Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Indefinite

There is one use of "appears" language, which I mostly panned in a previous post, that actually can be appropriate -- when the character has only an indefinite idea of how to call something they're experiencing.

"In the shadows at the back of the room you see a still figure that appears to be human-shaped" (approach closer and see it's a wooden effigy)

"The vial is full of a fine white grainy powder that looks kind of like salt" (you need to taste it or have alchemy knowledge to find out anything different).

The difficulties in describing this kind of situation are basic to the task of conveying visual information through language. To describe something efficiently you must categorize it. "You see a cylindrical form about two meters high, topped by a sphere, with one long cylinder hanging from each side." That's just a clunky, roundabout, parlor-game way to say "You see a human-shaped figure." But the problem with "human-shaped" is that it forces an interpretation too strongly, while "cylindrical form" doesn't capture the automatic leap to a conclusion that you might experience when you see this feature in silhouette:
For non-visual cues, using approximate metaphors seems fairer. "You hear a sound like a huge sleeping animal snoring" can be revealed as just waves resounding in a grotto. "You see a powder like salt" but when assayed it's actually the alchemists' compound zafronast. Fortunately, visual cues suggest their own method or resolution, transferring the characters' perceptions' to the players' themselves by means of illustrations.

When shown and not told, whether drawn on the spot or prepared ahead of time, the visually indefinite can be a powerful stimulus to conjecture and mystery. Consider the following glyph that recent adventurers in the Castle of the Mad Archmage found daubed on the wall in the south of the second level:

Its meaning was much debated -brains? snakes with wings? Looked sinister enough, anyway. Only when a more detailed amulet was found on the body of a cultist was the intent made clear:

To depict the twin heads and tentacles of the demon lord Demogorgon.

Apart from crude drawings, the visually indefinite can be achieved by holding a mask of random dots printed on an overhead projection over an illustration; else, by holding it up at a distance, as I did in the same adventure when the party glimpsed from afar the notorious fountain of serpents, which is illustrated in the Castle of the Mad Archmage illustrations booklet.

Clues first, then revelation, is a general principle that works wonders when running adventures. A wonder or hazard hinted at before provides a strong guide to play, and makes the final encounter that much more satisfying, than if it comes as a complete surprise.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Air World

And now, pushing forward my other multi-page table project, here is the air-themed table for my 36 x 20 x 20 x 20 modular encounters (that's 288,000 possibilities, or over 10 million if you roll each table separately...)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Baroque Poisons, Diseases, Stuns and Healing

Incentivized by renewed interest in our baroque spells project of last year I went ahead and completed another page in the very, very occasional series of the 52 Baroque Pages. This time the spinning die had indicated that page 33 of my 52 Pages should be given the "Baroque" treatment, that dealing with poisons, healing hit points, and the like.

Click to enlarge or read below
I decided to split the 52 items four ways, with four thirteen-entry tables that should by no means be interpreted as an attempt to somehow outdo twelve-entry tables. As before, the larger-type #13 entries are my idea of the best of the lot and may be held in reserve to substitute for a lackluster or inappoprriate outcome of the genuine d12. Not all of these, however, need be randomly chosen.

It is also my belief that all the HP recovery activities are much more fun than "taking a short rest" or whatever.

13 Rare Poisons
1.Rosy Tincture: eyes fill with blood, save or blinded, euphoric effect
2.Ingrate’s Milk: poison for baby’s lips that spares it but kills mother
3.Consensifer: paralytic, 1 hr; victims believe they just chose not to move
4.The Null Hypothesis: victim fails to see anything as important, 1 hr
5.Parrhestic Rigor: victim speaks whole truth for 1 day then dies choking
6.Implausible Gauntlets: selective paralysis of hands, feet, 1 day
7.Skuldine: shortens natural lifespan by 2d20 years; long-game poison
8.Gutwrench: too-good antiseptic, kills eubacteria in body, die in d6 days
9.Destiny Venom: kills in 7 days; only gaining 500 xp/level cures it
10.Complix: also envenoms foe’s blade on touch, hence, moral quandary
11.Justichor: medicine that cures most diseases but fatal to malingerers
12.Entheotoxin: makes blood ethereal, only cure is to shift to that plane
13.Legacy Wine: swell, empurple, die; made only from Legacy Wine victim’s last tears; paradox noted

