from a baker rather than baking my own. There is nothing wrong with outsourcing, even within a creative hobby like playing old school D&D. While acknowledging the value and legitimacy of dividing labor, there is still something special about doing your own imagining for roleplaying games, which are particularly easy to customize, especially compared to other forms of art and entertainment.

This may be obvious conceptually, but gamers, even within our DIY-obsessed corner of the hobby, often behave in ways that belie an attitude valuing imagining things yourself. People, myself included, buy and read innumerable, often trivially different, takes on core rules, spell systems, adventure modules, and so forth. People also create, share, and hack, of course, but sometimes I still wonder about the balance between these activities. Why so much consumption and passive behavior, compared to play? The play is, after all, the thing. While some amount of learning and consumption may be required for play, the claim that people buy and read more than needed to play seems obvious and uncontroversial.

Black Hack v2 (this might be a mockup)—Kickstarter

This general tendency is one reason why I have been impressed by the community that has developed around the Black Hack, which is currently soliciting funds for a second edition. I can take or leave many ofBlack Hack’s specific rules, despite having similar design priorities. I value concision, ease of use, quick character generation, lethality, modularity, limited bookkeeping, and so forth. So does the Black Hack. However, I also already have systems that I like which solve most of these problems, so why bother with yet another system? For me, the Black Hack is like reading someone else’s collection of battle-tested house rules, maybe a few of which I might experiment with and adapt.

But that is exactly the point: the Black Hack has some useful mechanical ideas, for sure, but it also emphasizes, through its style, through its attitude, through its confidence, that designing these games and playing these games lie on the same plane. No pedigree, training, or extensive experience is required, once you have the basic idea. Traditional fantasy games, those in the DIY D&D or OSR traditions, are robust. There is minimal danger of breaking the game if you accidentally award too much XP, try out a new rule for shields, or replace spell memorization with magic points. Most of those dragons were unbalanced encounters anyways, so as long as you have good communication within your group, making sure that everyone is on the same page about game expectations and shared fictional reality, the rules only need to remain within very broad parameters perform their duty. And further, some adjustment will almost certainly make any rule set work better for your own group.

Is it hypocritical to plug yet another system, crowd funding for a second edition no less, in a post about doing your own imagining? Perhaps. Being a book snob, I am glad the second edition will be printed using offset printing rather than printed on demand1. Stitched bindings is a stretch goal, unlocked at 1200 backers, which is unreached at the time of this writing. So, back the project if you want to help create nicely bound books, or if you want more house rules to read, or if you want some more random generators. From my point of view, however, the most valuable return on the continued success of the Black Hack is an influential rule set and brand carrying the torch of making the game your own rather than following others and deferring to established creators.


1. “We’ve vowed never to do POD because of the quality issues, and our final stretch goal is to get stitch binding on both books – I think the regular hardback has a high enough print run to make stitch binding affordable at the moment, with the stretch goal to get the collector’s book stitch binding. We’re doing everything we can to get them as high quality production finish as possible!” (David Black, direct message.)

Share reviews

A couple days ago, LS/Beloch, of the Papers & Pencils blog, started a conversation (public thread) on Google Plus about what concrete, immediate actions people can take to foster a functional OSR community. People had a lot of ideas, which he then summarized. It is a good list, and worth checking out if you missed it.

I want to highlight one particular suggestion, and add to it. Specifically:

The number 1 thing the OSR needs is more reviewers. People who do the hard work of finding new stuff that nobody has ever heard of, reading that stuff, and getting into the nitty gritty of what is good and what is bad. Bryce Lynch of 10′ Pole is a great model for how to do this right, but there’s more stuff being produced than he can parse on his own.

Personally, I was surprised at the number of people that mentioned wanting more reviews. I write them sometimes, mostly as a systematic way to prompt myself to get familiar with a product, but I rarely feel like many people pay attention to them, especially since, I think, I am not primarily a reviewer and my blog is not primarily a review outlet. I post more about other topics, such as rules hacking, necromancers, and Dark Souls. This means that any readers I have probably come here primarily for things other than reviews. This is true for most gamers writing about, or evaluating, the content other people create.

