Yearly Archives: 2019

Marketing Imagination

Many of us, where by “us” I mean people who discuss tabletop roleplaying games online, have decided to market aspects of our shared hobby. Whatever your attitude toward this development, I think few people would argue against the reality of this basic claim. If you are selling something on drivethrurpg, or a similar platform, you are marketing your work. Considering various hobby developments in terms of how they fit into the process of marketing, then, would, at the very least, probably help explain hobby dynamics.

Colloquially, people often use “marketing” as shorthand for either advertising or persuasion techniques. While advertising is part of marketing, it is a rather small part, on balance. A broader perspective will be more useful. (There is some business speak incoming, but stay with me.)

One framework for developing a marketing plan is the following:

A framework for developing marketing plans

Here are a few, far from comprehensive, examples of how this applies to tabletop roleplaying games, particularly the online part of the hobby.

Positioning is the conceptual space your creation occupies in the minds of the audience. Is it medicine—the way cocktail bitters were originally sold, for example—or narcotic enhancement? Is Silent Titans a campaign setting, an adventure module, or an art book? Consider whether you would be more likely to check out Anomalous Subsurface Environment if it were presented as yet another B/X-inspired retro-clone or as a dungeon module or as a campaign setting. If you start in your own head, looking at the product you have created, it might be obvious that Silent Titans is both art book and adventure module—at least. However, your audience—the people you would like to derive value from your creation—starts with their own concerns; you want them to end up at your product. If your audience would be happy with, or is seeking out, an art book, but you position your creation as an old school adventure module, there is less, maybe no, conceptual intersection.

The marketing mix is a classification for strategies used to get your creation into the hands of your audience—your choice of what to create (product), vector of exchange (place), and so forth. Ron Edwards’ heartbreaker essay can almost entirely be summarized as a critique of the mismatch between hobbyist writer hopes or expectations and some elements of the marketing mix—mostly product and price. He wrote that the market context at the time—which has changed substantially—would generally lead to failure for hobbyists publishing a certain kind of game in a certain way. He then used this claim to argue that designers, or at least designers in the orbit of the Forge at the time, would do better for themselves if they focused on the kind of games Edwards liked, which prioritized originality of concepts in mechanics and trope landmarks detached from mainstream Dungeons & Dragons. So, the heartbreaker essay speaks to concerns about the marketing mix.

How about a more recent example? Take SWORDDREAM. Superficially, SWORDDREAM bills itself as a social manifesto of sorts: be inclusive, facilitate consent, pay fairly, and so forth. A big part of what the principles do, taken together, is define a group of people based on shared values and, perhaps, by generational cohort. This is a form of segmentation and targeting, making SWORDDREAM a guerrilla—or collaborative—marketing strategy. Consistent with this understanding, one of the major venues of SWORDDREAM activity has been on a marketing platform—itch.io dreamjam—the page for which is currently the highest ranked Google search result that leads to a page explaining the SWORDDREAM principles. (Please avoid misunderstanding this point as some sort of veiled dunk on the content of any specific SWORDDREAM principle. I am analyzing SWORDDREAM functionally, looking at how it seems to be operating, rather than implying some ulterior or hypocritical motive.)

Aspects of hobby market engagement

One final example. On Twitter, I have seen several iterations of negative feedback regarding an upcoming official D&D Eberron sourcebook, culminating in the question: why are books like this successful?

https://twitter.com/rrmonroe/status/1172657106228588544
https://twitter.com/better_legends/status/1172872470946308096

The framework above suggests some reasons, even being agnostic about the aesthetic quality of the cover. First, place: Hasbro has these in distribution, and the retail channel both increases the likelihood that “new Eberron book” will enter the audience’s consideration set for entertainment expenditure and provides an avenue for purchase. Second, segmentation: based on past products, Wizards of the Coast has a group of loyal customers that will of their own accord seek out official D&D settings or new Eberron products. Third, positioning: D&D has a recognizable brand that immediately places the product in a conceptual space that already exists in the minds of a relatively broad audience. You might respond: of what relevance is D&D brand equity to me, a lowly hobby producer lacking the resources of Hasbro to buy a portion of the collective meaning space that already exists in the minds of potential audience? (That is what the D&D brand is, after all.) The lesson is, again, to get out of your own head and think from the perspective of the people you want to derive value from your creation. Have you created some, however limited, fragment of shared meaning that people other than you will understand? Actual successful communication between people is far less common than most people imagine. Reuse this established conceptual landmarks if possible because otherwise you will have to do that work again.

