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Hack the meme: 20 movies

Far be it from me, that I should tell anyone else how to social media. But here is a mutagen that can transform diversions of self-disclosure into game fuel. The input: 20 films that had an impact on you, for the next 20 days. The catalyst: …related to how you game. The result: Show me 20 moving pictures that influenced how you play tabletop RPGs. Presto! There, much better. (No judgment regarding self-disclosure, but this is a game blog.)

  1. Die Hard and every other complexcrawl action movie. The Rock (Die Hard on Alcatraz) comes to mind, but I honestly can’t recall if it is any good. See also: Dredd.
  2. Man with No Name/Dollars trilogy. Honestly, I think I want this series to influence my games more than it actually has, which is why it is up here at number 19. I have come to appreciate the structure of Westerns for adventuring far more as an adult than previously. And, borderlands-style D&D is basically the wild west with swords and spells:
    “People want to play in a historical setting like the dark ages, but they don’t want serfs, they don’t want an all powerful Church dictating the rhythms of daily life, they don’t want any social constraints on free movement and agency. They want to play Vikings and still let that one guy in the group be a ninja. They want the wild west, with swords.”Beedo paraphrasing Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff
  3. Pirates of the Caribbean involves more swashbuckling than tends to happen in my games, and I find pirate tropes somewhat tiresome, but Sparrow is a wonderfully Vancian character and there are skeletons. Maybe the best skeletons in any movie? I also have a weakness for Depp. (Only the first movie is really worth it though.)
  4. This is really a placeholder for some other post-apocalyptic movie, though I am going to go with Waterworld for now, because that is what comes to mind despite all its weaknesses. The original Mad Max is a greater cinematic classic, and Fury Road is the genre masterpiece, but neither have substantively influenced the way I game. That said, D&D is the apocalypse, and Waterworld would make a much better D&D campaign than it did a movie. Here is Wayne R. on the implied setting of 1974 OD&D:
    Cities in such a place are probably small affairs. This is not the world of grand cosmopolitan wonders; it’s downright post-apocalyptic and probably has a few thousand people per city. Trade is downright perilous, given that you’re likely to run into dragons, or giant crabs if you follow the river, or many other horrid things.
  5. Blame! is an anime technomegadungeon based on the aesthetic vision of Tsutomu Nihei.

    Image by Nihei (source)

    Do I need to say more?

  6. Season of the Witch owns exactly what it is without any ironic dodges, and is not badly made either. Inspirational for Lamentations of the Flame Princess style fantasy.
  7. Brotherhood of the Wolf is also Lamentations relevant, as pseudo-historical dark fantasy, and is medieval European wuxia (“action horror” according to Wikipedia, for whatever that is worth). Monica Bellucci plays a significant role, and the biggest badass is Mani, an Iroquois martial artist brave. Obviously an adventuring party.

    Mani (from somewhere on the Internet)

  8. Trigun. The emo vibe is somewhat adolescent, but the setting would be pure gold for adventuring. It is an archaeofuture wild west of mostly isolated settlements on a desert world where energy and water are scarce but bullets are plentiful. Trigun would probably rank higher if the tone was less goofy, though I do appreciate the cleverer touches of absurdity: the reward for Vash’s capture is sixty-billion double-dollars $$, the supporting protagonists pursuing Vash are insurance company functionaries whose company is sick of paying out for Vash’s disasters, Wolfwood’s cross bazooka, and so forth.
  9. Star Wars: A New Hope. Rebellion against an oppressive empire remains one of the better starting scenarios and is a welcome alternative to buccaneers meeting in a bar to plan dungeon heists (though I do love dungeon heists). See also: Final Fantasy VI for a similar setup in another medium.
  10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the paradigmatic dungeon heist, with traps and everything. I would still like to find a way to turn it belongs in a museum into an XP incentive mechanism.
  11. Masters of the Universe (cartoons). Some brief, disorganized observations. Summon He-Man is a spell, cast by the power sword, that binds an extradimensional entity into your body, transforming it in the process (credit to Roger B. for that particular recent insight). Hordak is a cosmic space cyborg vampire dictator. By my preferences, the best Carcosa so far is through the lens of Eternia. See the gallery of Earl Norem Masters of the Universe art at Monster Brains for associated inspiration.

