Archive for December, 2009


it’s CLOBBERING time!

This, but like 5 sessions' worth of it

Jack Kirby + Joe Sinnot, Fantastic Four 73

We finished our five-session arc of With Great Power . . . last night.  It’s certainly the best gaming experience I’ve had in years, and in the short-list for my best gaming ever.  From start to finish it was pure joy.

A lot of that joy was contextual: as noted I am a madman on the subject of Silver Age Marvel comics, and  I was lucky enough to have two magnificent players (Sternum and Invincible Overlord) who, in addition to also being huge fans, were terrific role-players and enormously funny people.

Some of that joy was due to the fiction.  Last night:

  • The Thing single-handedly defeated a Troll army that was marching on Asgard (including clobbering Ulik, who had humiliated and enslaved him last session).
  • Spider-Man, tapping into the power of the Norn Stone, defeated the mighty Thor in single combat.  Just as he was about to steal Thor’s hammer in accordance with Loki’s sinister plan, Peter Parker realized he was going too far–and returned it to the thunder god.
  • The Enchantress, who had seduced Peter into near-villainy, came to understand that, though nought but a mortal, his heart was more valorous than many an Asgardian’s.
  • There was a funny scene when the Thing tried to tell-off Odin the Omnipotent, but the All-Father basically yawned him away.
  • Loki, frustrated, made a play for the indestructible Destroyer.  There was a big fight between Spider-Man, the Thing, Thor, and the Fantastic Four against the Loki, the Destroyer, the Radioactive Man, the North Vietnamese Army, and the United States Air Force.  In the end, the heroes triumphed (of course).

And some of the joy was due to the system, though I’m not sure how much.  With Great Power .  .  .  is played with a deck of cards rather than dice.  You generally want high-ranking cards, and in order to get them the player will choose to sacrifice certain aspects of his or her character.  Thus, Spider-Man might ignore Aunt May for a little while in order to save the city.  In mid-game, however, many of these aspects fall into the clutches of the Game Master, who can then do sadistic things: like say that Aunt May has gotten engaged to Doctor Octopus.  In the end-game, a couple of rules shift around to favor the players, and if they’re lucky they can save the day and any spinster aunts.

So the card-economy does a great deal to affect the pacing of the game.  Going into this session, I was concerned that I had beaten up the super heroes so much that there was no way they could build up a hand strong enough to take me on.  Since Sternum kept his most valuable aspects out of my grasp, I couldn’t win outright, but (I thought) neither could the heroes.  It turns out that I was mistaken.  The card economy is clunky, opaque, and feels a little ad hoc, but it worked out beautifully last night, and I’m very impressed with Michael and Kat Miller for getting this design right.  (That said, we did end up house-ruling it that I couldn’t take an aspect all the way to Transformed in the course of a single fight.)

So – best supers gaming I’ve ever had, and a good time was had by all.  Excelsior!


Blogosphere Explorations: Playing D&D with Porn Stars

I’m going to assume that, like a cursed scroll, the mere act of reading the words Playing D&D with Porn Stars triggered the title of inexorable eyeball attraction spell that Zak S. so cunningly crafted. Since then you certainly will have been a regular reader of his blog, held there long after the initial geas has worn off by the range and erudition of his thought, his effortless humor, and the contemplation of what looks from this side of the magic mirror like some awesome actual play. Many of us might have wished for an old-school blogger who combined the theoretical insight of a James Maliszewski, the drive towards awesome, gonzo, and funny of a Jeff Rients, and the how-to impulses & artistic skills of a Rob Conley -but if you were the one to tell the genie you wanted porn stars in the mix my hat’s off to you.

Making that assumption will excuse the following self-centeredness, which experienced blogosphere explorers probably already have a ring of resistance against anyway. But just as in thinking about Grognardia I wind up talking about my personal introduction to blogs, the old-school renaissance, and the standard to which I aspire, in thinking about Playing D&D with Porn Stars I wind up contemplating the question how can my blogging be as cool as that. Here are some tips for me and my fellow Mules, which by reading between the lines may perhaps help the gentle reader figure out why they should be reading Zak’s blog if they’re somehow not already, or identify why they like it so much when they do.

