Monday, 30 December 2013

Treasures of the Reconstituted Wunderkammer

From where we live in southeast England it's ridiculously easy to get over to Amsterdam for a long weekend and we recently did just that. Finally, we got to see the remodeled Rijksmuseum - but one of of my best memories, the wunderkammer of strange and beautiful craft objects jammed together like in a Golden Age Dutch grandee's show-off room, was gone, its inhabitants scattered to more period-appropriate settings around the museum.


Bah, I say, the best feature of the Rijks is the way it combines arts with crafts, so in one room you'll have Rembrandts on the walls, and some inlaid tables in the middle, with equal recognition of the skill in both. For the benefit of all, through assiduous note-taking on a museum map, I have reconstituted and aggrandized the wunderkammer as a d20 table of those items of treasure most likely to excite the eye of the bounding venturer and to bear subtle enchantments.

1. Bronze figurine of a snake, eating a frog while crushing a mouse, and in turn being bitten by a lizard.
2. Painted oaken carving meant to be suspended from ceiling, of a woman holding a noble coat of arms, with two antlers jutting out behind her like legs or tails.
3. Silver chain of linked quadrangular pieces, each embossed with a civic motif, and a silver bird pendant from the whole; the prize for winning a yearly shooting contest in a company of militia.
4. A book, an illustrated genealogy of 55 noted lords and ladies of the day, each personage depicted in full color with their coat of arms and a few words about their achievements.
5. A bronze aquamanile in the form of a standing, roaring lion, ridden and bitten by a smaller dragon that forms the jug's handle.
6. A "nut" carved of boxwood, a small sphere no more than three fingers' width with a tiny Ecce Homo crowd scene carved within.
7. A ceremonial shield made from a single elk antler, a bordure carved around the edges, and the stump of the antler carved into a knotted boss.
8. A ring fitted with a mechanical flintlock, that can always make a spark without fumbling for flint and steel.
9. A piece torn form the greatcoat of a military hero, in a wooden presentation box inscribed with the hero's name and valorous means of death. Its authenticity may be ascertained by comparing it to one of the many other such pieces in circulation.
10. A silver miniature, no more than thumb's length, of a slaughtered pig splayed on a butcher's frame.
11. Cup made from a nautilus shell, with gold stem and fittings giving it the neck and legs of an ostrich.
12. A diaphanorama; that is, a series of overlaid painted glass panes mounted in a wooden case, and when light is shone through theme a scene is revealed in three dimensions; in this case, the night sack of an ancient city by barbarians, backlit by a roaring palace on fire.
13. A set of twenty painted glass roundels, intended for projection through a "magic lantern" device of candle and lenses, depicting celebrated dwarfs and dwarves of some twenty years ago.
14. A folding harpsichord, small to begin with, with two sections of keyboard and strings that close like the halves of a book.
15. Rosewood case like a miniature chest of drawers, with some twenty very flat drawers, each of which contains three or four historically significant coins, each in its own compartment.
16. Set of four terracotta caryatids, two representing Remorse with hands covering face, two representing Penance with hands tied behind back.
17. Meter-square model of a tropical marketplace, with diverse and colorful stands, entertainers and spectators, all rendered in wood, metal and dried bread dough. Very fragile to transport.
18. Military helmet, allegedly intimidating in a very different cultural context, with two gold leaf vanes like rabbit ears each one over a cubit long, protruding at 45 degree angles from the crown.
19. Stone statue of a goddess, her garment in danger of removal by a pesky monkey, her body marked here and there with nail and tooth indentations from a recent assignation. 
20. Chess set that most will consider to be in poor taste, created in ceramic by the followers of a recently overthrown and near-universally despised would-be world emperor, with pieces showing his troops advancing in triumph and the enemy nations facing them in trepidation, and the names of his enemies inlaid around the edge of the board. Of interest chiefly to covert sympathizers and collectors with a long view of history.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

An M. R. James Christmas: Dead Man's Eyes

By chance, Michael Bukowski of Yog-Blogsoth has reached a stopping point in illustrating the creatures of H. P. Lovecraft's imagination and is now tackling the creations of an author much admired by Lovecraft - the teller of Christmas ghost stories, Montague Rhodes James (here's his very different take on the monster I statted up as the sack custodian).

I was inspired by this to read through some of James' less well known stories - all available herein the spirit of Christmas scares.

Largely, there's a reason why the stories in his first collection are better known. The later tales for the most part are still soaked in that wry humor and English antiquarian charm, but require more moving parts, more apparitions and forebodings, to deliver increasingly anticlimactic shocks. James keeps challenging himself to come up with new ideas for scares, but many of these misfire (the haunted curtain pattern in The Diary of Mr. Poynter, for one).

One of these weird ideas that does work shows up in A View From a Hill (spoilers, perforce, follow). The dark secret to be discovered is that of an amateur antiquarian, Baxter, who dabbled in sorcery the better to show up his more learned peers. Two of his artifacts bear special interest for gaming. The first is a little mask ...


Lawrence was up in the bedroom one day, and picked up a little mask covered with black velvet, and put it on in fun and went to look at himself in the glass. He hadn’t time for a proper look, for old Baxter shouted out to him from the bed: “Put it down, you fool! Do you want to look through a dead man’s eyes?” and it startled him so that he did put it down, and then he asked Baxter what he meant. And Baxter insisted on him handing it over, and said the man he bought it from was dead, or some such nonsense. But Lawrence felt it as he handed it over, and he declared he was sure it was made out of the front of a skull.

The second mystery is a strangely heavy, hand-made pair of binoculars that our protagonist borrows. Gazing through them at an opposite hill, he sees a church and a gallows that had not stood for hundreds of years. As it turns out, this artifact results from one of Baxter's more advanced spells. Their optics are filled with the gelatin of boiled bones from beneath the gallows, which allow their user to "look through a dead man's eyes" in an altogether more modern and convenient manner.

Dead Man's Eyes

Be it mask, spyglass, or a more modern contrivance, this necromantic item is created with some part of a single dead being's body, and the spells speak with the dead, monster summoning of a level appropriate to the being, wizard eye, bestow curse, and magic jar, as well as 5000 gp of materials. When complete, it has the effect of showing a scene looked upon as the dead being might have experienced it, with typical or memorable activities of the day. (This power proved very useful to Baxter, as he could rifle the countryside for finds undreamed of by his contemporaries.)

However, after the first use, there is a 1% cumulative chance that each further look through the device will bring the attention of the device's spirit, who will then attempt to possess the user and drive him or her to ruin or suicide.

Scary Christmas to all, and to all a long night!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tales of the Arabian Nights

Here's a game that has given me more entertainment than it really has a right to. This is Tales of the Arabian Nights, the 2009 Z-Man Games remake of a 1985 West End Games production.


It's a board game, but the real engine is a huge Book of Tales with over 2000 numbered paragraphs. You roam a map representing the Old World as seen from the caliph's Baghdad, playing one of the Arabian Nights characters (Sindbad, Ali Baba, Scheherazade, etc.) Every turn you pull a card from the encounter deck, roll a die on a table to see what you get (anything from a House Fire to a Vengeful Efreet), and choose an action to take appropriate to the type of encounter (anything from Grovel to Court).