13 Odd Diseases
1.Rust-beast Hyperaemia: if armor rusts into wound, -2 STR, CHA
2.Medusa’s Gallstones: drawback of petrification-save success, -2 CON
3.Displacer Dance: sidestep tic after teleport, -2 DEX until next level up
4.Pharaoh’s Wrack: aftereffect of mummy rot, freezes joints at angles
5.Numismiasis: infection on copper coins, crud webs fingers together
6.Hornflamm: d4-day ague from unicorn noses that neutralizes poison
7.Eargrub: infectious tune, when heard gives -4 INT, WIS for d6 days
8.Sainted Boils: -4 to all abilities, d6 weeks; sucking pus heals d6 HP/day
9.Monty’s Revenge: radiation coma from more magic items than WIS
10.Green Grippe: jealous flu makes host clean freak, spreads post-mortem
11.Esculent Scabs: can peel or bite off for d4 HP damage and 1 meal/day, food smell draws monster attacks
12.Griffon Fur Tick: bite in groin causes overconfidence, -2 to all abilities
13. Litchworm: eats maze in you, 30 days to live, magic-proof; only hope, enlarge self, send in reduced party

13 Nonlethal Damage Effects (at exactly 0 HP)
1.Subdued: if hit was with rope, whip or chain, victim obeys, 3 rounds
2.Intimidated: victim retreats, in preference to attack, for 1 day
3.Disordered: victim gapes in confusion, attacks at random
4.Opossum’d: victim falls to floor, appears dead for d6 minutes
5.Aggravated: victim attacks you at double speed 1 round, collapses
6.Ransomed: victim bargains for life with real or wishful treasure
7.Obligated: if victim is Lawful, unable to aggress against you for life
8.Agog: victim panics, flees by most unorthodox route
9.Near-Death: victim views afterlife in daze, returns in d6 minutes
10.Moonstruck: victim adopts new random persona, amnesic
11.Circle of Life: if victim is animal, it dies, another 3x bigger appears
12.Maledicta: victim throws dying curse, avoided if you spare him
13. Amen!: if hit was with holy symbol, victim adopts your faith

13 Idiosyncratic Hit Point Recovery Activities
1.Charging at an active foe with HD > your level, regain 1 HP/ level
2.Taking an hour-long stroll alone, deep in thought, regain d3 HP
3.Every 3 strong drinks you swig, you restore 1 HP
4.Meditation, 1 hour: roll WIS or under on d20 to recover d3 HP
5.Loudly denying frailty, regain your last 1 HP if 2+ others believe you
6.5% chance /hour asleep of lucid dream; adjust HP by d8-3; can die
7.Sleep in carcass of monster that damaged you for HP = its HD
8.Hot sexy love, 1 hour, exhausted for 2 more, 1 HP for coming last
9.Pity friend with 2x+ more damage than you have HP, recover 1 HP
10.1 hour hot bath with scrubbing buddy heals you like full night sleep
11.Once/week, permanently lose 1 HP to heal 2 HP/level by exertion
12.Character gains 1 HP spending 3 hours musing aloud on a theory of injury and heroism, may provoke NPCs to violence
13. Sir yes Sir! Heal 1 extra HP/day if slapped in the face by a higher level ally

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Here's how it probably starts.

There's a slip between the input and the output of the Gamemaster-In-The-Middle. The adventure writer communicating to the GM says "This appears to be a worn stone stairway leading down, but really is a sloping passage floored with the sticky illusion-casting tongue of a Deceptive Devourer, the rest of which lurks in wait in room 15 of the next level." The GM then communicates to players,  "You see what appears to be ... an old set of stone steps leading down into the darkness." Or consulting the "appears" synonym book, "seems," "looks like," "apparently is," et al.

Who knows why they do this, but two reasons come to mind. It could just be literal-mindedness, relying on the words in the description to craft a speech to the players. It could also be a reflex of honesty; the inner moral angel balking at saying there "is" a flight of stairs leading down when it just isn't true. Whatever the reason, it becomes immediately clear to the players that using "appears"-isms in this way is a giveaway that something funny is up.

Now, there's still time for you, the GM, to repent of your folly. Realize that your job is only to describe reality as it appears at any given time to the players. A successful deception will appear with the full force of reality;  "is," actually, is fully appropriate.

But in some games I've seen, the GM instead takes the left-hand path, doubling down on "appears"-ism by applying it as a decoy to things that aren't deceptive at all.

"What seem to be some mushrooms are growing from the dung heap." (They're just mushrooms.)
"There are some humanoids approaching. They appear to be orcs." (And they are.)
"A stream of what looks like clear water flows from the left wall to the right." (PSYCH! It's acid, save or take 4d6!!)