1) A post called “A Picture is Worth 1,000 XP” should have a picture in it.  Maldoor’s analysis there is classic and insightful, except that it’s actually a chart! I don’t think that the Mule is going to challenge Zak S. when it comes to eyeball kicks like the first image here unless, perhaps, we get Greengoat to post more often. That’s cool; we’ve got our own analytic turf (with stats-happy mathematical and Talmudic textual sub-divisions) that he’s unlikely to invade unless his circle of professional acquaintances changes to involve people who spend more time looking at spreadsheets and document version-change lists than at attractive unclothed human beings. (As James M.’s Grognardia bio used to say before its current diabolical leader of the Old School Taliban incarnation: “Oh, the pain.”)

But, of the rest of the images in that post, only one other is Zak’s work; the rest are simply awesome images he’s found and shared for our enlightenment. Surely we could do so once in a while, with the result that the Mule’s labors would be more pleasing to the eye than our typical wall of text.

And while my DM notes aren’t as mystifyingly attractive as the sketches Zak drew to prep for this adventure (are those hit locations?) I too have found it useful to make little graphic aids for myself as I experiment with ways to digest the Caverns of Thracia text into topical chunks I can throw down as necessary. Now that the Patriarch of the Dark One is no more, I should post the one-page doodle on which I wrote out the infamous “will or won’t he express his wrath with an insect swarm” d6 table. Note: it’s probably the act of drawing these things that makes them useful for prep, not their intrinsic aesthetic qualities, but I would spend many a gaming dollar proving that to myself if a publisher were to conduct the experiment.

I’ve seen character sketches around our table that are as fun to look at as the doodles in “What My Players Are Doing When They’re Supposed To Be Listening To My Enthralling Descriptions Of 10′ x 10′ Rooms“. Let those be scanned and posted so that we can do exhaustive psychographic analysis of the effects of listening to Lady Gaga in a public space vs. being able to choose to play Roky Erikson in one’s own home. Which brings me to:

2) We should talk more about the social environment of play. Backstage at the Mule, James has a draft of a post in which he argues that the old-school collective has already figured out most of the things we set out to talk about. (Finish that one so we can talk about it!) To my mind, actual play and the issues around it are maybe the most important things left to discuss, especially as they relate to the old school. Is it true that rules-light games are easier to hook new players with? If so, how can we do that best? What can our West Marches-style campaigns offer to busy adults who don’t have the extended playing time we used to, and how do we adapt to rules that seem to expect we still do? How do we encourage new players to take the initiative necessary for sandbox freedom, and overcome the mal-adaptive assumptions about play that experienced players bring with them?

At the end of the day, the interesting things about Zak S.’s blog aren’t that he plays with porn stars, but that those are often people who are new to the game. My favorite posts of his share his practical insights about introducing new PCs, discuss the managing human beings aspect of DMing, or give glimpses of how they roll in the rest of the world, where people have big dining room tables.

Our situation here in NYC may not be as sexy, but it’s still unusual to most everyone else. We have literally millions of potential players in our thirty-mile hex, but a dire shortage of Mom’s basements. Circumstances force us to be out and proud; let’s share what we’ve learned from that and get ideas about how we can improve our outreach.

And also – more eye candy.


Running a Con Game pt. 3: Blurbs

Time for more advice on GMing a RPG at a convention! In previous installments I talked about figuring out what you want to get out of it and coming up with titles for your events. This post will cover writing the blurbs that will describe your games in the convention’s program book.  I’ll use the ones I did for Anonycon as examples, and then try to extract some general guidelines for good blurb-writing – which will also start to cover advice about the content of the adventures you’ll run, since that’s what the blurbs describe.

First up is the blurb for Hidden Secrets of Tamoachan:

Your band of adventurers accidentally destroyed the world. So far, only you know that in a few days everyone on the planet will die horribly. Your hasty research into ancient lore suggests that an escape route may be found in the depths of the legendary pyramid of Tamoachan. Can you fight your way through a dungeon full of poison gas and the relics of ancient civilizations, or will you die a little ahead of everyone else?

NOTE: The story of this adventure is loosely connected to “Swords and Star-Tribes,” “Battlefield Oerth”, and “War for the Starship Warden.” Players are welcome to sign up for all of these events, or just enjoy this one on its own.

6 players, AD&D 1e. Characters will be provided. No rules knowledge necessary.

Start with a bang. A good blurb will catch the reader’s attention within the first sentence. It doesn’t have to be as literal a bang as the destruction of the world, but it should be surprising, exciting, and quickly get across the essence of  the game – in this case, high-powered, light-hearted wahoo adventure.