I can only think of two dedicated review outlets for DIY D&D/OSR products: Bryce Lynch’s Ten Foot Pole and Ben Milton’s Questing Beast YouTube channel. Being so focused on a single topic or function is a good way to distinguish yourself, but it is also a lot of work and I doubt many other people will step up to create and regularly update comparable review outlets. There are, however, lots of people who post reviews with some regularity, either as G+ comments or on blogs, even if that is not the focus of their output. For example, Ram also regularly posts reviews, but that is not the main subject matter of his blog either. This means that people, especially those that might be most interested in many of these reviews, rarely see them.

There is something you can do to help make this situation better. If you come across a review someone else wrote that you think is useful, insightful, or impartial, consider sharing it to a relevant G+ community or other fan-specific outlet, such as a subreddit. I rarely share my own reviews this way because it feels like spamming someone else’s space. Such sharing will help people interested in the material find the relevant reviews and avoids the problem of ulterior motives in self-promotion. If someone other than the review author shares the review though, this serves as weak form of peer review. Just sharing a review to your own social media feed is probably less useful. People looking for, say, modules or supplements to use with DCC are more likely to see reviews if they are posted to DCC-specific outlets.

Unless the review is snarky clickbait. Burn that shit down and bury it in the poisoned ground.


(This is an expanded version of a comment I left on LS/Beloch’s original thread.)

Gehennum

Some time in the 90s, when I first went online looking for info about playing RPGs, I remember joining a listserv called something like world builder’s digest. Or maybe it was just called world building and I had digest mode turned on; I no longer recall.

The advice and work done on that list were mostly top-down, with little attention paid to directly gameable content. The ideal was to work out all the details of your world starting with fundamentals such as geology, cosmology, and history. Then, work your way into the specifics such as economics and ecology, making sure that everything made sense and would stand up to the stray player with a geology PhD.

With hindsight, I no longer think this is a particularly effective way of building settings for tabletop roleplaying games, to put it mildly. But it was a first exposure, and this sort of conversation flowed then more sluggishly online than it does now, and there was considerably less diversity of thought.

A particular creation that made an impression on me from the time I spent reading that list was a setting called Gehennum, designed by one Brett Evill. It was notable to me as a fantasy world that was explicitly designed to buck faux medieval expectations, which even then could sometimes seem bland. (I had no idea at the time that something like Tekumel already existed.) The focal area was an archipelago which drew more from the pacific islands than European mythology and expectations. The body of content Brett wrote about Gehennum also stood out as relatively well-written, especially by the standards of mailing lists about roleplaying games, as filtered through teen memories. In his own words:

In designing Gehennum, I tried to disengage players’ defaults. To do this, I rejected several of most conspicuous standard assumptions, and replaced them with vividly different premises. For example, Gehennum is tropical and oceanic, the Gehennese are not of a European racial type, there are no horses…. I have been different for the sake of being different, which is not in general something I admire. But I have also tried to make Gehennum interesting and good.

For whatever reason, this list and setting came to mind today and I did a few web searches to see if any of that material was still online. Indeed, it looks like Brett still has a site about Gehennum up (copyright mark 1991):

http://gehennum.wikidot.com/

Unfortunately, the link to the map image on that site seems to be dead, but I am glad the work is still online, despite the lapsed time. I was unable to find any listserv archives, but I may just be misremembering the list name.

Streaming matters for trad play

Midcentury, many educated people thought that hanzi, Chinese writing, was an albatross holding back Chinese modernization and economic development. This included many Chinese, in official capacities. Imagine, prior to modern computer character set support and fonts, how difficult it must have been to transmit documents written in Chinese efficiently. Mao himself, in the early fifties, directed that the government should begin a process to transition written Chinese into some sort of phonetic system 1. This attempt was unsuccessful for a number of reasons, but some historians have argued that it was actually the fax machine, with its easy transmission of complex visual printed material, that helped preserve written Chinese as a practical, everyday means of communication in the modern world. (More citations to be added the next time I am near the relevant books, if I remember.)

What does this have to do with tabletop gaming and streaming? I have previously written that games can be transmitted through both culture and text. Earlier, Jeff Rients made a related point, focusing on personal creativity rather than cultural transmission:

My advice to anyone currently fretting over which edition or retro-clone or whatever they should use is to just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one. No matter which one you pick D&D isn’t there. It’s your job to take that text and turn it into D&D.