In any case, "appears"-ism usually gets left by the wayside when the players enter safe surroundings. Or at least imagine this:
You find what appears to be the same trail leading back to the village through superficially familiar birch and fir trees. After walking a distance that feels similar to the distance you took to get there, you see what may very well indeed be the buildings of the village. You go to a low house that looks very much like your inn. A hot meal for five is seemingly brought out within what feels like minutes by the self-styled innkeeper, who closely resembles the man you remember from this morning. Pewter-look plates apparently are sitting on what looks like a table, with a liquid having the appearance of ale in a ceramic-like pitcher. The "plates" are heaped with putative sausage and ostensible beans ...
This, I think you'll agree, is a Brechtian alienation effect gone too far; it turns the game into an exercise in Plato's Cave or radical philosophical solipsism. Whenever appears-speak is used, it will keep the players vaguely tipped-off and on guard, lending a hallucinatory aspect to the proceedings.

But I'm not sure it's necessary to use such a blunt instrument to get that effect -- shouldn't players naturally be wary in the dungeon? And more to the point, how do you really spring the classic "innkeeper-is-a-werewolf" surprise when you telegraph safe and dangerous areas so obviously?

In conclusion, there can only be one response to an environment described through "appears"-book-isms ...


Monday, 21 July 2014

Checklist For a Middlebrow Media Piece on D&D in 2014


[  ] Receive Wizards of the Coast press release from editor, noting "40th anniversary" and "New Edition."

[  ] Write keystone paragraph on this basis, consulting universal trend story template 44B, "Hip to Be Square."


[  ] Recall either: A: dim memories of your own high school campaign;  B: those weird kids playing in the corner of the student center

[  ] Note nerd stigma

[  ] YET! IT IS NOW HIP TO BE SQUARE: mention two or more trends from list: Peter Jackson films, World of Warcraft, "Game of Thrones", Community 

[  ] Note satanic panic

[  ] Disseminate, without exactly dispelling, one further stigma from list: no girls play; mental instability; steam tunnel high jinks; table play in costume; game revolves around killing and stealing

[  ] Recite cool and successful people who have played, including at least three of: Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert, Junot Diaz, any big name SF/fantasy author, anyone from D&D With Porn Stars

[  ] Google "history of D&D", follow link to Amazon, read two pages of Playing At The World, glaze over, fill in facts from Wikipedia instead

[  ] Describe play, including funny dice/DM control/player freedom, complex rules/wild imagination, obsession with achievement/no way to win; point out paradoxes if writing high-middlebrow

[  ] Illustrate with dice, figures, nerds, game art in some combination

[  ] Cite/invent benefits of playing including creativity, literacy, numeracy, problem solving, preparation for an increasingly surreal "real" world predicated on escapism and self-invention, favorable comparison to video games

[  ] Find parent teaching their kid to play, or be that parent; makes good "face to the future" closer

Saturday, 19 July 2014


In fiction writing you may have heard of the said-book-ism -- the overly descriptive dialogue synonym that went out of style around the 1970's largely due to its naming and shaming in the Turkey City Lexicon.

Well, if you're writing adventure scenarios you shouldn't be writing dialogue. Really. But there's a parallel in scenario descriptions: let's call it the "is-book-ism."

An idol of a horned demon looms over the room.
An idol of a horned demon dominates the room.
An idol of a horned demon commands the room.
An idol of a horned demon squats in the room.
An idol of a horned demon stands in the room.
An idol of a horned demon occupies the room.
An idol of a horned demon exists in the room.
An idol of a horned demon can be found in the room.

All to avoid the humble verb "to be" with its drabness and its insinuations of the passive voice...

An idol of a horned demon is in the room.

Most of these locutions are called out as cliches in the Fantasy RPG Bingo Card page by Ryan Macklin (refresh several times to get the picture). But is this fair?

Writing RPG scenario text is a unique literary enterprise. It's best compared to writing stage directions in a play, or the art directions in a comic book script. At its best, the genre works this way: a scenario author creates vivid images and interesting contingencies in the mind of the reader, the gamemaster, which she or he then describes to the players, who in turn react, unlocking more images and contingencies from the GM. Let's call this the GM-In-The-Middle Theory.

Trying to cut out the GM-In-The-Middle and communicate directly author-to-player, through boxed read-aloud text, is a widely and justly denounced "cheat" in this procedure. Having ruled that out, how then to write the module text in a way that helps the GM communicate and interact with the players?