Offer a unique experience. A long-form RPG campaign allows for lots of things like character development and sandbox world-building that you can’t do in a convention game where you’ll only see the players for a handful of hours.  Your adventure should take advantage of the things you wouldn’t do in a regular campaign, like destroying the game world! Some of my favorite unique possibilities of a con game, like designing the pregen characters’ Vancian magic to exactly dovetail with the challenges of the adventure, or making their individual goals into a shaped charge set to self-destruct at the end of the session, can’t be advertised in a blurb without giving it away. But you can and should say right up front that the PCs are going to be rulers of warring magocracies , or waking up naked in prison, or whatever other scenario that would be awesome to play once but too difficult to manuever campaign PCs into or unwieldy to sustain in regular play.

Is this game part of a series? Most convention games are one-shot affairs.  If that’s not true and you’re running a multiple-round tournament or a series of tightly-linked games where it’s important that players who were in one session come back for another, be sure to let people know so they can schedule accordingly! Many cons will have a pull-down menu or something you can use to say “this is a tournament,” but it’s still a good idea to explain the details of what you expect in your blurb. The loosely linked series I describe in this note is something I haven’t tried before. The idea is to let people who like one event come back for more, without turning away people who can’t schedule them all (a problem that often keeps me from playing in tournaments). We’ll see how it works!

What do players need to play? Most cons will ask you to specify whether all levels of experience with the game system are welcome and if players need to bring anything, and some will ask whether it’s suitable for all ages. It’s a good idea to provide that info even if the con doesn’t ask for it, because players want to know if they qualify for an event and you want to have people show up who are ready to enjoy the game the way you want to play it. You generally don’t need to specify that players need dice, pencils, and paper (although you should bring extra of each just in case). Even if your blurb says that players should bring their own characters, it’s a good idea to have some pre-generated ones available. Personally I’d say that unless you’re playing a game where group interaction is necessary to the character-making process, your limited time at the convention is better spent on playing than making the PCs you’ll need to play. I have already self-administered the censure necessary for disagreeing with Gygax on this point. I also think that it’s better to run events that are open to newbies, because it’s fun and worthy, but you should be sure that you actually are ready to help people who don’t know what they’re doing & aren’t trying to achieve something like playing a mechanically complex system or a conceptually sophisticated scenario where inexpertise would be disruptive.

Next blurb, for Swords and Star-tribes:

You are the Captains of the Crossed Swords, and your might, mutations, and wits have conquered all the lands you know. But the hawkoids from the vent in the sky-vault tell of new conquests. You have long suspected that there are many other lands layered above and below. And you’ve heard heretics whisper that your world is truly a vast ship traveling from one ball of gas to another. But what does it mean that “the Warden has landed”?

Playing this game will let you be a... Part of the appeal of RPGs is trying out new and exciting roles, and one reason to go to conventions is to experience characters and situations you wouldn’t normally. A good blurb quickly gets across to the reader who they’d be if they played this game, and hopefully makes it sound appealing. For traditional party-based games, I like to get across the idea that the PCs will be part of a cohesive unit; it saves time at the table explaining “your guys have  already been on many adventures together.”  Company of the Crossed Swords isn’t all that attractive (I was stuck thinking of a party name and so stole one from the Glantri campaign ) but who doesn’t want to be a conqueror possessed of might, mutations, and wits? I like to flatter the players with blurbs of the “your awesomeness will crush stars under your heel” variety. However, James’ famous line “This is the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory” would also be a great blurb because it tells you right there who you’re going to be, and if it doesn’t sound like fun you’re probably not the player for that event!

End with a challenge!? The idea here is that the last sentence of the blurb is a personal call to action. Will your superior playing skills prevail, or will this infamous dungeon TPK another lot of pathetic losers? I dare you to preregister for this game and find out! Using all that dramatic punctuation is kind of a cheap trick, but I do it all the time anyway. Subtle refinement and RPGs don’t mix.

Next blurb,  Battlefield Oerth:

Your fellowship of heroes were the only ones to escape the hideous fate that befell your world. But do you have what it takes to survive an environment where metal walls talk and pigs can fly? In the spirit of D&D classics like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, in this adventure you’ll pit your swords and spells against robots and ray-guns. The future of more species than your own is yours to decide!