Adventurers are the Measure

φησὶ γάρ που ‘πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον’ ἄνθρωπον εἶναι, ‘τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστι, τῶν δὲ μὴ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν.’ —Plato, Theaetetus

When designing a scenario or adventure, writers and referees often create allies and antagonists, by which I mean entities that the designer intends to have some degree of predetermined disposition toward player characters.

When I created my initial materials for Vaults of Pahvelorn, I explicitly attempted to avoid this tendency. I tried to create factions, monsters, and personages with particular motivations, rather than antagonists, and let players decide which would became enemies during play.

This was a game of D&D, so I was expecting adventurers to engage in conflict with at least some of these imagined creatures, but I wanted to avoid predetermining sympathies. Superficially, this may seem like some form of moral relativism. However, I also tried to retain my judgment of particular motivations. Some groups of non-player characters were wicked, or greedy, or ruthless, or principled.

I was curious about the way in which players would choose to interact with various factions rather than intending to subvert tropes, such as, for example, presenting orcs as having a sympathetic subaltern perspective. For example, given two wicked factions in tension controlling different aspects of a dungeon, how would players react? What about two seemingly sympathetic factions locked in internecine conflict?

I wanted to play to find out who would become the antagonists.

This approach led to, from my perspective, particularly engaging play outcomes. Due to a potential flood of undead released from the module Deathfrost Doom, one of several modules I inserted into Pahvelorn’s wilderness, an tyrannical, inscrutable necromancer king became a particularly valuable ally, and also key for the strategy players chose to thwart the invasion of borg-like demons. Earlier in the campaign, players ended up taking the side of a resurgent snake cult operating clandestinely beneath the scenes of the starting town against a number of hermit magicians engaged in variously curious and unwholesome activities.

In retrospect, maintaining a certain degree of discipline regarding avoiding moralization at the time of populating the setting enabled greater player freedom and, probably, more interesting and complex moral outcomes, without transforming the game into a simplistic morality play, or pandering to the idiosyncratic political ideals of myself or my group of players at the time.

Σωκράτης: οὐκοῦν οὕτω πως λέγει, ὡς οἷα μὲν ἕκαστα ἐμοὶ φαίνεται τοιαῦτα μὲν ἔστιν ἐμοί, οἷα δὲ σοί, τοιαῦτα δὲ αὖ σοί: ἄνθρωπος δὲ σύ τε κἀγώ

More generally, I think this stance toward refereeing exposes a general affordance of roleplaying games which can be easy to overlook: Any potent inimical force can become a tool. It is this realization which makes balancing scenario threats limiting; balancing threats deprives players of potentially the most potent implements. Adventurers can lure enemies into a devious trap as well as falling into the trap themselves.

Humanity Restored

Dark Souls Remastered (source: Polygon)

On Twitter (!) recently, @BrianBloodaxe brought up level drain, which reminded me how I ran it in OD&D for Vaults of Pahvelorn. What follows is a slight refinement of my previous approach, which I based originally on ideas from Talysman (of the 9 and 30 kingdoms blog).

In my revision of this method, adventurers lose levels without losing any XP. Adventurers continue to accumulate XP as normal, and gain back all lost levels, along with the benefits of a new level, upon reaching the next level threshold. The adventurer can also retrieve the benefits of lost levels by confronting, and defeating, the particular violating spirit. Additionally, an encounter with the abyss changes, hopefully temporarily, the adventurer’s relation to world of sunlight, joy, and the living, represented by a randomly determined abyssal disturbance—see table at the bottom of this post. An adventurer drained to zero rises as a hostile spirit with the sole purpose in unlife of opposing the adventuring party. As with partial drain, the adventurer’s humanity can be restored by defeating the violating spirit, though in this case the responsibility of doing so would fall to other adventurers.

Dark Souls 3 (source: YouTube)

This approach has several consequences. First, the player loses no progress, in an absolute sense, as accumulated XP remains. The adventurer’s individual effectiveness decreases, but only transiently. Second, the ability to regain levels by defeating the violating spirit presents a particularly salient all or nothing dilemma for players in the moment of the original confrontation, as continuing the fight to victory would immediately return drained levels while fleeing to regroup would—at least temporarily—lock in the lost levels. Third, the disturbance shifts gameplay ambivalently, providing both handicap and potential utility, at least for a player that approaches the disturbance creatively.

