Category Archives: Uncategorized

Optimal strangeness

I remember reading somewhere that good speculative fiction (including horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) takes a widely understood backdrop, whether that is modern day, Tolkien-style fantasy, or something else, and tweaks one, or at most a handful, of key factors, and then works out the consequences of the tweaks. I have forgotten the source, but the idea stuck with me.

Various traditions of vanilla fantasy serve as examples of potentially well-understood backdrops, depending on particular audience. The Tolkien-derivative or swords and sorcery in the Leiber/Howard style are two examples. There is something to the formula of a known baseline modified just enough to add interest without becoming overwhelming. Maybe unworthy of being considered an iron rule, but something.

This seems similar to the figure/ground distinction in Gestalt psychology. If everything is ground, nothing stands out, leading to boredom. If everything is figure, all is confusion and nothing makes sense. Also: to the neophyte, even vanilla fantasy can seem strange enough while the seasoned player may require excessive marginal weirdness to get a successful hit of strange. Of the people that play fantasy games at least partly for the pleasure of exploring an imaginary world, most seem to be between these extremes, wanting a bit more uniqueness than Tolkien sans serial numbers but a bit less than a setting which avoids all pop culture or mythological landmarks.

Test-driving Dungeon World

2015-09-26 11.25.53 dungeon world 640I finally got a chance to play Dungeon World on its own terms (as opposed to just reading and borrowing ideas for D&D). Other than myself and the GM, there were three other players, none of which had ever played a tabletop RPG before (but were familiar with the general idea and had experience with computer RPGs).

In addition to general play impressions, I was also particularly interested in seeing how long and complicated the character creation process would be. My previous experiences with powered by the apocalypse games have been Apocalypse World itself (a whole session, rather complicated) and Undying (a whole session, rather complicated). Since this game was explicitly pitched as a one-shot (or maybe a two-shot), clearly character creation would have to be less extensive, so I was curious if an AW lineage game could also do a more expedited intro naturally.

We had four PCs: druid, bard, paladin, and thief (that was me). As far as I know, the setting was mostly undetermined beforehand, with the exception of a few leading questions used for creating bonds and setting the stage. The main such question was a quest hook, something along the lines of: why does your character want to destroy the Chimaera-Hydra? The Paladin’s answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra had been gathering powerful holy books from many religions which were the key to some dark ritual. My (thief) answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra guarded a fabulous treasure which would allow me to get back my lover who had been tempted away by a rich man. There were lots of other leading questions that I forget right now, but it actually did not take very long. I think it was about 30 minutes.

2015-09-26 15.06.57 dungeon word map 640In addition to this collaborative world-building, we dynamically created the beginnings of a world map using post-its based on the setting questions. I think the GM had previously decided that the Chimaera-Hydra lair was in swampy woods (though that might also have been a result of a question that I am forgetting). The starting area was a trade route in the desert called the Crescent Road. To the south was the Sapphire Isles, which was the home of the druid PC and his order. I had stolen maps and other secrets from the druidic order to gain info about the Chimaera-Hydra, which the bard knew about but had not revealed to the druid PC. The paladin had been consulting with the druids about the theft of holy books when the thief was on the isles and at one point protected the thief (probably before meeting the druid PC, though I forget exactly how that went). The level of background ended up being just about perfect, and pretty much all the details were used in play, though I do not think we ever remembered to roll+bond.

The inhabitants of the Crescent Road were wolf-people and worshiped a wolf-god that was controlled by the druids from the isles. The thief was wanted by the druids so the fiction began in media res as we were trying to enter a city on the trade route. We eluded the guards, fled into the city, and lost ourselves in the crowd, though not before distracting the guards with a dramatic display of druid shape-changing. From there we needed to decide how to reach the swamp of the Chimaera-Hydra, which was south beyond the sea. The three obvious potential routes were to the southeast past a ruined temple of the paladin’s order (which I think was destroyed by the Chimaera-Hydra), south over the sea through the Crescent Isles (where the druidic order ruled), or southwest over the rich man’s estate. The rich man’s illegitimate son was a stableboy who died in mysterious circumstances and also happened to have been the bard’s past lover. (It turns out that if you put five gay guys around an RPG table and share narrative control, 90+ percent of the NPCs turn out to be gay guys.)