As it would be unreasonable to expect new players to turn such a text into D&D completely unassisted, where did they look? Older game texts are weak when it comes to explanation of what people actually do when playing a roleplaying game, especially when gameplay has many emergent properties, so in practice new players have historically learned from experienced players. That is, they tap into broader cultures of play.

Once people started to talk extensively about games online, this provided a vector for communicating methods of play. Easy sharing of recorded videos and streaming provided another, even broader vector of transmission. Literally: broad-casting. Whether or not you in particular enjoy getting information from YouTube, Twitch, and similar platforms, or think that watching people play D&D marks the decline of civilization, it should be clear that the medium has enormous cultural penetration and influence, especially when it comes to learning how to do something. If you are as yet unconvinced, just look at esports and video game streaming: League of Legends (check out those sportscaster voices!), PewDiePie (who reportedly earns more than $10 million per year from entertaining people by streaming video games), and so forth.

I am uncertain how causal the fax machine was in helping preserve traditional Chinese writing, but the principle of technology facilitating the transmission of complex cultural practice should be clear. Streaming affords a unique opportunity to broadcast cultures of play. Such transmission should be, based on historical experience, especially valuable for games that live more in cultures than in texts, such as OSR games (or whatever your preferred term is).

Online traditional roleplaying culture has unlocked the unboxing/reviewing and opinionating video achievements. Those are useful. There are even some recorded play sessions with nontrivial production values, such as I Hit It With My Axe.  But they lack, at least so far, the communities of enthusiasm that surround successful streamers. Where are the MissCliks, Critical Role, and Adam Koebel of the OSR? Where are the trad entertainer-educators?


1. Mills, H. (1956). Language Reform in China: Some Recent Developments. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 15(4), 517-540.

Mettle rules graft v0.1

This is a hack that integrates an alternative partial-success d20 resolution system and replacement health system. The original posts on some of these ideas:

The primary design priority is fluent ease of use.

For me, this is essentially subsystem playtesting (for my ongoing, slow-burning Hexagram project), but I think this could be useful as a mod also.

(See the downloads page for a PDF version.)


Necropraxis Mettle Rules Graft

Start with something like B/X D&D, Labyrinth Lord, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess and then suture in the following systems and rules. This is a draft playtest document and I assert no compatibility.

Tests

  • Resolve uncertain actions using the test procedure (1d20 +modifier), interpreting the result as follows:
1 2-9 10-15 16-18 19+
Hindrance & Catastrophe Hindrance Progress & Hindrance Progress Progress & Triumph
  • Tests replace attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws
  • If the unmodified result is 1 or 19+, ignore the modifier

Basics

    • Moves are actions with predefined sets of potential test outcomes (see combat, below, for examples)
    • Add proficiency bonus to class-relevant tests given proper equipment
      • Weapons for fighters, lock picks for thieves, wands for magic-users, and so forth
    • Proficiency bonus follows 5E: = ceiling(level / 4) + 1
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
+2 +2 +2 +2 +3 +3 +3 +3 +4 +4 +4 +4 +5 +5 +5 +5 +6 +6 +6 +6

Gear & Equipment

  • Characters have 25 gear slots: 5 panoply, 4 hand, 6 belt, & 10 pack
    • Panoply slots correspond to hit locations: 1 head, 2 legs, 3 arms, 4 abdomen, & 5-6 body
    • The 4 hand slots are primary (left, right) & secondary (left, right)
    • Place any additional gear in burden slots (burden imposes penalties)
  • Each gear slot has a uses track with up to six boxes
    • The uses track represents wear and tear or uses remaining
    • Gear determines the max uses: quiver of arrows (6), sword (3), and so forth
    • When the number of marked boxes equals the max uses, gear is broken, ruined, or used up

Magic

  • Spell slots = level + 2; each slot has uses = proficiency bonus
  • During haven turns, cast spells from grimoires
    • Other magicians can tell when spells are active
  • After casting a spell, magicians can cause effects using the invoke move
    • +INT for black magic, +WIS for white magic
    • To add proficiency bonus when invoking, equip a focus, such as a staff or wand
    • When invoke test outcomes include hindrance, mark a spell use

