Archive for October, 2010


Improv Techniques Made Art Gallery Gaming Awesome


Ghastly spaghetti-stuffed pinata visible over my left shoulder.


Allegra LaViola’s blog notaboutart has pictures from the OD&D Tower of Gygax adventure I ran at her gallery last Thursday, as well as from the opening of the Doomslangers show on Friday. I had a great time at both, although I did have to explain to my son:

Not every art gallery opening lets you roll a dice to see if you die or get to swing a wooden sword to chop limbs off a giant animatronic undead pinata. In fact, that will probably never happen again; your peak gallery experience happened at age 8, it’s all downhill from here.

Here is a post I promised Tim Hutchings about what DM tricks I used that I think made the adventure I ran fun:

Ask questions. After the game, head Doomslanger Casey Smith – player in this game, DM for their epic campaign that’d climaxed the night before (pics also on the notabout art link above) – mentioned this as a really noticeable part of my style. “At first it caught us by surprise – why are you asking us about what was in the room we just ran away from? But after getting over the initial hesitation, the creative juices really started flowing and it became really fun to be put on the spot and asked to invent stuff on the fly.”

Asking questions is one of the commandments that the fantastic indie game Apocalypse World gives to its MCs (aka GMs), but don’t be misled into thinking this means it’s some kind of hippie thing; it works spectacularly for red-blooded beer-and-pretzel RPGs as well. The most common questions I asked were: “Please describe what happens when you deliver the killing blow to your enemy” and “Please describe your horrible death.”

Say yes. To get the players’ creative juices flowing, there needs to be the implicit assurance that however they answer a question is not going to be wrong. Part of what makes this work is that you’ve already set the tone; the players are going to reach for references that draw from what’s been established in the game and/or their well of D&D lore. Part of it is that you only ask questions you won’t need to negate. “Describe how you kill it” is awesome because when you ask the question you’re announcing “this opponent is all out of hit points and I now relinquish control over its fate.”

A similar kind of question I asked a lot was to introduce new PCs when a players’ old one died: “You were teleported here when you mis-cast a very complicated spell. What was that spell trying to do?” Here again the question contains the information I need to establish as GM: you’re here now. What the character is leaving behind can be as wild as the player wants; there’s no risk in saying yes, and a big payoff in that the newly introduced character arrives with a spontaneously created narrative that gives them personality and verve.

Reincorporate. Not everything the players invent needs to become part of the fabric of the game, but as GM it’s fun and satisfying to draw from the pool of answers the players have just given you when you do your own improvisation. At the very beginning of the game Allegra decided that their characters were fleeing a giant snake, so when I needed a wandering monster here it was, an enormous serpent with a venomous bite and corrosive blood. Another player decided that the reason a god had cursed his new PC by teleporting him here was that he had accidentally let his pet pig befoul the god’s backyard shrine, so when I was narrating a miss in combat I decided that the charred corpse of the pig got underfoot.

Let the players be awesome. This may seem at odds with the fact that the death toll in this game was 100%. Tim Hutchings’ character was the only one to survive the final zombapocalypse; since we were out of time I had him roll a saving throw to see if he made it out of the dungeon alive, and the answer was “no”.

I think it’s easy for the players to feel like their alter-egos are icons of coolness when all is going well. Having things go wrong is an important part of the game, but it’s more fun if you use a little DM technique to frame it as fantastically wrong instead of just a simultaneously lame and boring whiff. So sometimes, when a player missed their dice roll and I felt they could use a little more spotlight time, I’d ask them to narrate the failure: “Okay, your character is obviously a great and competent warrior, so something unexpected must have happened for you to miss like that. What was it?”

Likewise, when characters died, I’d make it an event by:

  • asking the player of the dead PC “What are your dying words?”; even if these are usually “Aaargh!” it always drew a laugh from the table and reinforced the idea that death is an especially fun & vivid part of play
  • instructing players to “describe your horrible death”. This isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill slipping feebly into that good night; even if you were senselessly killed by a kobold, it will be a grisly senseless death worthy of an accursed hero (and as hammy an actor as you want to be)!
  • displaying my evident relish of killing the PC with a big grin on my face: this is fun for me at least, and in retrospect it’ll be memorable for you too, why not enjoy it now?
  • letting players roll up new characters as soon as they died and introduce them the next time it was that player’s turn so that losing a character didn’t mean missing out on the action

One of the nice things about letting the players narrate their own awesomeness, or at least the reasons that kept them from realizing their potential to be so, is that they’re better at hitting their own definition of awesome than you could ever be. When Tim’s character failed to make it out of the zombie-ridden dungeon, I would have said that he surrounded himself with a wall of dismembered corpses  until his protection from evil spell finally ran out and he died fighting. Tim’s narration was much better: “I grab the treasure and make for the exit, but on the way up the stairs I slip and accidentally crack my skull.”