Clearly I was not interested in dealing with the druids again. We settled on going southwest through the estate, though not without the help of the thief loading the dice that we rolled to decide the direction after voting yielded an even split between southwest and southeast. The rich man turned out to be a wizard, his estate a flying castle, and his stables were filled with pegasi. My elf lover had somehow been brainwashed or something and once the wizard figured out who we were he attempted to snare us and summoned a fire medusa to kill us while we were trapped in the castle’s great hall.

The combat was smooth (though starting with such high HP always feels a bit strange to me since my reference level has become OD&D’s 1d6). Some highlights include the paladin trying to force the medusa’s gaze away by physically wrestling it and accidentally partially petrifying the bard, the druid rallying the dogs in the great hall as a pack, and the elf lover being totally turned to stone. After defeating the medusa and wizard we had to carry the statue with us since we did not trust him enough to de-petrify him immediately. As a side note, the polyhedral damage dice seem unnecessary (1d6+STR would sufficiently advantage martial classes). The extra game pieces introduce complexity that will likely only be appreciated by someone that takes pleasure from D&D allusions.

2015-09-26 13.42.48 dungeon world 640After the combat, the castle began to lurch sideways and lose buoyancy. (Apparently castles need live wizards to fly. Who knew?) So then we needed to decide whether we wanted to flee and save ourselves (leaving all the castle inhabitants to fend for themselves) or try to fix it. Lore Spouting by the bard (who had informal magical knowledge) revealed that there was probably some sort of magical device at top of the central tower. So we split up with the bard going after that and the rest of us heading to the stables for some pegasi to use as getaway cars. If we couldn’t fix the castle, we figured we could still fly away.

We managed to figure out the required ritual, which required bleeding all over it as a sacrifice of life energy. This also resulted in the duplication of the bard’s consciousness within the castle because the flying depended upon an animating spirit. (This was probably my favorite session development.) That is where the session ended. We didn’t reach the Chimaera-Hydra, but we did end in possession of a sentient mind-linked flying castle and with my disloyal lover reclaimed (though he happened to be made of stone). Details.

One aspect of play that I found somewhat surprising was how the rules facilitated archetypal thief behavior. I am not sure I find this completely positive, considering how disruptive such behavior can be in more traditional games where I tend to prefer teamwork, but I was impressed that the rules when followed had this result. For example, in addition to loading the dice to influence the group’s choice of path to the swamp, at one point when in the starting city, I was tempted to craft wolfsbane (clearly highly illegal in a settlement of wolf-people). I also got the party into trouble after trying to persuade a wolf-youth to become a druid zealot follower. I failed the roll+CHA and was chased over the rooftops by guards. Luckily they were less sanguine about an acrobatic four story drop than the thief and so we avoided a fight, but still. The thief is a trouble-maker.

As I understand it, ideally Dungeon World is intended to be entirely fiction-first, with mechanical resolution of moves always flowing from fictional actions and events. In practice, it seems almost impossible to do this with the Spout Lore and Discern Realities moves. Especially Spout Lore. I can see how Discern Realities could naturally follow from a narration such as searching an area, but Spout Lore is really more an improv trigger. Though the rules place the responsibility on the GM, in practice we handled it more collaboratively.