Men & Magic (p. 16)

For example, imagine a 4th level OD&D fighter—a “hero”—having 9000 XP at the time of original confrontation. In an encounter with a wight, the adventurer loses two levels. This means the character attacks, saves, and so forth, as a second level character. Values other than HD tend to change only every few levels, so the only effect might be a temporary HD reduction, though in this example case—going from level 4 to level 2—the improvement threshold for fighters is between level 3 and 4, so the adventurer would need to use different rows for both saves and attacks as well. The adventurer must accumulate 7000 XP to gain back lost levels the hard way (since 9000 + 7000 = 16000, the threshold for level 5), and upon becoming a swashbuckler would immediately jump in effectiveness from a 2nd level fighter to a 5th level fighter. A quicker, side-quest style, approach would be to track down the wight and defeat it—something that might require only a session or part of a session of play, depending on the particular circumstances. For magic-users, if I were using the traditional spell progression, I would mark the spell slots associated with the lost levels as tainted by the abyss, and improvise some sort of thematic corruption side effect for spells using those slots, rather than just decrease spell slots.

Frodo marked by the abyss (source)

Level drain becomes more clearly a sort of PTSD from confrontation with the undead. Seeking out and confronting the violating spirit represents the adventurer facing, and overcoming, the fears associated with past experiences. Or facing the danger and faltering—the possibility of which makes potential overcoming more valuable. The experiences were shared by the player, the human at the game table, and the player presumably had some degree of involvement, making the imagined meaning consequential. In other words, the game mechanics and the imagined events dovetail, but avoid the bookkeeping and tedium associated with some other approaches to handing level drain.

Below are 10 potential disturbances. I have tried to design each to satisfy three constraints: consistency with the theme of undead trauma, an aspect that complicates the adventurer’s life, and an aspect that could have unexpected benefits, either due to randomness or creative use by players. Upon regaining levels, I would let the player decide whether to keep the disturbance or overcome that as well.

Abyssal Disturbances (1d10)

  1. Your shadow detaches during combat and either fights for you or fights against you—50% chance each.
  2. Touch chills water—1 turn to freeze a small quantity—and breath is permafrost.
  3. Speech from self and others nearby is muffled to a whisper.
  4. Develops an unerring internal compass for, and scent enticing to, poisonous creatures.
  5. Unlocked dungeon doors open upon approach and close on passing.
  6. Vision becomes dim except by moonlight, under which the character can read lost languages with a 1 in 6 chance—one try per text.
  7. Gains sustenance only from consuming raw flesh and dining upon a creature provides an unerring internal compass for seeking out the creature dined upon, if it still lives.
  8. Light sources near the adventurer provide only half illumination and the adventurer can extinguish mundane light sources by starting at them (takes one turn).
  9. Skies become overcast in a matter of hours wherever the adventurer goes.
  10. There is a 50% chance that conscious beings slain by the adventurer rise as wights or wraiths which are invulnerable to harm caused by the adventurer and also seek to do the adventurer no harm directly, but will make the greatest attempt to harm all those nearby or associated with the adventurer.

Somewhat related, a while back I created a list of 30 “marked by the grave” effects which could also apply, though the results in that list focus more on theme and less on ambivalent game mechanical effects.

Survey Redux

A study! This survey focuses on how people use social media. Some questions may look familiar. This will allow me to look at how beliefs have changed over time. You may already have received an email invitation if you previously expressed interest in surveys.

You may notice that there is a principal investigator mentioned who is not me. I am a grad student and I may wish to publish research in peer reviewed journals based on this data. Dr. White is a professor that I work with. We are collaborating on research involving social media use.

Here are the details:

Tabletop Roleplaying Games Study

  • Take a 20-minute survey about tabletop roleplaying games and social media for researchers at the University of British Columbia.
  • The principal investigator of this research is Dr. Katherine White.
  • We will ask you questions about your preferences in games, your beliefs, your social media use, and basic demographics (only age, gender, and country of residence). All your answers will be anonymous. You can skip questions.
  • This survey is expected to take 20 minutes.
  • This survey involves no compensation.
  • This survey will help researchers understand how people incorporate social media into leisure activities.
  • Choosing to comment, “like”, or “follow” posts or web pages associated with this study may associate you publicly with the study.

To participate, click here.

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below or directly by email.

Feel free to share the link with anyone you think may be interested.

Theater of Shared Working Memory

Figure from Baars & Franklin (2003): How conscious experience and working memory interact. Trends in Cognitive Science.

Players in a tabletop roleplaying game themselves constitute some of the hardware that makes up the game. This is a substantial part of what distinguishes tabletop roleplaying from other mediums and activities. It seems to me that designers and players too rarely consider directly the constraints or affordances of these human details, despite the centrality of human capabilities to the activity. Consider theater of the mind, where players collectively maintain the details of an immediate fictional situation through conversation. Collectively maintaining a dynamic situation is complex. People have limited thinking powers, so theater of the mind constrains the complexity of potential fictional situations. In terms of benefits, conversationally maintaining a collectively shared fictional reality allows imaginative flexibility, compared to more concrete tactical representations, so theater of the mind affords continuous creative reinterpretation.