The player on your right checks a matrix and reads out a paragraph number, which the player on your left looks up in the big book and reads out loud. This paragraph sets out the situation, and may give better or worse results according to what skills your character has. Goodies you may get include Destiny Points and Story Points (which help you win the game), fabulous treasures, or improved skills. Balancing these out are the infamous "status" cards that some paragraphs hand out. Among other things, statuses can leave you cursed, turned into an animal, sex changed, diseased, or more ambiguously married (you get point benefits but have to stick close to your family's city).

The version I have is the 2009 remake, which hugely improved the graphics and doubled the number of paragraphs in the by now enormous Book of Tales, but did little else to streamline the game design. Indeed, a number of design choices still seem odd or not well thought out, with the quirks and complexity of the 1985 design mentality. Some encounter cards have different results for the second or third time through the encounter deck, but in my experience games often end without ever having to reshuffle it. Although the 2009 version makes official the 1985 version's "quest" variant with a deck of quest cards, these take on the role of directing play across the board, so that the city encounter cards, which give bonuses on reaching a particular city, now seem like an unnecessary afterthought. And the rule for dealing with the "expert" level of skills, in which the book reader has to scan the adjacent paragraphs for uses of that skill and switch to them, is still clunky.

All the same, I think the game has to be defended against one of the major criticisms you see on Boardgamegeek and elsewhere, which is that it's a random rollercoaster ride that doesn't reward strategy. I think this is actually a psychological effect, where the game is designed so that action choices don't always lead to the logical consequence or skill opportunity, so that even though the majority of outcomes have some logic to them, the ones that don't stick out in the memory and lead to the perception of the game as meaningless. But the alternative is to have a game where the Rob action always leads to a use of Stealth and Stealing, and so on, which is also not fun.

More to the point, this game is a litmus test. If you are able to enjoy taking part in a picaresque story full of reversals and randomness, Tales will be highly rewarding, and filled with "wow" moments like gaining fabulous treasures, visiting mysterious and climactic Places of Power, and those times when the random story elements come together in a coincidental, funny way - for example, when you just can't stop having encounters with that seductive efreeteh and her jealous efreet boyfriend.

The replay value, too, is higher than I expected, having played it four times in the past few months. The sheer number of paragraphs, the random elements that interfere between an action choice and the outcome work in its favor. So does the Poisson-like distribution of events - so that many common events tend to recur, like house fires and hunchbacked beggars, but the truly special things like Places of Power are much rarer. This is the principle used in most encounter tables to balance meaning and surprise in a world, and its use in Tales means that the game is not entirely guilty of presenting a complete random carnival of events.

Finally, Tales is unique in design in the game world, in spite of the suitability of its basic concept for a more convention sword-and-sorcery picaresque. Does the requirement to have a hundreds-of-pages paragraph book scare off designers? The Dying Earth world, I think, would be particularly ripe for such treatment.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Hey, It's Metafilter

So I got aggregated. So, yeah ....

It's the home of the fantasy heartbreaker that has attained self-awareness.



D&D is fundamentally uncool. Viva Quijote!


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Near Orientalism World

For today, I'll post this cliche setting encounter table.



Next post, I'll talk about the game that partly inspired it.

Monday, 16 December 2013

What Next?

So having just dropped the 52 Pages it's time to take stock.

First, I did an outline of the Next 52 ("Next" is intentional, my hearties), that is, the "Expert" sequel covering character levels 4-6, what I think those levels should be up to, as well as stuff for use in expert starting campaigns. A few topics might look familiar but the rest will be brand new to me. Red pages are completed (Bard and Dilettante appeared before on the blog.)
But this aside, I have a number of other projects that are about half or more finished and I really should get out the door. 

"Ultimate Wilderness": The Next 52 wilderness rules are the stripped down version of this, also colorfully graphic but aimed more at a detailed, in depth building of hexcrawls and impromptu encounter adventures. It is pretty much an account of what I do to stock a blank district the players are turning toward. It is all basically a set of instructions for using my big encounter tables with silhouettes. Readiness: 75-80%.

"36 Pages": This is my series of d20 tables for setting ideas, organized by cliche. Slowly grinding along. Readiness: 60%.

"Manden Gouge, Book 1": All right so the percentage completion of the full ambitions of this megadungeon is miniscule. Tone it down to the ambition of producing a first book, on the caves and the upper works and shallow cellars of the great castle, Karthew's Legacy (something like 120-150 encounter areas), and we can say this is about 40% done.

"The Baroque 52": A wild hair I really shouldn't start on. But you know I will. Each of these 52 pages will contain 36 table entries in a TINY font, giving a "baroque" option for that topic in the 52PP. So where the 52 has "common equipment" the B52 will have 36 weird things that you might find in a village with their uses. Where it has "henchmen" the B52 will have 36 unusual abilities and drawbacks of henchmen. The idea is to flip the script on the generic, stylized, streamlined presentation and give free reign to the other side that led to Pergamino Barocco.

So as you see, this New Year I will have no shortage of resolutions and might even make some of them come true ...

Friday, 13 December 2013

Download: 52 Pages 1.0

It's here. All 52 Pages. Download link on the right (or here if you're lazy). I even cleaned up the treasure table so it has a little more breathing room and an example.

Devil on the cover makes it Old School.
At the end, all I can say is that there are many rulebooks out there for this kind of stuff, but none like this. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

She Wields the Powers of Narrativism

Work on my megadungeon project proceeds at a snail's pace but with frequent rewards. Here's my favorite NPC from a group of scheming remnants trapped in the upper works, Castle Amber-style.

Thelma, the Perpetual Student. Age: 31.
Level 3 Wizard (Narrativist), 5 HP. INT++, CON-, CHA-

Portrait: Jeff Preston
Thelma wandered here from her studies at a great and advanced academy, having heard about the strange situation in the castle from some visitors who managed to escape. As a philosopher she became a convert to Narrativism, the idea that almost everyone in the world is a secondary character in an elaborate fiction, with memories whose fallibility and vagueness betrays their false nature.

The Narrativist obsession is to identify point-of-view characters, people whose experience seems too vivid and fortunate to be true, and who may in fact assist in making contact with the Author through self-referential and meta-textual occurrences. Thelma thinks that Myrseau may be one such character, and is certain that she herself is but a secondary character, who will cease to exist once she leaves the fiction’s main setting, the Castle.

Of course, Thelma is ultimately correct, although wrong in the particulars. The characters she seeks belong to the players, and with enough exposure to their fortunes and ambitions, Thelma will eventually realize that the work she is in is not a novel, but a game. This may even lead her to develop a Narrativist heresy: that there is a Game Master who responds to the free will of multiple, self-narrating characters rather than ordaining their fates. On making this realization, she will decide to leave the castle, and never be heard from again, her meta-textual work done.

Thelma is an aloof and enigmatic character who sometimes gives the impression of being as detached from the concerns and intrigues of the Remnants as the players are. She once thought Imogen was the point of view character, but having seen her grow through adolescence, pities her as an obvious inversion of the fictional ingĂ©nue trope. Her philosophy gives her a certain ability similar to knowledge magic, with the following “spells” that she may cast, silently and without gesture, once each per day: hear internal monologue (ESP); interpret symbolism (Know Alignment); foreshadowing (Detect Evil); predict plot (Augury).