Overall it ran smoothly and the procedures seemed easy for the new players to understand. The collaborative world building and bonds could easily be overlaid on D&D for a referee that did not want to spend time in more detailed prep and seems lighter than many other procedural alternatives such as running a game of Microscope. It might be difficult to calibrate hazard clues and difficulty by improv, though I think it would be doable with practice (I have certainly improvised fair but deadly traps in OD&D before). An exploration game could possibly be done by roughly outlining some key spatial and structural relationships and then determining the interstices during play. This would allow a sense of impartiality beyond collaborative interchange (though that is a form of discovery as well). By default, the content included in Dungeon World seems to shift the tone and atmosphere toward D&D style fantasy. Resisting that would require extensive preparation (new classes, new moves, etc), though perhaps still not more than required for building settings and dungeons for traditional D&D.


Well-written RPG books

Back in June, Noisms had several posts about writing quality in RPG texts (initial post and his examples of good RPG writing). I was also curious about this empirically, so I created a survey to see what other people thought. I didn’t define well-written but rather left it to the respondents to interpret as they chose. Don’t consider this a representative sample of anything other than people who follow me on Google Plus (and the followers of the several people that reshared the survey link).

The survey asked age, gender, the top five best-written RPG books, the game played most frequently, the game started with, and any general comments about the books chosen.

92 people (mean age = 39.51, standard deviation = 7.84) listed a book in top place. Gender was 88 male, 3 female, 1 other. Almost 100 engaged responses is not bad, though sadly not very gender diverse. I unified different entries that obviously were meant to be the same book (for example: “Dungeon Master’s Guide 1st Edition” and “1e DMG”). Since the format was free-response, unsurprisingly the results were not heavily clustered. 51 of those 92 responses for first place best-written book were unique. The top ten most mentioned titles were, with counts:

7 ad1e dmgd 1e dmg
5 yoon-suin
5 red and pleasant land
5 d&d b/x moldvay
3 dungeon crawl classics
3 call of cthulhu
2 vornheim
2 torchbearer
2 nobilis
2 lamentations of the flame princess

Looking at mentions in all five places, the results move around, but remain largely consistent. Traveller, Deep Carbon Observatory, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay surface while Nobilis, Torchbearer, and Vornheim disappear.

19 d&d b/x moldvay
19 ad1e dmgd 1e dmg
15 red and pleasant land
12 lamentations of the flame princess
8 yoon-suin
7 traveller
7 dungeon crawl classics
7 deep carbon observatory
7 call of cthulhu
6 warhammer fantasy roleplay

The standout trends seem to be toward high-concept settings or adventures (A Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon-Suin), general but coherent rule sets (Moldvay B/X, DCC RPG, LotFP, Call of Cthulhu), and influential, nostalgic classics (the AD&D DMG, B/X, maybe Call of Cthulhu).

71 respondents left general summary comments explaining their reasoning. Everyone who left a general comment also listed at least one book (and most listed all five). Reading through them, I identified six broad categories of concern: usability, evocativeness, mechanics, coaching, personality, and focus. Usability includes both direct, functional prose and also organization. Utilitarian concerns, basically. Evocativeness is about the aesthetic value of the text and communication of setting. Mechanics prizes elegance, preciseness, or innovativeness in terms of the game procedures. Coaching encompasses pedagogy, explaining how a game is intended to work, and theoretical development such as discussion of game concepts. Personality covers a unique creator vision or strong authorial voice. Finally, focus is concern with and strength of theme, tone, or highly specific intended play experience. Some comments counted in multiple categories.

Category n Percentage (n / 71)
Usability 41 58%
Evocativeness 27 38%
Coaching 11 15%
Personality 9 13%
Focus 9 13%
Mechanics 5 7%

Usability and evocativeness are the clear, high priorities, but were not necessarily shared and could be conflicting (such as with dense or extensive flavor text).