The entire theater of the mind needs to fit in the working memories of current players. This is a small workspace. Experimentally, just rehearsing a phone number can effectively induce cognitive load. Even assuming some division of labor between players, such as player one tracking lava locations and player two tracking the anger expressed by goblins, the amount of information available is highly constrained. Further, in practice, such division of labor is mostly impractical, due to the nature of the task, which is to collectively keep as much detail alive continually for as many players as possible. This task is orders of magnitude more complex than, say, watching a Peter Jackson action scene—and there is a lot of chaos in a Peter Jackson action scene.

Unlike competitive games that involve shared imagination, such as chess, the success of the endeavor is collective. One player, or a subset of players, can take on more responsibility for coordinating communication and resolving ambiguity. Traditionally, this will be the referee/dungeon master. However, the activity itself, the actual unfolding of play, lives or dies only as it persists richly in the experience of all participating players. In this respect, roleplaying ability involves facilitating collective shared experience—this goes for players just as much as referees—rather than procedural knowledge extracted from rulebooks. Success remains collective at the level of maintaining shared fictional understanding even if the game has competitive elements, such as constructing the most effective character build or keeping your character alive the longest. Unlike games of physical sport that similarly rely on shared abilities to successfully realize the performed activity, most roleplaying game designers and players seem unaware of how their own abilities and limitations shape and constrain the experienced game.

Due to these constraints and affordances, hybrid practices partway between the extremes of purely conversational theater of the mind and highly structured battle grid seem to offer the greatest potential. Building too much structure out explicitly risks constraining imagination. However, expecting everyone to be able to track everything in their head is unrealistic, and is probably part of the reason why play sometimes devolves into sequences of rule following activity with low player involvement and minimal imaginative texture. Anyone with a modicum of roleplaying experience can probably recall examples of play degrading in this way. Rather than thinking about rules and techniques as methods to attain a desired distribution of outcomes—for example, the dungeon turn in B/X D&D or the 2d6 +stat roll in Apocalypse engine games—or ways to ensure particular kinds of mechanical progressions—such as XP incentive systems in D&D of any edition or baking genre into procedures for narrative games—perhaps it is worth thinking about the purpose of systems or techniques as keeping the game alive in the minds of players, where it actually exists.

This post has been brought to you by pages 10 and 11 of Silent Titans—which has useful thoughts about evoking memorable environments and situations from the perspective of the referee—and Scrap’s post about moving beyond fictional positioning as an abstract ideal.

Buying, Blogging, Creating

(This is part of an ongoing discussion of the 2018 OSR Survey results. See the table of contents at the bottom of this post for links to the other parts.)

Particular tabletop roleplaying games are, in addition to being bundles of rules and subcultural traditions, commercial products and brands. Considering games as brands bridges the three broad aspects: commerce, rules, and social behavior. In this post, I will examine which group of players, by game, is most likely to have bought an OSR product, most likely to participate in long form discussion online (blogging), and most likely to publish their own game products for sale. The high level takeaways are:

  • Those most likely to buy OSR products, Lamentations of the Flame Princess players, were no more likely to blog or create OSR products themselves.
  • Swords & Wizardry players seem most likely to be both engaged in all three aspects, being the only group of players having positive associations with both buying and blogging. (I think it is reasonable to interpret blogging as both rules and social engagement.)
  • Just based on examination, there seems to be some clustering of B/X D&D, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and B/X Essentials, probably due to the high similarity of these rulesets.

The wordings of the relevant survey questions, along with aggregate descriptive statistics, were:

  • Have you ever bought an OSR product? (Yes/No)
    • Total n = 1825, Yes = 1657 (91%), No = 168 (9%)
  • Do you have a blog where you post about tabletop roleplaying games? (Yes/No)
    • Total n = 1772, Yes = 503 (28%), No = 1269 (72%)
  • Have you created a tabletop roleplaying game product for purchase that you would consider OSR? (Yes/No)
    • Total n = 1793, Yes = 253 (14%), No = 1540 (86%)
Click to expand
Click to expand

These three questions represent, in some ways, a hierarchy of effort, or engagement with, tabletop roleplaying as a hobby. It is easier to buy than to blog and easier to blog than to create more finished products.