P.S. At the opening the night after the game, I introduced my son: “Allegra, this is Javi; Javi, this is Allegra, I killed her cleric last night.” I wish to apologize for this grave injustice. In point of fact, her cleric died of willingly drinking from a poisoned fountain, a heroic sacrifice that proved to be the party’s (temporary) salvation.


Roleplaying Artifact Use in Gamma World


Artifact chart

Gamma World artifact chart C


One of the awesome things about the original Gamma World is its system for deciphering the function of technological artifacts. This is a super fun part of play in both Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha, although I find the simple percentage chance Ward used in MA much less compelling than the flowcharts Ward & Jaquet provide for GW (and Gygax picks up for the Barrier Peaks AD&D module).

Although the coolness of all these boxes, arrows, and skull and crossbones is self-evident, the first time I used it in play was underwhelming. I love the mini-games within old-school RPGs, but this one is akin to Candyland in its total lack of choice; you’re simply rolling a series of dice with no guidance as to what each die roll means, until eventually you either master the controls of the Ronco Inside-The-Shell Electric Egg Scrambler or accidentally detonate its nuclear power plant.

Candyland is well designed as a boardgame for families with young children because of its competitive aspect. Its reliance on pure chance instead of choice means all players are equally matched, preventing more-skilled players from having to choose whether to handicap themselves and let the kids win, and thus teaching the important lesson that victory and defeat are fun parts of the game for everyone. But the competitive aspect of the Gamma World charts is erratic at best. I didn’t know until reading this pleasingly advanced-math-heavy essay at the Acaeum that you were only allowed to make five rolls on the artifact chart per hour, and I think there’d be a limit on the number of times I could GM-engineer a situation where the players were racing against time to decipher an artifact before something excitingly bad happened.

The first time I used the artifact charts, I laid them out in full view of the players, placed a marker on their starting square, and asked them to roll to see where they went. As their marker traveled to different squares, I’d try to provide some description of what was happening and have them tell me what they were doing to make the next roll, but it wasn’t very convincing; the players could see that it was all just a big abstract mechanistic flowchart, not a complex situation in which their decisions & my responses mattered. Also, no one in this original group had a PC with an Intelligence score or a mutation that would make figuring it out more likely, so there was a lot of going around in circles: 7, you go nowhere; 9, you’re back where you started. This repetition tended to make a further mockery of my descriptions and attempts to make it seem like the PCs had choices.

Here’s what I did in the most recent session of the New York Red Box’s Gamma Jersey campaign that I thought was much more successful in making the process of deciphering a complex artifact (a MAGLEV train) fun and immersive.

I started with a description of the artifact, emphasizing the parts I thought the characters could interact with: “You see a window of transparent glass. Above and below this are two sloping panels of dark glass.” When the players decided to try to figure out how to control the train, I had them describe what their characters were doing – “oh, OK, I guess I’m touching the upper panel.”

So then I wrote upper panel and lower panel on a wipe-erase board. “Go ahead and roll a d10, modified by your Intelligence and mutations.” The result was a 3, so I wrote this next to an arrow leading off of the upper panel. “You find that the upper panel lights up for just a second when you touch it, and then goes dark again.” I wrote this at the end of the arrow from the upper panel.


The final state of the diagram I drew to track the progress of the players' narrative description of figuring out the train controls


“Hmm, what if I try holding my finger on it?”

“It stays lit as long as you’re touching it. You see lots of different-colored boxes with symbols on them.”

Another player: “I’m going to touch the lower panel.” (Rolls dice: 4.)

“It doesn’t do anything on its own, but eventually you figure out that if you’re already touching the upper panel, the lower panel will light up too.” I draw an arrow from the panel to the result of this action, along with the artifact deciphering score – both to show the players that this was the result of a pretty good roll, not a botch, and to help me reconstruct where they were on my Chart C in case my marker got knocked off or something.

At one point the players asked something I didn’t expect: “Are there any controls near the seats in the train cabin?”

“Sure,” I decided, “there are some switches on the base of the seat to the right.”

“Cool, I’ll try those.” (Resulting roll is a 1).

“You find that moving the switch forward moves the seat forward, and visa versa.”