Some example comments (all quoted, some partial):

  • Put words to play principles and behavior that I didn’t have words for before. Set tone or setting very well.
  • An abundance of technical information and solid technical writing that prioritises the clarity and accessibility of information over evocative but unplayable flourishes.
  • Ability to entertain while informing, conveying the game information in a genuine and sympathetic authorial voice.
  • Ease of read is not really a factor for me. When I pick up the book, I pick up a manual that needs to teach me how to play the game and those games listed earlier do just that. They are not easy or “good” reads, but they convey the rules in approachable easy to understand manner.
  • They’re all written with clear discussions about what themes the games are exploring and what the mechanics are trying to achieve. Not just, here are some mechs, now go play.
  • They are books vivid in a sense of their world; they are books I re-read for pleasure; they are books I have learned how to be a better writer from reading.
  • Simplicity, clarity, not-up-it’s-own-arse prose, not trying to hard to be different, full of idea springboards.
  • I don’t like many of the rule changes implemented in AD&D 2e, but I have to admit that the core rulebooks are very easy to read and understand, even enjoyable to read. I especially liked the ecologies from the Monstrous Manual.
  • Evocative, dense, treat the reader as an adult with his/her own ideas and thoughts. Reading them makes me want to run them, and makes me think about gaming.

Almost everyone started playing with some flavor of D&D. The top ten answers listed (which made up 71 of 91 responses to this question) were all D&D, the top five being Moldvay Basic, AD&D, Holmes Basic, Mentzer Basic, and D&D (version unspecified). Nobody started with Vampire or other White Wolf game, which is the other major system I might expect.

Hexagram reborn

Adapted from Wikipedia

Image adapted from Wikipedia

The working title for the dark fantasy rule set that I have been working on for a while was The Final Castle, after the tentpole dungeon of its default setting. However, for some time now I have been thinking that it would be better to give the base rules a different name and perhaps work on the setting and module part separately if for no other reason than to expedite finishing the rules (which are very close to being done).

I still like the name Hexagram (based on a previous, incomplete rules experiment). Parts of it influenced work on The Final Castle anyways. Also, as a potential base to build from, Hexagram has a more pleasing ring than The Final Castle.

So, The Final Castle is a setting/mega-module. Hexagram is a rule set built around the Hazard System and a flexible, classless character progression system. Hopefully the change in naming is not too confusing. I am not sure exactly what to do about the blog tags but whatever.

Vulnerability, challenge, & becoming

In the left corner, Arnold K., Never Defang the Darkness:

In the right corner, 1d30, Your Game Evolves Get Used to It:

(Magic can be read as shorthand for any extraordinary capability.)

I am largely cheering for Arnold in this fight, however it seems like the bigger problem with darkvision races is that they get the ability from the beginning, making it part of the character build, charop process potentially. (“Okay guys we need a cleric for healing and an elf to see in the dark.”)

Which is to say, finding out through play that your party is less inconvenienced by drowning is perhaps a different sort of experience than getting rid of that hazard through character build choices. Unlimited abilities or items that do not expire are harder to handle from a challenge crafting perspective, but there is also something unique and valuable to a campaign when PCs are able to exert their autonomy with fewer constraints as time progresses and the story of the party unfolds.

In this light, see also Zak on campaign evolution:

Player-safe maps

Lost river cave excerpt (full original)

Lost river cave excerpt (full original)

Too few products come with exploration-oriented maps (as opposed to something like a grid map for use as a battle map) that can be shared directly with all players. For example, consider this beautiful map by Mr. Logos. The under/over dotted line style gives away information that explorers should not know. Added work is needed to create a version of the map that can be revealed directly to players. I do not mean to single out Dyson; this was just the map that prompted these thoughts this morning. Other traditional referee-only features such as secret door annotations have the same issue.

If the map itself is a work of art filled with nuance and detail, it seems like a shame for it to be seen only by the referee in a play context. While I probably notice this more now that I often share maps with fog of war reveal on hangout games, it could be relevant to in-person play as well, since you can cover up parts and use it as a visual aid. If it really is just for the referee’s eyes, the functionalist in me might even prefer something more schematic and less polished.