To examine the association between playing various games and the three outcome variables, I ran pairwise tetrachoric correlations. The following table shows associations between playing particular games and having bought an OSR product. Read the “rho” column as strength of association, ranging from -1 (for perfect negative correlation) to 1 (for perfect correlation). (Rho is the tetrachoric equivalent to a Pearson product-moment correlation.) You may notice, looking at the two mosaic plots, that substantively the difference seems small. This is likely partly due to artificially constrained variance—recall that 91% of respondents reported having bought an OSR product. The buying measure was yes/no, so was unable to distinguish between people who buy a little and people who buy a lot, so I suggest interpreting the following statistics mostly as directional trends. The same goes for the other two measures, though the pattern is starker for blogging, where the measure was able to capture more variation.

Who is most likely to buy OSR products?
Players of… N rho SE p
Lamentations of the Flame Princess 1825 .44 .08 < 0.001
Swords & Wizardry 1825 .44 .08 < 0.001
Labyrinth Lord 1825 .43 .08 < 0.001
B/X Essentials 1825 .41 .08 < 0.001
Runequest 1825 .32 .09 0.012
Home-brew (OSR) 1825 .31 .05 < 0.001
Dungeon World 1825 .16 .07 0.026
Vampire: The Masquerade 1825 -.16 .07 0.021

Playing Vampire was the only significant negative association. Playing other games had no association with having bought an OSR product. The upshot of all this is that Lamentations of the Flame Princess players were most likely to have bought OSR products. Curiously, Dungeon World surfaces here again, perhaps because OSR products can easily inform Dungeon World games in terms of themes and content even if other aspects of the games differ. The n here is constrained by people that answered the buy question.

Who is most likely to blog?
Players of… N rho SE p
Home-brew (OSR) 1772 .25 .04 < 0.001
Home-brew (other) 1772 .21 .04 < 0.001
Swords & Wizardry 1772 .11 .05 0.027
Dungeon World 1772 -.14 .05 0.005
Shadowrun 1772 -.17 .06 0.008
Who is most likely to create products?
Players of… N rho SE p
Home-brew (OSR) 1793 .34 .04 < 0.001
Home-brew (other) 1793 .29 .05 < 0.001
Swords & Wizardry 1793 .29 .05 < 0.001
Labyrinth Lord 1793 .23 .05 < 0.001
B/X D&D 1793 .23 .05 < 0.001
B/X Essentials 1793 .23 .06 < 0.001
D&D (1E) 1793 .23 .06 < 0.001
Pathfinder 1793 -.14 .06 0.038
Apocalypse World 1793 -.19 .07 0.013
Click to expand

Note that the blogging question was general rather than OSR-specific. You can find the full list of games that I asked about in the OSR Games post, along with the number or respondents that reported playing each game. There was also a free-response other option to capture any games I missed; there were no standouts in that item.

Click to expand

The number of pairwise hypothesis tests I ran for this post may seem high—21 games × 3 outcomes = 63—but the chance that most of these results came from chance alone is vanishingly small. One would expect approximately 3 spurious correlations at the .05 level, assuming no relationships exist in reality (3 ~= 5% of 63). As you can see, there were many more associations than 3 in this data, and with significance values that would be highly unlikely to see from chance alone, despite the relatively insensitive binary measures.


OSR survey report

Table of contents

  1. Purpose & Participation
  2. What About the R?
  3. Meaning Respondents Associate with OSR
  4. OSR games
  5. OSR Attributes
  6. OSR Play Behavior
  7. Buying, Blogging, Creating

Spire of Quetzel

The Spire of Quetzel is a collection of four adventure sites: The Spire of Quetzel (by Patrick Stuart), The Bright Vault (by Chris McDowall), The Hexenwald (by Ben Milton), and Graveyard of Thunder (by Karl Stjernberg) written for the game Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy. I take this to mean something similar to the hexcrawl or west marches play styles. In these play styles, stocking the wilderness with sites to explore is a (perhaps the) central responsibility of the referee. This will likely be familiar to DIY/OSR/classic gamers, where dropping modules onto a campaign map is common practice.

Below, I will first discuss the physical book and then consider the adventure sites contained within, both as modules for Forbidden Lands and for potential use with OSR games. (As shorthand, I refer to each entry using the title’s first noun (Spire, Vault, and so forth). In sum, the book as artifact is excellent; I have no complaints. All four entries are distinctive, creative, and clearly created with an eye to actual play at the table, especially compared to other offerings of modular adventure content. Further, the scope of adventure sites as suggested by Forbidden Lands is highly functional for the kind of exploration-focused game I like to run. Despite this, the trend for successful OSR products seems to be moving away from this level of modest complexity, toward the magnum opus.