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sharktopus and Piranhaconda

Shark Week on RRR!

Who needs a Fiend Folio or Monster Manual II when you have these man-ennobling, straight-from-Syfy, straight-to-DVD chimerae courtesy of Roger Corman? These, of course, are the two best before you start delving into the slum section of portmanteau hell, with the likes of MANSQUITO and MERMANTULA (would have fit right in to MMII,  aquatic version of the Drider, don'tcha know).


SHARKTOPUS

HD: 11+11
AC: 6 [13]
MV: Swim 15, drag on land (tentacles) 6
Attack: Bite d8+5 with swallow whole, up to 4 tentacles d4 and hold

The ecology of this creature ... oh, who am I fooling. It's the modern equivalent of those "WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH" men's magazine covers from the 1950s. It comes from the id, a shadow-puppet cast to validate extreme measures. Like you, dear two-fisted reader, it attempts to breed with blondes, more or less symbolically.

If a tentacle hits and does 4 damage, it ensnares you and the tentacle has to be attacked separately and killed to let go (4 HP with edged weapon, maximum of 4 damage against tentacle counted against monster's HP). If the bite attack hits and rolls 6+ on d8, Speed/wand/DEX save to avoid being swallowed whole (take d8 acid damage/round, you can do damage each round with sharp weapon, freeing self after doing 1/2 the monster's HP in damage).

PIRANHACONDA

HD: 5+5
AC: 4 [15]; 1 point of armor is defense (AC is 1 worse if attacked unawares)
MV: Swim 12, slither on land 9
Attack: Bite d10, constrict for d6/turn

This fish-headed semi-aquatic snake makes its constrict attack without counting armor bonus, and once constricting will not stop crushing and biting until you or it are dead. It is tragically misunderstood; drinking hard, on the outs with its wife, and three days short of retirement.

Things can go the other way, too. Hey Corman, interested in "OWLBEAR"? "WOLF-IN-SHEEP'S-CLOTHING"?

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Convention Game Sharkpocalypse

The Dragonmeet session was a lot of fun. I've found that a good formula for a one-shot game is to make sure that you have some sort of ticking bomb, relentless final guardian, or monsterpocalypse at the end of a fairly short adventure. Without the slow build that a campaign gives, you do well to build fun off the cheap heat, with CLIMAX written in broad strokes and bright colors.


With that in mind, I framed the original one-page adventure by Daniel O' Donnell thus: the Crown Prince of Crime in the town of Ushralec hired the party to sack the Fane of Drowned Men, sacred to the demon-gods Dagon and Charybdis, ostensibly because of a grudge he had long held before recently coming to power. There were some very subtle clues to his ultimate intent - through a crack in the door, Alinor the sea elf saw some minions of crime pouring barrels of salt water into a big vat, tapping the floor below in some sort of code and receiving taps from below in turn. The Crown Prince's audience room, also, had been stripped of all furniture and valuables.

Anyway, heedless of this, the party -- a rogue, a brawling sailor, a prophet of hoary Nodens, the sea elf, a somewhat out-of-place dwarf, and of course Gnaro the multidimensional gnome -- set off in a longboat at high tide to make a beeline for the back end of the shrine. Through incredible luck and bad rolls by the defenders they were not spotted by any of the people doing business at the front of the shrine or on the causeway.  Floating right over the deep-submerged tethered zombies, they were soon on the roof, interrupting a treasure donation ritual with arrows, spears and a Sleep spell cast through a grating.

After the high priest fought back with a successful hold person, the fight soon moved to the front of the shrine, where the sea elf cast a net to trap some of the defenders. The high priest, escaping the net, backed into the rogue's waiting stab around the corner, and having been the target of much of the previous damage, soon expired, cursing his fate to die on land.

Meanwhile, some of the surviving acolytes inside the shrine had wakened their sleeping companions and were ready to defend the doorway. But the resourceful sea elf had meantime clad himself in the high priest's sharkskin robe and triple-shark-mouth tiara, and using a Disguise spell, convinced the acolytes that he had sent these invaders to test them and that they had all better surrender. The one acolyte who had saved and disbelieved the disguise was bludgeoned to death by the others at the orders of the fake high-priest.

That out of the way, the explorers noticed a dark line on the horizon and an ominous rushing sound. The sailor recognized it as a tsunami and estimated that they had little more than an hour before it hit. Looting the fane, which consisted of a few cabins of a shipwreck atop a rocky islet pierced by a well, they came away with the jewelry of a nobleman preserved in a cask of sherry and some valuable books. But the same high tide that had eased their passage over the drowned zombies now filled up the well and access to the passages below, filled with the donations of the faithful. Gnaro threw some gnomish sausage into the water and quickly attracted one of the guardian seawolves, who provided enough deterrent for the party to gather up their spoils and head for the hills. A wise move, for when the tidal wave hit it was ridden by a giant sharktopus, unholy spawn of Dagon and Charybdis.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the party heard some strange stories circulating. Merchants and jewelers who had rushed back to their strongholds in the city, ahead of anyone else, had found emptied cellars and strongrooms they thought secure, their broken doors not wholly convincing as tsunami damage. Could the party have been set up to trigger the wrath of Dagon, God of Tides, King of Watery Death, as part of some larger, astoundingly callous caper? Best not to think about it, or the treasures you left behind in the passages underneath the Fane ...

In the afternoon we played a fun, short scenario in Paolo's Cthonic Codex world, with themes of goats, moss, and a ghost dragon whose fossilized ribcage was a bridge in a canyon. The AFG system is about as simple as it gets and I recommend it for anyone who wants to prioritize ideas and creativity over rules and process, plus it has one of the coolest magic systems out there. Paolo and I then played in a demo of Lords of War, a card-battling game with simple rules but very deep strategic play.

Dragonmeet lives up to the second part of its compound. It is a great place to meet people with all kinds of ad-hoc gaming going on, and you tend to run into a lot of people you know from the gaming scene if you have lived in Southeast England for a while. This time it continued till 11 with open gaming, which was a great improvement, even though I had to get dinner with some old L5R cronies and run off to catch the last train.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Dragonmeet 2013

This coming Saturday I'll be at Dragonmeet 2013 in London, running the below adventure in the morning and most likely playing in Paolo's game in the afternoon.



Dragonmeet is a very enjoyable one-day convention with more punch than you'd think, in terms of attendant luminaries. The adventure will be run in 52 Pages rules and is basically an adaptation (with some twists) of a recent One Page Dungeon Contest winner, so if you're coming down, don't delve into the spoilers...

And yes, I am continuing the tradition of prog-rock/metal influence after last year's Heart of the Sunrise.

Oh, one more thing. Here's part of the town map I'm using, adapted from one of Dyson Logos' creations.


Sunday, 1 December 2013

Strong Magic Cursed

I forget where in the multitudinous blogoland, but someone posted a comment to the effect that high-level characters in Lamentations of the Flame Princess (think basic D&D with player character power dialed a bit down) don't do well in high-level AD&D modules made for more souped-up characters.That may be so - and is doubly true of my own 52 Pages rules where you can't come in with 4 magic missiles and 2 fireballs prepared at the same time.