    Art by Earl Norem

  12. Vampire Hunter D. Monster hunting in a cyborg gothic future. Quoting Wikipedia: western, science fiction, horror, high fantasy, H. P. Lovecraftian mythos, folklore and occult science. The visuals were also inspired by Yoshitaka Amano’s art. Cousins with Castlevania and Bloodborne.
  13. Stargate blended genres into a sci-fi action movie which could serve as a workable adventure sandbox or collection of adventure sites. It avoids submitting totally to the tyranny of Chekhov’s Gun logic, where the only point of anything is narrative development, which I find unsatisfying. I may have had a fantasy campaign with esoteric stealth bombers shortly after seeing this the first time.

    Jaye Davidson as ancient astronaut demon Ra

  14. Lost is a low level adventure party shipwrecked and building a stronghold to survive while confronted with mysterious supernatural challenges. Good settlement development systems remain an open challenge for OSR designers. I would stop at the first season now.
  15. Jurassic Park is still one of the better dungeon crawls committed to film.
  16. Alien & Aliens. See everything I need to know about GMing I learned from Aliens. The fireteam in Aliens maps slightly better to a D&D adventuring party, but to me Alien is a tighter construction overall. John Carpenter’s The Thing is another relevant survival horror monster crawl, but it influenced me less.
  17. Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (& most of Miyazaki’s other output, which is aesthetically and structurally similar) is unparalleled for evocative, wondrous adventure setting. Miyazaki’s work is occasionally flawed by didacticism and transparent messaging, but Nausicaa is about as perfect a final creation as I can imagine. Some specific highlights are the fungal grotto underworld, the airship invasion, and the monsters. Hideaki Anno, who later gained recognition as the creative impetus behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, animated the god warrior sequence. For me next in line would be Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away (for all the wonderful kami), but no Miyazaki is quite as inspirational for games as Nausicaa.

    God Warrior (source)

  18. The Walking Dead is one of the better depictions of an adventuring party exploring a dangerous, monster-haunted world, struggling to survive, and, if possible put down roots, though there is too much soap opera for my games. The development and periodic loss of settlements also presents a challenge to developers of OSR systems to manage stronghold developments. Most of the existing approaches to building settlements realize Strongholds as culmination, unlikely to be reversed, and a shift from exploration into a domain game. This has some appeal, but I would like a system which remained closer to boots on the ground, a Batman-level system rather than a Superman-level system, to misappropriate the metaphor from Finch’s Primer.
  19. The Abyss. Trapped in an underwater complex. Threatened by mysterious entities that are both terrible and wonderful. The darkness of the deep in The Abyss is the darkness I want to evoke in the fantasy underworld. That’s why nonsense like torches and resource management matter.

    James Cameron’s The Abyss

  20. Berserk: Golden Age Arc because Berserk is the foundation of my dark fantasy trinity (along with Dark Souls and Kingdom Death). It effectively calibrates mythic resonance with novelty and brings intensity without ever descending into parody or ironic detachment.

I can extract a few trends from this list. The first is that exploration and survival horror inform my gaming far more than the trappings of fantasy. A good sewer crawl with monsters in modern LA would probably get me more in the mood to game than some epic fantasy. Jackson’s Fellowship is almost there, but feels too linear, and the characters are too reactive, to be particularly inspiring as a D&D adventure to me. (That said, I am fond of the movie as a realization of Alan Lee’s visual imagination of Middle-Earth and it is hard to imagine a better casting for any of the characters.) I prefer the aesthetics of fantasy for gaming compared to science fiction or modern settings, but some large part of that preference is the constraints provided more naturally by the narrow horizons of a fantasy world.

The second trend is the presence of a wondrous, distinctive setting which begs exploration, with aspects of the frontier or points of light, which means that civilization exists in isolated outposts scattered throughout a dangerous wilderness. … Between outposts lies only monster–haunted wilderness dotted with the ruins of a once glorious past and darkened by the ever-present shadow of the unknown (Rob Conley’s 2008 Points of Light supplement).

The list here only overlaps slightly with what I would say are my favorite movies. The Berserk Golden Age Arc, The Abyss, the two Alien films would be favorites, and probably Nausicaa, but that might be it.

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.)

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

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:

http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2015/05/keep-dungeon-threats-threatening.html

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

http://1d30.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/magic-changes-resource-management-1e-add/

(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:

http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2012/01/evolution.html

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.