Book and Layout

Hard to emphasize how nice the book feels in hand

The physical book is gorgeous and feels well-made. The cover material has a texture that reminds me of painter’s canvas, but slightly thinner. The binding is stitched. I find the interior style attractive, all in high-contrast black and white, with a crisp and restrained aesthetic. Fantasy references are vanilla-adjacent, but with a fairy tale sensibility, closer to Warhammer’s Old World—but with less Renaissance—than to mainstream D&D. The layout is superficially pleasing but is weakened by often failing to keep related content on a single spread. One of the major advances in adventure layout I have seen over the past few years is organizing sub maps and map keys all within the same spread—for layout examples in this mode, see the Lamentations products Forgive Us and Cursed Chateau. Using spreads and excerpt-fragments would improve the usability of all the sites included. This is a difference between good and great, however; as is, the information design is okay but nothing special.

The presentation of each site uses what feels like a system-mandated template, which includes, in order: elevator pitch, background, legend, rumors, locations (this is basically the map key), monsters (or NPCs), and events. Using a template in this way involves a tradeoff. On the one hand, it guides referees (or supplement writers) toward table-relevant content (legends, rumors, events, and so forth). According to the Gamemaster’s Guide (p. 6), players are supposed to learn about the setting through play at the table. No homework! Score one point for the template. On the other hand, following the format strictly feels occasionally like a straight-jacket in practice, especially when entities are referenced prior to being introduced or described. The individual entries are short enough—less than 20 pages each—that the necessary page flipping remains manageable, but the process of initially learning about the sites as a referee is more disorienting than it needs to be.

Utility for OSR or Classic Game Referees

Forbidden Lands uses its own system, which is different enough from TSR D&D that converting actual numbers directly on the fly looks to be impractical. OSR/classic game referees will need to either A) be comfortable making up stats based on the descriptions or B) spend preparation time figuring out how to convert numbers more formally. I would personally be fine with A) and avoid B) as a waste of time, but take this into consideration based on your own referee style. The challenges presented are compatible with OSR type games. If you use XP = GP rules, you will probably need to add some value here and there.

Adventure Content

Forbidden Lands organizes adventure site into three categories: castles, dungeons, and villages. The four included here are listed as castle (Spire), dungeon (Vault), village (Hexenwald), and dungeon (Graveyard), but the actual entries correspond only loosely to these types, with Graveyard being most conventional of the four. Spire is more a nightmare romp through a collection of situated vignettes than an architecture that can be explored.

Early on, Spire presents its legend as a Spencerian stanza, which gives some foreshadowing for the style of what is to come. Rather than spatial or geographic maps, the areas are loosely connected spaces of feeling or emotion, which lends a sense of immateriality, at least from the perspective of the referee. The areas are striking and distinct enough that they carry it, but be prepared to improvise the layout of elements such as a maze or a nightmarish “city of black spars” on your own as required. The meat of the site is several set-piece encounters, all of which are compelling. Also, it has a boss fight, so if you want to see what a boss fight by Patrick looks like, this is the adventure for you.

The Bright Vault is a prison for several demons. While it could be run as a simple dungeon heist, there is potential for more by playing the demons and their captor off against each other. This entry could have used some reorganization. Perhaps a solid orienting paragraph would have been enough. As is, using Vault requires a lot of bouncing around to figure out what is going on. For example, one of the major NPCs, regularly referenced throughout, is only described at the very end of the site. Like all the entries, Vault is short—18 pages including the art—so this is only a small inconvenience. The demons themselves, and the resulting situation, involve one of the stronger organizing themes of the four entries, though I think it may also require the strongest referee skills to juggle and roleplay the social interactions of the various entities.

Hexenwald is listed as a village, and could play the role of shelter from the wilderness, but really describes the homes of several related witches. Well developed locations such as this are underrepresented in modules despite having high utility for adding seasoning to a hexcrawl. The particular format of a Forbidden Lands site feels somewhat constraining here. I think it might be better served by some sort of more graphical relationship map layout, or some way to easily review the goals of the various witches without needing to reread the character descriptions again. If I end up using Hexenwald, I will probably add some countdown clocks for several of the listed events to increase the dynamism of the location and how it interfaces with the rest of the setting.

I love details like this—from Graveyard of Thunder

Graveyard of Thunder is a dungeon in the middle of a dinosaur graveyard. In some ways, it is the most traditional adventure site in the book, with a subterranean complex and several factions of humanoid creatures struggling for dominance. It could be played as a simple dungeon delve or involve more complex social posturing and diplomacy. The challenges and hazards are well designed to support creative play. There are also a number of evocative flourishes—I appreciate the wind chimes chamber—that remain grounded rather than dialing everything to eleven. If I had to make one criticism of the site design, apart from the layout and organization issues I already mentioned several times above, it is that the map mostly remains anchored to the horizontal plane, and a dungeon involving dinosaurs and caves might benefit from more verticality.