I mean, great. The less overwhelming your high-level characters, the more you approach the ideal where big scary monsters are actually a threat to them rather than resorting to blind-tiger gimmicks ("you wake up naked and bereft in an anti-magic zone") or stupid dumb munchkin armies of 4 beholders and 20 frost giants, etc. The fewer bonuses pile up on them, the less you feel you need to compensate in an eternal treadmill of armor class and hit bonuses.

Now, another assumption of high-level AD&D, that grittier referees may balk at, is the ubiquity of magic items. A 7th level character in AD&D is likely to be tricked out in at least +2 everything, or a couple of wands and many lesser items if a spellcaster. One answer to this, of course, is the low-magic campaign where items are rare. The answer I prefer is "keep Fantasia weird" and filled with magic, but balance strong magic - most +2 and definitely all +3 and above - with the cosmic revenge of the universe on tools that so defiantly flout its laws - with the karmic debt paid for owning a sword that cleaves bronze like butter - with, quite simply, the human energy cost of a stick that shoots death. Something's got to pay somewhere.

(In effect - a shallower and broader implementation of the 1st edition AD&D "random drawback" approach to artifact-level magic.)

30 Random Drawbacks for Magic Weapons and Armor (d20, -5 at +2, +5 for each plus above +2)
"Armor" here includes shields.

0 or less: No drawback
1: -3 to a random saving throw.
2: -1 to all saving throws.
3: Accentuates your worst personality traits. -2 Charisma
4: Constant whispering sound makes it hard to concentrate. -2 Intelligence
5: Estranges you from God and nature. -2 Wisdom
6: Exhausting to wield. -1 Strength if an armor, -1 Constitution if a weapon.
7: Makes unexpected, clumsy, confining moves. -1 Dexterity.
8: Take 1 hp damage when you equip it.
9: Take 1 hp damage when you un-equip it.
10: If you die while wielding/wearing it, you rise immediately as an undead creature of hit dice appropriate to your level, and attack the party immediately.
11: Has minuses instead of pluses when fighting one creature type (reptiles, undead, humans, etc.)
12: Animals are unfriendly to you while carrying it.
13: +1 of its enchantment vanishes for the day when you hit (weapon) or are hit (armor) on a natural 13.
14: You need to eat five times as much on any day you use it in combat.
15: While wielding or wearing it, unintelligent enemies attack you by choice.
16: When you are aware of an enemy, you have +3 move to go towards them, and -3 to go away.
17: To enjoy its magical benefit, requires you to forswear your religion and follow an obscure, nearly-dead god, wearing its symbol and following its strange customs.
18: Can't heal HP while you're carrying/wearing it.
19: Glows visibly when enemies are near, within 60'... but only if you already know they're near.
20: Jealous ... drops from your grasp if you're carrying another weapon (weapon), falls off your body if you're carrying any other magic item (armor).
21: Each time you do (weapon) or take (armor) 8 or more HP of damage in one blow, you lose 1 HP.
22: Fogs your vision, you can only see 30' in dim light.
23: Makes an audible screaming sound when it hits (weapon) or when you are hit (armor).
24: Only has its magical powers each day if exposed to the rays of the dawn.
25: You must rest and not attack one round out of five while wielding or wearing the item.
26: You lose the ability to speak while wielding/wearing it.
27: Gives -1 to hit (if armor) or 1 worse armor class (if weapon).
28: You hit your nearby friends (weapon) or your nearby friends hit you (armor) on a natural to hit roll of 3.
29: Any NPC's who see it and are able to wield/wear it must save (Will/WIS/spell) or become covetous and scheme to take it from you.
30: Powerful wizard/demon/undead creature thinks the item is theirs and begins pursuing you d4 weeks after you acquire the item.


Monday, 25 November 2013

Wandering Monsters, Theory and Practice

In theory: The Dungeon Master keeps careful track of time as the party explores the dungeon, minute by minute, and at prescribed intervals he or she rolls dice for wandering monsters.

In practice: The Dungeon Master rolls for wandering monsters when he or she remembers that wandering monsters are supposed to be rolled for. This usually happens at a time when the party is dithering, arguing, meandering, or otherwise failing to entertain the Dungeon Master. This also happens when the party resorts to noisy, obvious solutions to a problem.



Also applies to torches, lanterns, rations, &c.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Damn Halfling Birthday Present

It's my birthday today but I have a present for you, Bilbo Baggins style. I finished the last of the 52 Pages. There will follow a phase of tidying and editing and then the final pdf will be released on the world.

Click to blow it up

This one's the sample adventure - text a little condensed but I had to respect the artistic vision. I meant it to show a good intro-level adventure, nothing too idiosyncratic, but with some interesting hooks, clues, and challenges. Of possible interest - I de-cliched the last two encounters, originally it was the mirror that possessed you but I switched the function, so now the demon jumps out of the mirror while the dead guy possesses you.

Those damn halflings!

Monday, 18 November 2013

One Page GM Advice

Here is page 52 of the 52 pages. (Page 51 still needs to be finished, the sample adventure, but we are almost there folks.)



Anything obvious I left out?

Friday, 15 November 2013

What Rough Bestiary: Agricola's De Animantibus Subterraneis

Patrick Stuart is the one to blame for invoking it, and Humza Kazmi for completing the summoning, on G+ recently. So now we have Georgius Agricola's underground monster manual for entertainment.

Basilisk vs. weasel
There is the usual medieval bestiary nonsense about how bears lick their cubs into shape because Ovid said so, foxes fish with their tails, weasels kill basilisks, and also some choice bits:

Killer hamster: "It seems angry and caustic to a degree that if an unprotected horseman were to pursue it, it is accustomed to leap up and seize on the face of the horse, and if someone were to capture it, it is accustomed to hold on by biting." [109]

Haemorrhoid snake: unfortunate name for "a snake whose bite was said to cause bleeding from all over the body" [117]

Fire toad: "On the other hand, the poisonous frog, which our miners call by their own word puriphrunos (fire toad) because of the color of fire which is on it, hides continuously among rocks as if buried and interred... In this way they appear in solid rocks, although there are no holes to be seen." [119]

Six types of demons: "In fact, Psellus, when he classified the number of demons into six types, says that this kind is worse than the others, because the material of its skin is thicker." [121] (Psellus' classification, found here, is into Igneous, Aerial, Earthly, Aqueous, Subterranean and Lucifugus - a whole topic unto itself.)

Hobgoblins: "For they passionately ridicule joy; and they seem to do many things, but do nothing completely." They appear as old men clad in the manner of miners, 3/4 as tall as a dwarf, and were enslaved by the Swedish. [121-122]

The use of these creatures is left as an exercise to the reader.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Hiero and D&D

Inspired by Appendix N fever, I recently picked up and read Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey (1973), which I'd never read before -although I soon realized that as a teenager I'd read some of its derivative works, like the nearer-future World Enough, And Time, and the farther-future Dark Is The Sun. For Lanier wrote the original post-apocalyptic, mutant-fauna, ancient-artifacts, psychic-powers fantasy, in which a heroic priest-mentalist and his psi-sensitive moose steed wander across the Great Lakes region millennia after the nuclear holocaust, gathering a band of unlikely allies to fight a cabal of evil psychic sorcerers.