“It’s like Jaws, in space”. A blurb is like a high-concept movie pitch. You’re trying to sell someone on an unknown quantity. Pointing out how it’s like something they already know and love (e.g. Barrier Peaks) can help get your idea across. I think I used this technique for this blurb because I was insecure about how the fantasy/science fiction hybrid and wanted to point out its Gygaxian pedigree.

Highlight the cool. If your game has swords, spells, rockets, and rayguns, put that in the blurb! (Contrariwise, if the title of your event seems to promise something you won’t really deliver, this is your place to set people straight.) I’ve talked a lot about attracting players to your event, but ultimately you don’t want just any players. Getting the ones who’ll dig the kind of game you want to play also means repelling the ones who won’t. One accepted way to do this by specifying that players are required to have experience with the game system, because that way you can filter out the ones who don’t know yet that they won’t like the kinds of thing that system aims to deliver. Other than that, though, I think that if you try to use your blurb to describe the kinds of people who shouldn’t sign up for your event you’ll just look like an asshole. Highlighting the cool helps get the right players in both directions. The more I express my enthusiasm for mixing swords and rockets, the more people who think that’s lame will know not to sign up. If I don’t mention this central awesomeness, I’ll both fail to attract people who like that kind of thing and run the risk that some of the people who do show up will be dismayed when I spring it on them.

Last blurb, War for the Starship Warden:

Defend your home against invaders from Oerth! As long as you have charges left in your disruptor pistols, robots at your command, and the mental ability to drain energy from living organisms, the outsiders don’t stand a chance. This free-wheeling adventure uses the framework of the 4E rules to create a high energy mashup of the world’s first fantasy and science-fiction RPGs. Will it be you or your enemy who sets the next destination for the Warden?

Set the stakes. Even if they’ll only actually play in your world once, players want to feel that their actions will have lasting consequences. Unless you’re  in an organized play league like the RPGA, a one-shot convention game can’t provide the usual markers of change over time in a campaign like the steady accumulation of experience points (although I’m always surprised how often players nevertheless ask “How many XP did we get?” at the end of a con session). What it can offer is the freedom to set up a scenario where every outcome will involve dramatic sweeping changes that would totally screw up an ongoing campaign. One year at Princecon we were dealing with entire branches falling off the Tree of Life – although that’s maybe not the best example because the events of each Princecon do build on each other in a unique AFAIK kind of ongoing campaign stretching back to 1976, and I think next year the races that we failed to graft back on were no longer available as PCs.

Know what the action of your event will be. You’ll often write your blurbs before you actually put together the adventure they describe. This is Not Recommended! I didn’t really have it clear in my mind what would happen in this event when I wrote the blurb. I’d like to say that’s because I was avoiding having a foregone conclusion and letting the events of this one be shaped by player actions in the previous games in the series. In fact, I’m much more enthusiastic about having the GM lay rails to the action when it comes to convention games (although Zak provides good advice on how to do this in a sandbox style in this post at Playing D&D with Porn Stars). Really, I was just counting on procrastination to make me figure out what I was going to do right before the con, which may or may not yet happen in the four days remaining, and it kind of shows in this blurb.

Planning to run a convention game and want ideas for your blurb or feedback on the one you’ve drafted? Post in the comments and the Mule mass-mind will provide. It’d also be cool to have folks write blurbs for games they want to play in, instead of run; perhaps someone will take up that gauntlet!


How I Rebuilt My Sewer Temple to the Chaos Frog

Procedurally generated content is a great way to prep for a game session in a hurry. Early D&D is rife with procedural rules; the earliest rulesets contained wandering monster tables for generating opponents and treasure tables to determine what phat loots those monsters have. The 1e DMG goes even farther by presenting a set of tables for generating a random dungeon map!

Computers, of course, are great for speedily generating random content. Community-oriented players have put up all sorts of free web applications for DMs. One such is “donjon”, a program that generates dungeon levels to your specifications in the blink of an eye. Not only can you set the parameters for how the place should be laid out, you can populate the place with monsters and treasures as well.

Computer-generated procedural content is not without flaws, of course. One is its lack of flexibility. If you’re sketching a dungeon map by making random rolls on a table, you’re free to diverge from the table results and interject your own ideas while drawing the map. A computer-generated map is not so flexible. Nonetheless, you can make changes—if you have the right software.