I wrote most of this post a while back, but just ran The Bright Vault today in person for a pickup game, to kick the tires on Black Hack 2E. Really, in my head I situated all four adventure sites, but the players’ approach took them to Vault, so that is what hit the table. It ran well in practice, though the layout does require substantial page flipping, as I suspected. One of my players correctly guessed the author based only on the play experience and the clue that it was written by an OSR author that he was at least somewhat familiar with.

Conclusion

The scope of these adventure sites—which is also the scope advocated for by Forbidden Lands generally—is perfect for OSR content. This scope demands of a writer more elaboration and detail than something like a one page dungeon while respecting the referee’s time. In contrast, the current mandates of commerce seem to be summoning ever greater, more baroque endeavors. I think it is inescapable that commercial pressure has led to an inflation of ambitiousness and page count over time.

As a bibliophile, I can attest to liking attractive, substantial, hardcover books with solid, stitched bindings. And according to James Raggi, retailers like books with spines. It would be hard to market adventure sites like this individually as physical products, apart from as zines, which seem in practice to have some commercial ceiling. Spire gets away with presenting sites of this scope by being a compilation and also by riding on the coattails of a successful crowd funding venture for a deluxe format core game boxed set.

This recent inflationary trend has a different character than the simple pressures of payment by word, which bloat an essentially simple, boring thing until it reaches some commercially appropriate extent. In contrast to the bloat problems of yesteryear, newer material tends to be higher quality, both in terms of ideas and in terms of production values, due to community advances in techniques and the proliferation of new social media platforms.

Though there are counterexamples, such as Witchburner, the trend seems strongly to be that the market is rewarding more ambitious projects, with larger scope. This might be good for publishers and creators, and perhaps for the cause of game materials as art, but I am unconvinced that a shelf full of monumental works best serves the practical need of referees. This is a long-winded way of restating appreciation for the scope of the entries in Spire. I think the most useful tools for hexcrawls—and maybe megadungeons too, which can be well served by modular presentation—are probably closer in size to Forbidden Lands adventure sites than to the currently proliferating larger works.

In terms of RPG publishing, Spire is also notable for, in Ben’s words, being the first time a non-OSR book has intentionally hired an all-OSR writing team.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-01-31
  • Price: part of a pre-order bundle that was, all together, 799 Swedish Krona—approximately $90 USD
  • Details: PledgeManager preorder, includes shipping

The Spire of Quetzel was part of a bundle that also included the main Forbidden Lands Boxed Set, the Raven’s Purge campaign book, dice, cards, and PDFs of everything.

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

You can buy the fancy hardcover version here and the PDF version here. The main product line page is here.

Adventuring by Other Means

James of Mythic Fantasy takes aim at the doctrine of combat as fail state. I agree with the sentiment, especially contra the strong position that getting into combat always indicates poor playing. That said, combat can be tedious and boring, particularly if repetitious or lacking distinct circumstances.

This is engaging combat:

—Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, chapter 1: Warriors in the Mist

The D&D equivalent: showdown against 30-300 bandits with a fog spell and some tactics.

(I imagine someone may object that Ged’s spell is more powerful than fog cloud. Well, of course. Ged is the the future archmage of all Earthsea. You go to war with the army you have.)

Also: remember to use morale rules.

—Fog Cloud, from AD&D (First Edition)
—Fog Cloud, from Fifth Edition D&D


Team Actions

Grenadier Miniatures, kit 2004—Hirelings—working together hopefully?

Some actions are best thought of as occurring at the team level, as if an adventuring party itself is acting. However, in most tabletop roleplaying games the adventuring party lacks a record sheet—for many good reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Only individual adventurers have record sheets. So how is the team to take an action? A proposal: to resolve the outcome of a team action, have the most effective and least effective team members both make a check. Interpret two hits as success, one hit as partial success, and two misses as failure, lack of progress, or whatever makes sense for the context in question1. Exactly which checks apply depends on the base game chassis. Ability checks are an obvious candidate, but so is something like the OD&D d6 search roll.

This approach has several attractive properties, including advantaging groups made up exclusively of experts, incorporating the influence of weak links while maintaining incentive for risk taking, being simple, and constraining the numerical range of outcome numbers—what the D&D 5E developers called bounded accuracy—which helps prevent numerical inflation.