Naturally, it has been noticed that Gamma World was pretty much an attempt to go gaming in this setting. What isn't recognized so much is how Lanier's universe also influenced the constitution of D&D from the supplements onward (although some are hip). Specifically, once you take out the mythical, natural and Tolkienesque creatures from the D&D wilderness tables, what you're left with is a mix of giant-sized animals, animal-men, and oddball mutant creatures. That's pretty much my "WEIRD" table when I tried to sift wilderness monsters into six different genres, and that's pretty much what Hiero finds, day in, day out, in his journey. The ancient ruins, the long distances between tiny points of civilization, all can be laid down to Tolkien; but the roll-four-times-a-day, teeming encounter-fest of D&D, that's Lanier.

Artifacts, too. There's a scene in Hiero's Journey that has to have inspired the artifact examination rules in Gamma World, where Hiero finds a strange device on the body of an evil sorcerer, and tries to find out what it does, at the end going as far as to prop it up and jab at its last button with an eight-foot stick. But this kind of procedure also describes D&D magic items. Unlike the heroes of folklore or fantasy, who come into fairly straightforward items as gifts or treasure trove, the heroes of D&D, like the far-future explorers of the ruins, have to contend with a relic of the ancients being possibly cursed. The artifacts section in the Dungeon Master's Guide even suggests creating random benefits and drawbacks. So, when your adventurers gingerly try out that new potion or necklace, they're acting more post-apocalyptic than fantasy -- acting out of wariness, rather than awe.

And then there's psionics, and perhaps only an obsession with Hiero and the Deryni novels can explain why Gary mixed mental powers with magic in both editions he had his hands on. It's pretty clear that the D&D psionic combat system draws on Hiero's many mental duels with evil forces, which describe different modes of attack and defense. Very present in the novel, too, is the central balancing idea for D&D psionics - while characters can luck into these amazing powers essentially for free, using them opens you up to attention from a whole new range of unwholesome entities.

Finally, one thing the illustration reminds me of: like Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series and, a little later, Samuel R. Delany's Neveryon stories, Hiero's Journey is very much a post-Civil Rights movement fantasy, where North America has mainly been repopulated by ethnic minorities, and pale people are barbaric and seldom seen. A reminder, perhaps, that the old school had a more progressive streak to it - think M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel, based on non-European cultures -  before all the cliches about Scottish dwarves and the like sunk in.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Advanced Readings in Dungeons and Dragons

This has been going on for some time without the OSR seeming to take notice ... but Tor books is deep into an appreciation of the Appendix N works from the 1st edition DM Guide, courtesy of Tim Callahan and/or Mordecai Knode.

So far they've hit most of the right switches - correctly placed Vance between Clark Ashton Smith and Gene Wolfe (but missing the Planet of Adventure entirely), nailed down Derleth succinctly as an author and influence on D&D, and dug up hidden gold from obscurities like Fredric Brown.

Check it out.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Dead Hand of Graph Paper

Making your map conform exactly to the dimensions of an 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet of graph paper is a pure convenience for the referee.

You think it helps the players in mapping, too? I can point to any number of 3 or 4 sheet maps my players have made simply because they did not start mapping at the exact spot in the graph paper that would make their map fit. And giving that spot away is giving away too much information - robbing your players of the mystery experience. As, eventually, they will be cheated of that experience when the grand design all comes together, the edges of the underworld resolve themselves, and they realize that lo, they have been living in a jar of Tang.
Intimations of quadrangular cosmic order
For an alternate inspirations here are some real world cave mapping contest winners that Patrick Stuart turned up on G+. It's only a pity that the highest resolution available is not very high, so that we can't clearly see the feature markings and labels. But the dungeonability of the Cold Sink Cave map is clear from both the overhead and side angles...

Only about 1/5 of a long, twisty, branching cave.
as is the magnificent side profile of the Merlin cave...

I have recently been working on a project that starts with a cave complex map. Looking at it now, I realize that it addresses my frustrations with the graph-paper format of early modules and the topography of places like Stonehell. Not every corner is filled, true, but my map is still more compact and passage/chamber oriented than the actual cave examples, which is maybe a concession to the explorers' own map.


Although I can't deny its traditionalist charm, the flat rectangle is only barely admissible as architecture and frankly implausible as natural topography. Some doubt that exact mapping is useful or desirable; I'm not one of those. Having the world come to life on graph and hex paper is part of the exploration experience in the traditional game that I wouldn't give up for anything. But the quad-rules rectangle should feel like a window into a world with its own existence - not a prison for a plan of an artificial playground.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Medieval World

Every once in a while a commenter will remind me that, yeah, I am slowly eking out a series of genre/environment cliche d20 tables and it wouldn't be too hard to get the next one going. Ideas for these come over a few days and then, there you have it.


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Sample Setting in 32 Encounters

This is page number 50 of the 52 pages. It's a slightly less-than-generic medieval town-to-village-to-dungeon of the kind I describe on this other page. Page 51 will be the sample dungeon. I wish I could put an example of play in as well but I think page 52 will have to be more general GM advice.

What's important with these encounters is to make most of them lively - to work implicit action into that short one-line description. One last-minute feature I thought of: instead of d8, roll d10 or d12, and on a result of 9 of higher roll 2d8 and have the party walk in on an encounter between those two.

Another idea: give each area a "boss" that is encountered instead of the first encounter that would be a repeat. It might be a tripping druid in the woods, a shy wererat in the village, the river god's daughter on the river, or the Baron in town. This means the setting has the feel of slow discovery as the characters settle in it.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Two-word Setting Seeds

Here's a simple idea inspired by noisms' observation that having a basic idea about your setting is key to improvisation. I would add that at the same time, you have to come up with ideas that fit the setting but stay fresh, because the imagination under pressure reverts to mediocrity. So how do you turn the stale into the fresh, without veering off the deep and and having encounters with toasters and snuffleupagi?

One answer is to take the elements of your familiar setting and combine them in new ways. Let's say your party has decided to flip the bird to your carefully prepared plans, and heads to a village of adventure you haven't prepared, in hex 2049, the genre being medieval European fantasy. You quickly fill the hexes around with the first ideas that come off the top of your head, in adjective-noun format. Then to your dismay you realize they're all old-hat cliches:



So, just switch the adjectives across the middle, and you're left with this set of encounters that really crackles and challenges:

This works with as few as two cliches - if the party goes off the track and has to choose, make it a choice between frost giants and Skull Castle. Oh, I mean skull giants and Frost Castle. Better now.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A Cellar By Any Other Name

They found a DUNGEON.  Would this story have gone semi-viral under any other name?


Not a basement, mind you, a dungeon. Would a secret cellar or crawlspace be "amazing"? And by that hoary name, older by any reason than the Victorian building, they invoke all that goes with it - torture and skeletons and exploration and adventure. Even if there's no sign of hobgoblins, only hooligans.