Honestly I am not sure exactly where I am going with this. Do I think that all modules ever should be done in the most convenient form for me personally? No. Do I think that all modules ever should put more effort into game aids? Well, it would be nice, but there are resource constraints so again probably not. However, it is worth considering the way maps function as game tools. There are still many opportunities for improving the usability and format of modular content.

Against genre

I find the idea of genre emulation in RPGs inherently boring. The thing that excites me most about RPGs, as a medium, is that the possibilities are wide open. You are not constrained by diffident principles such as Chekhov’s Gun or other devices of dramatic progression and resolution.

This is not to say that genres as descriptive categories have no value. In fact, I often describe games in terms of certain setting and genre characteristics, because that helps align player tastes and develops initial buy-in. Accepting that this is a starting point, not a constraint, opens up the possibilities of genre shift as a game progresses, which is another thing that other forms of media do poorly. Attentive players (and remember the referee is a player too), cognizant of each others’ feedback, can drift a game in one direction or another. This requires some degree of sensitivity and attention, but then so does all social activity. Such drift keeps a campaign interesting and fresh, where serial fiction could (and often does) stagnate.

Since this is the Internet, I must acknowledge explicitly what should go without saying, that of course others need not share my preferences in this matter. But for me, I feel as if the unique potential of tabletop RPGs is sidelined by mechanisms which force only genre appropriate outcomes. I thrill to the possibility of an Independence Day where the aliens are triumphant, or a King Lear where everybody does not die. That is a big part of what “play to find out what happens” means.

Below is quoted from Apocalypse World, pages 108 & 109.

Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside.

The reward for MCing, for this kind of GMing, comes with the discipline. When you find something you genuinely care about — a question about what will happen that you genuinely want to find out — letting the game’s fiction decide it is uniquely satisfying.

Deep Carbon Observatory exordium

Western Europe after the treaty (source)

Western Europe after the treaty (source)

Following is the background I put together for a historical situating of Deep Carbon Observatory which I am running in person. One session down so far.

The year is 1713 and the War of the Spanish Succession was just settled by the Treaty of Utrecht. Great Britain, Portugal, the Dutch, and others successfully prevented France from consolidating a hold over Spain. The Faerie courts (unbeknownst to most common folk) meddled throughout the process, but seem to have vanished, not sending delegations to the final treaty negotiations. The Unseelie Twilight Prince had been seen as friendly to the British while the Seelie Summer Queen threw her lot behind the French. At the same time, strange Swiss machines were surfacing on battlefields and in other locations. British intelligence has tracked Swiss supply to the remote Lock River valley in the Low Countries. However, in the market supply of these Swiss devices seems to have ceased, and British spies report that the valley has flooded.

A group of infamous adventurers called The Crows, previously in the employ of France but now disavowed, have already been reported in the area. You are part of a privateer expedition financed by the British Crown. Your primary objective is to investigate the flood to find out if something has happened to the supply of materials used by the Swiss machinists, who had a relationship with the British. The secondary objective is to kill or (preferably) capture The Crows. As per standard privateering arrangements, all treasure or valuables discovered may be kept as spoils. Machines and armaments are to be kept out of the hands of the French Dynasts at all costs lest the fist of Tyranny descent upon the continent.

You need not be British, but if you are not you are most likely mercenaries included in the continental expedition.

Rules are Lamentations of the Flame Princess with the following modifications:

PCs begin at level 3. Increased funds for characters starting above level one is given on page 8 of Rules & Magic. In addition, you will begin with a retainer/attendant, which is a zero level character. If your main character dies, you can either continue playing as this retainer, or make a new character at your option.

Demi-human classes may be selected but should be re-skinned as humans (a halfling could be recast as a scout, and so forth).

Magic-users are renamed Occultists and may be either members of the hermetic order or hedge magicians. There are also Diabolists, but these worshippers of The Adversary are not available as PCs.

Clerics are renamed Rosicrucians and are members of an esoteric society dedicated to furthering the machinations of Heaven.