Map of 'The Temple of the Frog' (original)It was the day before the session and one of the players had decided to bite on a plot hook involving a group of Chaos worshippers congregating in the sewers of Glantri City. After a desultory attempt at sketching a map for a section of the city’s sewers, I decided to try an online map generator. After several minutes of fiddling with donjon and learning its settings, I came up with the map on the left. Since I wanted a short dungeon (as per David Bowman’s “One Page Dungeon”), I’d made a map with only a handful of rooms, but they were encircled by lots of winding tunnels to give that “lost in the sewers” vibe. (Click for a better view.)

But I was unsatisfied with the map as it was. It was too flat, too static. It also needed connections to the rest of the sewer system. So I started up Adobe Photoshop and started tweaking.

Map of 'The Temple of the Frog' (modified)First, I filled in the sewer tunnels with gray to represent sewage. Several rooms and corridors remained white to indicate that they were above-water cellars, and I added stairway segments where they connected with the sewers proper. With only a few more water squares, I joined up some otherwise unconnected tunnels and provided links at the borders to the rest of the sewer network. The dark gray gridmarks in the sewer system’s dead ends indicate street access points via drainage gratings. Lastly, I added a couple of new rooms, including a large “sump” room (#7 on the modified map on the right) designed for a dynamic fight scene against Chaos-tainted frog monsters, with a walkway around the edge of the water and a treasure on the stump of a big broken support pillar in the center.

The whole mapping project took less than two hours from start to finish. Another one would go faster now that I’ve gotten a feel for how to go about it. I think, though, that my next map will be completely procedurally generated, as I’m looking forward to being stuck with a premade map and having to find a way to use it as-is. Limitations and restrictions are important for any creative endeavor!


the OTHER Old School Renaissance

There’s been a lot of talk about the literary antecedents of Dungeons & Dragons, and TV shows reflecting the eclectic design ethos of the early days.  But (to my knowledge) there’s been relatively little talk about that other medium influencing and reflecting early Dungeons & Dragons play: interactive fiction, a/k/a “text adventures” like Zork, Wishbringer and A Mind Forever Voyaging.

To make a long post somewhat shorter, here are two points I want to raise:

  1. Back in the day, these sorts of adventure games were about as good as CRPG’s got, and they were a significant part of the Geek-geist, at least among those of us who began playing D&D with the B/X or BECMI stuff of the early 1980’s.  I think the feedback between tabletop RPG’s and these sorts of zany adventure games–primitive gaming tech that nevertheless required you to “imagine the hell out of it” or face sadistic peril–isn’t sufficiently acknowledged in the Old School Renaissance.
  2. This may reveal my shameful ignorance, but interactive fiction has been subject to an Old School Renaissance of its own!  These guys are still going strong: 25 years after these sorts of games ceased to be commercially viable, there is a thriving interactive fiction fan & writing scene!  They’ve got several contests, guidelines for how to write this stuff, and many of them are trying their best to push the limits of the form.  Obviously they’re doing very well for themselves and don’t need validation from the likes of us, but I had no idea they even existed and am very pleased that they’re keeping the genre alive.

If you’re curious about interactive fiction, either because you are a young whippersnapper or, like me, weren’t paying attention for the last twenty years, here are some of the ones that get a lot of critical acclaim:

  • Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, by S. John Ross.  If you’re brand-new to this, like I am, this is a decent place to start as it’s based on an Old School Role-Playing Game (Encounter Critical).  The full version costs $9.95 but there’s a free demo.  This is perhaps the funniest game I’ve played in ages.  If you ever ask yourself, “What’s it like to play with the New York Red Boxers?” the tone of this game comes very, very close, particularly to Tavis’s White Sandbox shenanigans.  (My score is 457 points in 1724 turns.  I imagine others can do better–but I scoff at your efforts all the same, poltroon!)
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams – one of the classic titles from the heyday of IF, snazzed up in 2005 with graphics as part of a movie tie-in.
  • Anchorhead by Michael S. Gentry – a Cthulhu Mythos-inspired piece of interactive fiction.  Its appearance in 1998 seems to have reenergized the IF community.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches, by Jimmy Maher – an interactive fiction adaptation of a classic Call of Cthulhu module.
  • The Metamorphoses, by the prolific Emily Short, is a brief adventure game involving a wizard’s apprentice, notable for its evocative, dream-like imagery.
  • Galatea, another game by Emily Short, is more experimental: a very brief, dialogue-driven game with an exceptionally well-done NPC.

I’ve dabbled in these ever so slightly, but they’re every bit as retro, and as under-appreciated, as Old Timey RPG’s, and if you like one you might well enjoy the other.

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2009
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