The steam-tunnel legends that circulated in the early days of the roleplaying  hobby betray the desire to transform the surplus space of industrial civilization into something haunted,  magical. Even though this photo essayist doesn't descend into full confabulation as does the Ted the Caver website, you can hardly fault someone for wishing to open that trapdoor and hear the grunting of pig-headed mutants far, far below ... or the scurrying of rats, down the twisting stair to a bone-littered cavern, millennia of cannibal rites and madness.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Kicking the Cleric Out of the Niche

Here and here are Talysman's posts where he hates "niche protection." It's a question of who-can-do-what in a role-playing game. I agree that the rules should be based on a view of what characters can do that has its own integrity, not manufactured to create some outcome at the player level.

And yet - especially when it comes to magic - there's such a variety of plausible ways of doing things that we can't help but choose among systems. In that case, why not choose wisely? As I argued a while ago, a good game will strike a balance between making a given skill set useful while not making it strictly necessary.

One example: the cleric. Many experienced players, depending on their D&D-like system, consider the cleric to be an indispensable member of the group. Let's look at the most extreme version of this, in AD&D, where it is easy to get a cleric who starts with two first level spells(1 bonus spell due to 15+ wisdom), almost always Cure Light Wounds.

So you get a slightly less effective fighter with one less hit point on average, worse attack and limited weapons, BUT:

Average HP restored from those two Cure Light Wounds: 9
Average HP of a first level fighter: 5.5

That's right, a character who not only fights in their own right, not only turns undead and can do miscellaneous other things with spells, but provides a force multiplier in the course of play (assuming damage is not taken in huge lots) equal to almost two fighters.

The decision in OD&D and B/X to not give clerics ANY spells until 2nd level in hindsight seems reasonable, although Labyrinth Lord climbs down from this with 1 spell at 1st level and so on. Even without bonus spells this is still a pretty nice force multiplier, that lags behind the fighter's hit dice at middle levels but perks up with the ability to cure serious wounds and raise dead at higher. The choice, still, is not ideal; between a game where clerics have to prove their gumption by spending their first level as a sucky fighter who can turn undead, and a game where clerics are seen as mandatory to the point where people will play them even though they don't really want to.

I've seen first-hand in my gaming group the dismay with which players face the prospect of adventuring without a cleric (my 52 pages version has a healing power that likewise is a pretty big force multiplier). The obvious fix is to do what I did with wizards to stop the "sleep/magic missile" fixation; allow only one example of each spell to be cast a day. Because my system lets spells become available at every character level, I could even give a very minor healing spell at cleric character level 1 and the Cure Light Wounds equivalent only at cleric character level 2.

This might be the last major change to the 52 Pages, but I think it achieves the goal of letting clerics feel useful at Level 1, but not indispensable at higher levels. Hell, I might even give them their at-will turning back.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Famous Teleportation Mishaps

How does teleportation work, exactly? That is, you are in one place, and then another; presumably, the air rushes in to fill the space after you are gone; but what happens to the stuff in the space you now enter?

Two possibilities. One, you somehow mingle with what you teleport into; the basis of both versions of The Fly, and of the nightmare scenario where you end up immediately dead after teleporting into a wall.

The other, which I prefer, is that you displace whatever you are teleporting into. Still leads to a sad and lonely death if you teleport into solid matter, but much more forgiving otherwise.

Of course, nothing says fantasy has to be consistent. Indeed, I'd think our intuitive approach to magical
teleportation is a mix of the two ideas. We like the gruesome consequences of teleporting halfway into a floor or ending up as a Brundlefly, but don't consider the consequences of mingling for normal teleportation, where your whole system would be pumped with a nitrogen - oxygen - CO2 mixture that probably would give rise to some version of the bends.

Summoning sickness, anyone?

Displacement, likewise, has some interesting side effects if applied consistently. For example, any wizard's district or magical academy where teleporting is practiced constantly would probably have an abundance of the hallmarks of slightly off teleports: footprints in the floor where a teleport went slightly too low, or in some cases craters where a wizard had to be dug out of solid rock.

One of the better dead ends in a dungeon might be one where, using detect magic, somebody dug their way to the entombed corpse of a way-off wizard to rob him for his enchanted loot. All that's left is the indentation of his body, maybe a skeleton, and a cursed item for the unwary ....

Call it pedantry if you like - but it's the good kind of pedantry, where working out the details of a consistent world leads not to "this can't happen" or "this is more boring" but "wow, really, that happens?"

Finally, for some reason, fantasy teleportation doesn't seem to arouse the same worries about scrambling matter that sci-fi* teleportation does, at least if game rules are anything to go on.  Maybe it's because we have an implicit model of magic as working off some idea of Platonic forms - a kind of object-oriented programming, if you will. Thus, the danger in a spell that changes the "location" attribute of "you" is not that you will be changed, but that you will end up where you don't want to be. By contrast, sci-fi teleportation works in a molecular physics of reality where it's much more clear that you will have to be disassembled and reassembled, monad by monad, giving rise to all sorts of philosophical dilemmas and wacky mishaps.

* Is the last person who viscerally hates this term finally dead?

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Clever Rules Fade Away

After a languid summer I'm ready to enter the home stretch and put the final touches on my 52 Pages house rules. Scrap Princess' review reminded me that there is always a gap between the clever system you think up at home and what actually goes down at the table. Indeed, I had some stuff in there that bore little resemblance to the way I actually play, like the "encounter start" matrix that was my substitute for surprise rolls.  So I managed to boil it down to be more like guidelines than rules, and more like what I'll actually do in play - figure out the surprise status by common sense, with maybe a roll for alertness if I'm unsure of the disposition of the defenders.


Likewise for my magical treasure table, which caused some puzzlement when it first came out. I decided to make it more straightforward and more geared toward low levels - appropriately for the "Basic" style levels 1-3 focus in the 52 Pages. I might make the main treasure table more straightforward too.


Finally, I had an insight about combat where I could get it down to fewer phases if I realized that combat should go with the most urgent stuff first - not in the order that you might think things happen. So, melee first and disengaging, then shoot, magic and move, and miscellaneous stuff at the end of the round. To handle the weird gamesmanship and panzerbush situations that might arise I allowed "overwatch" to happen so you can shoot the charging guy at close range while he is charging you. In a surprise situation, by the way, you can move first then melee.

Oh and yeah, I got rid of the grid. I still play that way but I'm pretty happy with a system that looks more spacious on the page and asks people to think about the dimensions of the fight rather than necessarily making them plot it all out.


And I've made a start on the example campaign, dungeon, and play session that round out the last four pages. So some of that soon, I'm hoping.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Mississippi Sea

As Joe Bloch has observed, the Greyhawk map has a lot of interesting coastline, unlike boring maps like Middle Earth. This is, perhaps, just a conscious design decision made by Gary Gygax as he transitioned his Greyhawk campaign from the map of North America to an actual commercial product. In place of a big chunk of land in the Flanaess' equivalent of the US South and Midwest, we have a great two-armed sea.

Great maps by Anne B Meyer.
Could be this a homage to the great inland sea that spread over the Midwest in Cretaceous times? Perhaps, but only indirectly. In fact, the sea was far to the west of the present-day Great Lakes. Still, the idea of a North American inland sea would have been known in the 60's from archeology. Its receding phase as the Pierre Sea, shown below in a map by Ron Blakeley, presents an intriguing profile in the spirit of the Greyhawk map.