For comparison, some other approaches include: having everyone role individually—which is sort of obnoxious—and battle stations—which is fun but inflexible. Taking a battle stations approach, different adventurers each perform a role appropriate to the task at hand, making ability or skill checks to determine overall team effectiveness. Battle stations systems are inflexible because they tend to be domain specific. For best results the system should dictate, or the referee should determine beforehand, the various roles, assigning them evocative, thematic names, and establishing the right game systems or checks to use mechanically. Battle stations take a lot of work to implement in a satisfying manner.

A sufficiently strong member can carry an entire team, but over the course of repeated tasks, even a strong character will stumble occasionally. Additionally, using two checks in this way maintains greater tension around a particular uncertain outcome, which seems more desirable to me than the everyone roll approach, which I see somewhat often. For example, everyone make an intelligence check to see if you know whatever. Given a moderately sized party, it is almost guaranteed that someone will make the roll, in which case why bother? The two checks approach I propose here makes individual adventurer skill, ability, or specialization matter but avoids making it matter too much.


1. This takes a 2DTH (or “advantage”) style resolution system and spreads it across two player characters.

Planning Hereafter

The Pluspocalypse draws nigh. What are we to do? Well, for my part at least, this is where the wind has been blowing.

In terms of social media, activity seems to be congealing around three platforms: Twitter, Discord, and Reddit. I occasionally check Mewe, mostly for the vibrant Necrotic Gnome community. I have updated my About page here with links to other online game-relevant presences, guises, and manifestations. I plan to keep this up to date. All have drawbacks, but the value of social platforms comes from critical mass of users and activity rather than features.

In terms of experience, Twitter seems to be closest to Google Plus, based on my experience over the past month or so—despite lacking any features approximating Google Plus collections, which is a substantial shortcoming. Two tricks helped Twitter work better for me: 1) turn off retweets from people that you want to keep following but that have interests aligning only partially with your own and 2) add people to an “inbox” list to use as your primary view. You can keep the membership of lists private to avoid hurting any feelings. I find the default Twitter feed algorithm unpleasant, but there are clients which present chronological feeds. I use Twitterific on iOS which is okay so far. I post pseudo-privately to Twitter, just like I did on Google Plus. Bonus: on Twitter, you get to see my Zelda: Breath of the Wild screen shots.

Discord has been building social momentum, especially following the social reconfigurations of last week. I have been checking in on Chris’s OSR Discord server most regularly. A highly balkanized set of smaller Discord servers also now exist, based around personalities, publishers, and particular games—Melsonia, Swordfish Islands, Hydra Collective, and Mothership, for example. I am unsure if there are direct links to any of those, but if you are interested, join the OSR server and ask around. Luka’s Stratometaship (WTF blog) and Ben’s Questing Beast (Questing Blog) Discords exist for patrons. This collection is far from comprehensive. There is less substantive discussion on Discord compared to Google Plus, but it does provide a way to keep up to date—perhaps too much up to date—with what everyone else is doing. Discord shares with Google Plus proximity to actual gaming, as it has feature supporting voice and video conferencing, and I see many people coordinating active games. Just keep in mind that Discord is the afterparty cocaine of social media. You end up wondering where the evening went with so little to show for it.

Reddit r/osr is okay and has lots of activity, but also—as with all of Reddit—has the downsides of moderated forums. The r/artpunk sub has potential but is small.

I am expanding the scope of this blog, though only ever so slightly. Observant readers may have noticed some recent additions to the list of blog post categories, including Bibliophilia, Moving Pictures, and Words. Bibliophilia and Moving Pictures should be self-explanatory. Words is for discussion of relevant non-game texts, such as novels, histories, and so forth. I have posted this sort of content here before, though unsystematically and infrequently. An example for Bibliophilia is a past review of Inventory v.1 (an illustrated chapbook of often wondrous gear by Sam Bosma). An example for Moving Pictures is a past review of Jupiter Ascending. I will continue to only cover media relevant in some way to tabletop roleplaying games, but there may be slightly more posts in this vein. It seems likely that scene blog content in general will increase. The tools I use in this area, apart from this blog itself, are Feedly for central feed management and Reeder for mobile feed reading (it can use Feedly as feed source). Jacob H. writes good things about Inoreader.

Friendly reminder: you may wish to download your past Google Plus activity using Google Takeout. Though you may never actually do anything with it, a few years down the line you may remember that some conversation you hosted had some useful insights. For me, it makes the most sense to take an archive of only the Plus-related data (which are Google+ +1s on websites, Google+ Circles, Google+ Communities, and Google+ Stream). I think this will only preserve content that you posted or managed, and so your comments on the posts of others will likely be absent.