Useful principles emerge from the GM-In-The-Middle Theory, if you consider you are writing for the players through their characters. So, don't describe anything the players will never get to know. Write the most apparent things first, then the more subtle things, then things that can only be known by interacting. Don't force the characters' reactions.

A harder question is, how deeply should these descriptions be written? Some have advocated a minimal, list-like format, to try to break the habit of read-aloud; dispensing with the humble "is" in much the same way that the Russian language does. I've never been happy or comfortable with this.

The GM-In-The-Middle approach explains why: to work in this way, the writing must create a fully formed and vivid image in the mind of the GM, an image that he or she envisions and believes in. Reading someone else's list makes me feel like I'm taking inventory in a dollhouse. Reading prose, even prose with archaic or formulaic or dungeon-kitsch elements, can transport the GM so that the job of description becomes natural. Perhaps the prose can furnish a few bright and lapidary phrases that make it through to the players, but the heavy lifting should happen directly through imagery -- just as someone who is fluent in a second language forms their words directly from raw thought rather than passing them through a process of conscious translation.

All this supports the Is-Book against its naysayers. As long as the prose is descriptive and evocative, without compromising either mission with cliched or rote genre-copying (who the hell knows what a gambrel roof is anyway?) it's OK to have pillars march away into darkness, idols loom, portcullises menace, balconies survey, and wardrobes dominate.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Distracted, Nobody Noticed The Consultants Are All Men

I know, right? While arguing over the contagiousness and toxicity of two personalities on the list when it comes to gender-and-sexuality issues, nobody - at least looking at the first 20 google hits for "D&D 5th edition consultants male" - has commented that all eight consultants, plus the seven designers, developers and writers, appear to be male. Female names appear in the credits in editing, art direction, and artist roles - and yes, art is important, but also a different post.

I think this hasn't been commented just because it is so obvious and so usual. After all, a recent study identified 85.5% of published tabletop RPG creators as male by name, while only 6% appear to be female. Still, if you are drawing from that pool at random for 15 people there is a 60.5% chance that you will have at least one woman on the team. (Imagine rolling percentile dice for gender 15 times, calculating the odds you will roll at least one 06 or below.) So it's not unimaginable that there could be at least one solitary woman on the panel just by chance. Also not unimaginable that a woman game author or commentator could have, you know, been included on the panel intentionally to give her perspective.

Because for D&D and old school RPGs in particular, there is a thunderous statistical skew towards male creators. Now, when people celebrate gender equality or bemoan its absence they point to people at the table. Indeed, discussing roleplaying with a curious sci-fi fan at a professional conference last week, I was able to answer her gender question quite creditably: my main campaign has 3 women and 3 men and my side game, 2 and 4.

But left aside in that conversation was the almost unrelieved maleness of the top RPG creatives in my blogroll (as of this writing, only Gaming as Women hanging on with a 1 day old post), the module authors I read and use, the gamemaster role that women are less often seen in, and so on.

Often observed: it is easier and more rewarding for our primate social brainbits to personalize inequality, to make it be about pointing out who is a racist or a sexist and so on, than to take on the evidence of inequality that persists even when nice people are making the decisions, and raise hard questions about what accounts for it.

Perhaps after 20 years where DMs who would inflict rape upon their female players' characters are viewed with the same loathing as DMs who would climb up and take a dump on the table so that their otyugh miniature can have a "realistic" nest ... 20 years where most of the mostly male creators mostly "get it" in their writing ... 20 years of having as many men as women at table, as many all-female as all-male groups ... we can have a clear view of which one of these things is true:

1. Creating material for adventure role-playing is just one of those things that average men statistically tend to get into more so than average women, for whatever reason (nature, nurture, culture...) and that reason is mostly legitimate.

2. Creating for adventure role-playing is one of those things that average men authentically enjoy more than average women, but this is for a reason that should be questioned - such as women being put off by games that involve math or complex procedures, as a result of socialization that also forestalls their interest in prestigious careers and science topics.

3. Women would gladly create adventure role-playing stuff as much as men currently do, but they are kept from doing it by the implicit and explicit sexism of men in the field, as well as the message that the sausage-fest sends - that "people like you are not welcome here."

I'll just note that even if you believe #1 is true, that does not let you off the hook for women's participation and representation in the hobby. That just means you treat the 10% of creators who are women with the same consideration that you would treat the ~10% of people who are non-straight, or the ~10% who represent a local ethnic minority.