A geographically closer influence, perhaps, is the idea that the Mississippi Plain which stretches up to southern Illinois, surrounded by hills and bluffs on every side, is in danger of becoming submerged. Although mass media often focus on the possibility that California might drown or become an island from the activity of the San Andreas Fault, another equally severe seismic zone is located along the Mississippi. The New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 were the strongest and most extensive recorded in North America.

Perhaps on the basis of this anxiety, a series of psychics since at least 1983 have produced remarkably similar-looking visionary maps of the future North America with huge inundations of California and the Mississippi Valley, often connecting the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico. A risen Atlantis, accounting for sea level rises elsewhere, is optional. A handy compilation of these is provided by a diligent poster on the David Icke forums, although the bloom somewhat goes off these prophecies when you notice that they were all predicted for different dates ranging from 1994 to 2012. Although a little late to have influenced Greyhawk, Gygax had avowedly read up on Theosophy and may have come across the 1940's cataclysmic geographical prophecies of the psychic Edgar Cayce, who attributed his "future map" with a marine Mississippi to a coming pole shift:


Of course, geological facts make the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys the most low-lying parts of the Midwest, so it is no great stretch to imagine them as the basis for a more watery continent. Indeed, extreme global warming scenarios also put Chicago - the location for Greyhawk in the early campaign - in a position to trade between lakes and sea, with the Ozarks standing in for the Pomarj peninsula:


Conspiracy believers, however, generally reject global warming and see the coming Mississippi Sea as the plot of a purposefully evil government, with levee demolitions, sinkholes and FEMA preparations all pointing to the cataclysm, in which a polar shift may or may not be involved. Thus we stand in the 21st Century.

Anyway! All of this suggests a slightly different look to the North American Greyhawk map. Greyhawk and Dyvers reclaim their positions as Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively, and some combination of seismic activity and sea level rise produces this geography, on a scale of 125 miles to the hex:


The three cities of the Greyhawk campaign, here, are a buffer between the proud kingdom of Acrondy and the plains realms to the west, while also profiting from north-south trade in raw materials from the woods and mines of the Lakes region. Ashland, from the etymology of Nashville, is a secretive realm ruled by druids and bards, where something real bad happened to blast the mountains in the east. The Four Winds kingdom is a nod to the etymology of Kansas, while Acrondy is a breakaway state from the declining Great Kingdom over the mountains. And somewhere in Manitoba, Iuz weaves his plots ...

Friday, 11 October 2013

North American Greyhawk

The clearest sign that Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk was based on an earlier campaign that used a map of North America is the Lake Superior/Nyr Dyv resemblance.



Recently, I decided to develop a little more the small campaign world that had grown up around the university gaming society's forays into the Castle of the Mad Archmage. Player-named, a village named Linton and a town named Burwell coexisted with the "Grey City" (Greyhawk with numbers filed off). I wanted the world to have the same feel, looking like a slightly different derivation of Gygax's North America campaign with an homage as transparent as the "Mad Archmage" dungeon itself.




Southern Wisconsin, then, is the new location of the Grey City, and it sits in the hills at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi. Except that, using the same translation gimmick as the Atlas of True Names, it is now at the Great Grand River and the Redley (red-lay). It benefits from brisk river trade between the realms of Blackmoor up the river, the lands of Ernst to the east, and the cities downriver.

Lake Superior: Lake of Unknown depths
Lake Michigan: Lake of Fog (undoubtedly sorcerous)
Site of Chicago: Ruins of the Stinking City
Lake Geneva: Shrine of St. Cuthbert and the location of many pilgrimages and conclaves.

But what about points south? Well, that is where the real craziness comes in. Get ready for psychic visions, conspiratoids, and Cretaceous hijinks as ... the Bay gets Woolly, next time on Roles, Rules and Rolls!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

52 Pages Tutorial Character Sheet

One of my first old school things to get attention was the Old School Players character sheet which had all the rules for rolling up a character on it. Last weekend I was getting some new players started and thought it would be a good idea to work up an overlay for the existing 52 Pages sheet that would kind of simulate this experience. It ended up as three pieces of paper that you would cut various sized holes in, with instructions for filling in the parts of the sheet that were visible through the holes at he time.

This was clever but proved a little unwieldy in practice; I probably should have made the overlays a different color than the sheet. Anyway, this gave me the idea to just go back to the old ways and produce a character sheet with the instructions on it. After some simplifications and "ask the GM" handwaving I managed to fit things onto two sides of a piece of paper (European A4, so North Americans may want to do some resizing).


Blogger is being funny about updating the links section on the right so here is the link to the shared doc. Enjoy!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Irony and Gamer Uncool

The second great coping mechanism to stave off the Fundamental Uncoolness of D&D is irony. Forget hipster mustaches and Alanis, this sense of irony is closer to the literary sense, or the kind of "romantic irony" discussed by such writers as Schlegel.  Ironic literature is conscious of the ways in which it is art and not reality. One way to handle this, then, is joking about the gap between a lofty representation and its base material.

As soon as literature became aware of itself, it became aware of this rift, with the earliest expression being Don Quijote. I keep coming back to Cervantes because the Quijote staked out an early and commanding position at the tangled cloverleaf intersection of fiction, fandom, fantasy and moral panic. In spite of the increasingly baroque proliferation of fantasism in popular culture across the past fifty years, nobody has even tried to wrest an American Quijote out of the rich source material - wielding a bat'leth, perhaps, and defying a couple of gangbangers. Perhaps it's because the new Quijotes have a posse, a Facebook group, a con. They no longer tower in solitude over the Castilian plain, and whereas before the curate and Sancho Panza might have staged an intervention, nowadays they just shrug and go to watch The Big Bang Theory.

Three ways irony can enter a game, and reduce the self-consciousness of becoming one's character ...

1. At its least threatening, gamer irony-lite mixes the fantasy world with references from outside. Every dwarf named Shakira, every Holy Grail gag, every "joke" dungeon level tries to water down the FUDD in the same way that National Lampoon undercut the earnestness of Tolkien with Bored of the Rings. Some of these jokes have become so reflexive that they have themselves become uncool, contaminated with the residue of gamer earnestness - see Holy Grail, above.

2. At the same time more sophisticated and more nerdy, there's ironic distance to be had in the discrepancy between the fantasy world of the game and the rules used to simulate it. Two of the most successful RPG comic strips have played with this concept - Knights of the Dinner Table showing what a group of rules-lawyering players look like, Order of the Stick showing what a fantasy world looks like when awareness and semi-awareness of the rules absurdities pops through. These jokes require the most inside knowledge to pull off, but they also work against absorption in the game by showing the artifice by which it's upheld.

3. It's also an old source of ironic amusement to hold an unflattering mirror up to the self-same daydreamer, from Quijote to Walter Mitty. The ironizer of roleplaying has the same strategy at hand, but almost always it's the other guy who inhabits an unflattering reality in contrast to the high-flown fantasy world. Thus we get the alpha-nerd stance, with its one-two of "We know enough about this game ... to make fun of the losers who play it." As self-hating and hypocritical as this attitude is, there's no shortage of it around, as witnessed by Fear of Girls, Zero Charisma, and so on. A particular twist of the knife is to interpret role-playing as inadequacy compensation, so the weakling plays a barbarian, the socially challenged plays a smooth lover man and so on.