Combat

  • Peril—such as monster attack—results in death unless an action forestalls such fate
  • The block and dodge moves replace opponent attack rolls
  • The endure and suffer moves replace taking damage
    • Mettle = level +CON
    • To mark mettle, mark a number of hearts = opponent threat (HD, level, or whatever)
    • If directed to mark mettle when none remain, make the suffer move to avoid death
    • Dying characters expire at the end of the current round
  • Sprain and fracture conditions disable the relevant hit location
    • 1 = head, 2 = legs, 3 = arms, 4 = abdomen, 5-6 = body
  • If a character is already bleeding and the condition comes up again, the character bleeds out and dies
  • Armor bonus applies to the endure move
    • Light armor = +2, medium armor = +4, heavy armor = +6
    • Proficiency: fighter = heavy, thief = light, wizard = none
    • Characters are burdened if wearing armor without proficiency
  • Two-handed weapons provide advantage for strike, shields provide advantage for block
Approach Moves Strike Shoot Maneuver
Prerequisite Melee equipment Weapon & ammo Situational
Modifier +STR +DEX +STR or +DEX
19+ 2 hits 2 hits Attain objective & 1 hit
16-18 1 hit 1 hit Attain objective
10-15 1 hit & mark use 1 hit & mark ammo use Attain objective & mark use
2-9 Endure Mark weapon use Endure
1 Endure & mark use Mark weapon & ammo use Endure & mark use
Avoidance Moves Block Dodge Endure Suffer
Prerequisite Melee equipment Unburdened
Modifier +STR +DEX +Armor +CON
19+ 1 hit Position & 1 hit Recover 1 Recover 1
16-18 Position Sprain
10-15 Mark use Position & lose balance Mark use Fracture
2-9 Endure & mark use Endure & lose balance Mark use & mettle Bleeding
1 Endure & mark use Endure & mark use Suffer Dying

Devilspawn

Image from Dorohedoro

Looking back through one of my notebooks, I came across this monster. Along with some of the details, I like the format, so it seems worth a post.

  • Devilspawn are a pale echo of Satan’s majesty
  • They cannot speak the truth
  • They sometimes believe they are truly Satan
  • Attended by animals that speak or speechless, beast-like humans
  • They have forked tongues
  • They can grant spells if bound or through mystical covenant
  • Will claim the fallen as additional attendants, mutating them slowly

And roll 1d6 each for detail, attendants, power, weakness, and motive:

Detail

  1. Wields a weapon of crimson devil metal, magical and always hot as a furnace
  2. Solid black eyes
  3. Crippled legs, but floats always several inches above the ground
  4. Wrapped in silken cords
  5. Mouth extends to ears
  6. Glorious multicolored enameled plate armor

Attendants

  1. 1d6 horses with lizard heads that speak and drool or vomit lava
  2. 2d6 moths the size of hawks that gibber constantly and have long, corrosive, hollow tongues
  3. 1d6 floating silver cages containing vicious birds of paradise that mock the weak
  4. 2d6 naked, filthy humans with filed teeth that can climb like spiders, mad and grinning, fitted with collars and leashed
  5. 2d6 naked, beautiful humans clothed only in faceless, eyeless helms and metal gauntlets fused to the skin
  6. 2d6 naked humans, half starving and half obese, carrying rusted weapons

Power

  1. Turn into a cloud of moths at will
  2. Conjure fire at will and invulnerable to fire
  3. Paralyze mortals from the waist down (save to avoid, and each dungeon turn to recover)
  4. Take form of nearby person, gains their abilities (50% chance of success to use)
  5. Steal prepared spells from the minds of magicians (save to avoid)
  6. Immune to cutting or stabbing

Weakness

  1. Slowed by mirrors
  2. Courage (will not face the bold directly)
  3. Unable to harm same or opposite gender (determine randomly)
  4. The color blue
  5. The scent of flowers
  6. Hounds

Motive

  1. Eat the flesh of cats
  2. Walk under the sun
  3. Sex
  4. Gaze upon Satan
  5. Wine
  6. Eat the flesh of devils