Non-occultist, non-fighter characters have an attack bonus of 1/2 level (round up).

XP will be awarded for treasure recovered as standard, and also for the completion of objectives (capture/killing of The Crows, furthering the aims of your current British patrons, and so forth). No XP will be awarded for combat or killing in general, however.

Reloading uses the firearms skill. This has a base of 1 in 6 for all characters, modified by attack bonus. To reload, spend a combat action, succeed on a dexterity check (1d20 less than or equal to score), and succeed on a firearms skill check. A firearms skill check may also be used to clean a fouled weapon (spending an exploration turn to make the check), or other firearms-related tasks.

The overloaded encounter die will be used for timekeeping.


In class, a point made about subject quality: a sample is good if it is appropriate to the question being asked. You cannot legitimately criticize a study for “only using college students” (or whatever) unless there is a articulable reason to think that the sample is inappropriate to the particular inquiry. And often there is such a reason, but frequently the objection is formulaic and in service of some other agenda.

Analogously for game design: a system is good if it is appropriate to an audience (or can be misused, misunderstood, or corrupted in a way that is appropriate to an audience). The second case is “hacking” in both the traditional using for a purpose other than originally intended and the RPG modifying slightly senses.

Maybe this is obvious? In any case I found the comparison useful to think about, given how often “good design” is conceptualized as some sort of independent quality.

Aside: you may have noticed the relative dearth of posts lately. This corresponded with the beginning of grad school, which seems to be somewhat time intensive. Who would have thought? I do not intend to disappear completely, but expect the frequency to remain lowered.

Product framing

Anomalous Subsurface Environment is a setting book that just happens to include a medium sized dungeon. It is a 100 page book. The dungeon part is pages 50 through 77, which is only 27% of the total page count. More than 40% is direct campaign background, 14% is new monsters, and so forth. Yet ASE1 is presented as a module (generally) and a mega-dungeon (specifically). It is my contention that ASE1 would have not been nearly as successful had it been released as The Land of One Thousand Towers campaign setting (with starter adventure included), and it would have done even worse as a cartoon science fantasy retro-clone (which it also easily could have been, with a few more classes and a chapter on combat rules).

Isle of the Unknown was sold as a hex crawl setting or location, but is also a bestiary. While I am not really interested in re-litigating whether Isle is a good setting, or has creative monsters, it seems uncontroversial, to me, to claim that it would have done better if it had focused on the lavishly illustrated monsters and wizards (say), instead of the mostly implied location-based adventure. Rather than “lack of fully realized areas,” instead the evaluation would be “each monster has a bonus encounter area detailed, all collected in the bonus hex map appendix.”

These are counterfactuals, so we can’t really know what would have happened, but examine for yourself what products have been successful. This is worth thinking about if you are making an RPG product. Consider what it is that people have already. How you position a product will guide people toward an evaluation yardstick. If you release something as a mega-dungeon, it will be compared to Barrowmaze, Rappan Athuk, and ASE. If you release something as a bestiary, it will be compared to the Fiend Folio and Teratic Tome. If you release something as a ruleset, it will be compared to Labyrinth Lord, ACKS, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And so forth. Think about, for one final example, how successful LotFP likely would have been had it been released as the Early Modern Weird Horror Historical Campaign Setting (which is actually just a hop, skip, and jump away from what is currently in the Rules & Magic hardcover).

A full new ruleset is probably the least effective way to present something given how saturated that particular market has become, unless you are specifically looking to appeal to the crowd that is interested in rules for rules’ sake (and in that case you really need to have new and interesting rules; an interesting setting is probably not enough). You can see this most clearly in the story games communities, where most of the successful products are innovative mechanically but often generic (or more kindly, archetypal) regarding atmosphere and setting. See, for example, Swords Without Master (wildly creative rules with an implied generic swords & sorcery setting) and Dungeon World (an unsurprising classic D&D setting variation on the elegant Apocalypse World engine).