I should also mention the rare times when irony works in favor of fictional immersion - the irony when game play fails to fulfill the expectations of fiction. The villain makes her first appearance ... and the heroes manage to find a way to kill her dead then and there. The quest of the long lost McGuffin ... turns out to have been a false rumor all along.All the same, somehow, this kind of irony also works against the self-inflicted stigma of immersion because it makes the players feel like they are taking part in something real and messy and mature, not something out of storybook land.

Next, finally: Being immersed and staying cool.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Turning the Fantasy Party to Superheroes

We now pause our discussion of coolness in D&D for a word from our Joesky sponsor.

In the fantasy adventuring party, some of them fight and others have spells.

In the superhero party, everyone fights and everyone has one "spell."

(Except Batman.)

(And Doctor Strange.)


Superknight by John Staub.

This suggests a "medieval mutants" campaign using the standard rules of your D&D-oid system, but there are no clerics or wizards. Instead, everyone is a fighter or thief (or a scholar, with stats as a wizard and gaining experience twice as quickly).

All PCs and major villains get a mutant power that is a (d6: 1-3, cleric, 4-6, wizard) spell, level determined by the minimum of 2d6. You get an additional, thematically related spell at every odd level. If the power's level is:

Greater than twice your level: Using it knocks you out for 1 hour.
Greater than your level: You can only use it once a day.
Equal to your level: You can use it twice per day.
Lower than your level: You can use it three times a day
Lower than half your level: You can use it at will.

Also, this looks good for a psionics system in a standard fantasy campaign, with an appropriate XP tax on the lucky psionicist.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

It's Not Uncool, It's Normal!

One of the ways to deny the fundamental uncoolness of D&D is to strenuously insist that it's cool. This fuels a perennial struggle to find ways to bend role-playing games into this fiction. And this struggle has gotten harder over time.

I mean, there was a brief time at the start, before it got out in the mass media, when they could make like D&D was some kind of edgy activity that all the beautiful people were doing - something like Fletcher Pratt's or Norman Bel Geddes' chic Manhattan wargames:


And then ... nope, nope, nope...

Floundering ever since the stigma descended on roleplaying games in the 1980's, two escape routes have generally been tried. One is to fight against the shallower definition of "uncool," to try and purge away the fantasy content from a role-playing game. "This game is cool because it's about real things" - or about socially acceptable forms of escapism, anyway. At this task, roleplaying murder mysteries succeed; roleplaying games about rock bands fail (because only 11 year olds imagine themselves as members of a cool rock band); and some other attempts just merit a stunned silence.

Even in the art of roleplaying games we can see the struggle between the desire to go full-on socially uncool and pimp out your game like the ultimate stoner van or Manowar album cover, or to be "mature" and "restrained" and bring it in like a Blue Note sleeve. DCC RPG, in other words, versus Old School Hack or mine own 52 Pages. This may even apply to game mechanics, wherein lengthy tables and baroque calculations represent a certain disregard for the novice, while stripped-down and simple play holds out the hope that you might get Aunt Tillie to play with you yet.

The second escape route is to accept the fantasy scenario but to deny the truly "uncool" thing about roleplaying, the immersion and identification with character. So, we get the comparisons to chess or to improvisational theater. The former implies that it's just a game of strategy played with funny pieces, the latter implies that all the play-acting is not self-indulgent or self-threatening but done with professional control for an enraptured audience.

"We're storytelling!" No you're not. You're collaborating on a story through role-taking and the closest normal-people analogy is when a bunch of drama show writers get together in a room and work out what happens next ... but each of them takes on a part from the show ... and these parts continue year on year ... Really, the only truthful answer is:

"There is nothing else like it."

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

There's Cool, And Then There's Cool

When I say D&D is fundamentally uncool, what do I mean anyway? The word "cool" has shifted around so much that it's hard to know. It needs explanation.

A key text here is Robert Farris Thompson's article An Aesthetic of the Cool, from 1973, the journal African Arts. What is cool to the Gola of Liberia? Thompson quotes Warren D'Azevedo:
Ability to be nonchalant at the right moment ... to reveal no emotion in situations where emotion and sentimentality are acceptable - in other words, to act as if one's mind were in another world.
You may protest that transportation through fiction, fandom or gaming is just that, putting one's mind in another world, but this misses the point. Cool implies that the other world is a calmer, less emotional place. To travel to another world in order to excite the passions is the opposite of cool. "Coolness" by Thompson's definition is a poised posture, a place without conflict. By removing expression outward, you remove the possibility of interruption or ridicule inward.

Other writers on the aesthetics of cool among African Americans and its general percolation out to the world culture - such Mintz, Billson, and Pountain & Robins - have remarked on its potential as resistance. For Black men in America, cool has been a way to negate the clownish features laid on them  by racist iconography, to mentally check out from an environment unresponsive to their dignity and needs. The appropriation of cool, in the service of musical and other aesthetic trends, is laid forth in Pountain & Robins' 2000 book, auguring in the hipster era. Ultimately for them, cool is a "permanent state of private rebellion," a state that vanishes once it calls attention to its own coolness.

This reminds us that D&D is "uncool" in a more superficial sense, that of the well-known American high school hierarchy with its "cool kids" and "uncool kids." But in any high school there are two kinds of cool kids. You have the popular kids who show their passions for socially approved costumes, games, and fields of expertise like cheerleading, school spirit and sports. Another kind, though, set their sights outside the high school walls. They are cool toward school but this form of resistance masks their passions, aimed elsewhere: alternative cinema, drama, music, art. In high school and college I played RPGs almost as much with a set of punk rockers as with the more overtly enthusiastic nerd crew. They were socially uncool and yet - in the anthropological sense - truly cool.

In McLuhan's well-known distinction, roleplaying is one of the hottest of media, requiring hard mental and imaginative work to achieve the immersion that is its goal. Contrast this to "cool" media like television which ask for only open eyes. People who grow self-conscious or dissatisfied about roleplaying's hotness reach for the bottle of cool to cut it down.

By a nice coincidence, I recently returned to the RPG Site forum after some days absence to find an argument brewing, relevant to all these points. The initiating question was whether anyone enjoys playing RPGs in costume. As I pointed out last post, this activity is the quintessence of the FUDD (Fundamental Uncoolness of D&D) and so not surprisingly sparked off heated protestations. Many posters spoke of their desire not to look like even more a geek than they already were, under the watchful eyes of sarcastic co-workers or Bible Belt society.

But in an age of ubiquitous popularity of the Lord of the Rings films or Game of Thrones show, the uncool thing is not liking fantasy, but liking it in ... that way. That hot, immersive way that puts you at risk of disappearing entirely into the fantasy world, of regressing into childhood. That play-acting, masquerading, feasting and wassailing that Puritans have always sought to ban, that sensible people indulge in only at certain times of the year and in certain cities of the nation.

Bad enough you read the books instead of consuming media (getting hotter ... look what happened to poor Quijote). Bad enough you play a game where you take the role of a character (getting hotter ... look what happened to poor Black Leaf). But to run around wearing the costumes? To unselfconsciously declaim in a funny accent, your lineage as a noble dwarf? You're hot as hell and most people can't take the heat. They have to turn up the cool - in one of several ways.

Next: "We're Normal, Honest!"