“Awesome, I’ll make some more room for Cosmo.” (Cosmo is a six-meter tall mutant with eleven arms, which was handy for touching both panels at once while also playing with the seat controls.)

Their progress through the Chart C flowchart (shown in yellow) was remarkably direct – these are some smart mutants. I think that making this version visible to the players, as I did in my first Gamma World game as an adult, would have been a lot less interesting than the narrative chart I drew for them in my second.

Here is why I think this worked:

  • It was purely improvised; all I did to get started was to think about what a few possible ways of interacting with a futuristic train might be.
  • It was concrete; the players experienced it as a set of things their characters could interact with, and being able to visualize what they were doing was invaluable in improvising a narrative description of their progress through the abstract flowchart.
  • It had unexpected consequences; the flowchart basically boils down to success or failure, but the way we visualized the situation allowed for lots of other meaningful intermediate results. Activating the train’s recorded public announcement might have attracted a wandering monster, for example, and at one point they were worried that causing the train car doors might sever a limb of the seven-meter-tall mutants they had stuffed back there (as did happen earlier in the session with a less-forgiving shaft access door).
  • It was open to player creativity, as in the case of the seat controls. In an artifact with a less defined use, the decisions the players make as they interact with it might cause them to figure out a use that’s quite different than the one you had in mind: you think it’s a bicycle whose tires have crumbled away, but as they’re asking “can we slot a rope along the front rotating disk?” the results of their successful artifact use rolls might mean they wind up deciding it’s a spinning wheel or a pedal-driven winch.

Revised Simple Grappling Rules

Cyclopeatron has a post about simple grappling rules, which originally come from a K&K Alehouse post by Austin Jimm of the Contemptible Cube of Quazar blog and are themselves based on an example of combat by Gary Gygax in The Strategic Review Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 1975.  Here are Austin Jimm’s rules:

Any character, or group of characters, may attempt to grapple and subdue an opponent. This is accomplished by having the attacking character, or characters, roll a normal “to hit” roll against the target. The hit dice of all attackers who successfully hit the target is totaled, and a number of d6 equal to this total is rolled. The target must then roll a number of d6 equal to his own hit dice. If the attackers’ roll is greater than that of the defender, the target is considered pinned and may be disarmed, shackled, bound, knocked-out, or otherwise subdued. If the defender’s roll prevails, he has thrown off all of his attackers and they must spend one combat round recovering as if from a fumble. If the dice are tied, they are struggling, with the defender still on his feet, and another set of grappling rolls will be made on the next round. Any additional attackers who score a hit may add their dice to the roll.

My problem with this is that requiring a to-hit roll to start a grapple doesn’t make sense for my understandings of what armor class means. Wearing a lot of metal strapped to your body doesn’t make it harder for someone to get an arm bar on you. I don’t use Dex modifiers to AC (they give a saving throw vs. damage instead, and I don’t want to introduce that extra step of die rolling into this grappling procedure), and although “touch AC” seems like a reasonable idea and one which you can extract from various texts in AD&D pretty directly, I have seen the madness to which this leads.

I think that the rightful place of armor in a grapple is that, if you have lots of metal strapped to your own body, you don’t have to worry as much about getting cut while you’re trying to move inside your enemy’s reach and take away his sword. And, in a game where combatants are normally assumed to be able to deal potentially lethal blows at more than arm’s length, it seems to me that starting a grapple is better expressed as whether your foe can use his weapon to drive you back, not whether you can grab them.

Here, then, are my revised combat rules:

Any combatant, or group of combatants, may attempt to grapple and subdue an opponent. This is accomplished by having the defender roll a normal “to hit” roll against each of the attacking grapplers. The hit dice of all attackers who were not hit by the defender is totaled, and a number of d6 equal to this total is rolled. The target must then roll a number of d6 equal to his own hit dice. Strength bonuses or penalties, if any, are added to each d6 roll. If the attackers’ total is greater than that of the defender, the target is considered pinned and may be disarmed, shackled, bound, knocked-out, or otherwise subdued. If the defender’s total prevails, he throws off the grapple attempt and may roll damage against one of the attackers who were hit by his attack rolls in the initial step (or more than one, if he has the ability to damage multiple opponents in a normal round of attacks). If the attacker’s and defender’s dice are tied, they are struggling, with the defender still on his feet but unable to make normal melee attacks; another set of grappling rolls will be made on the next round, in which the defender does not have the ability to make to-hit rolls to prevent attackers from adding their hit dice to the grapple pool.

The consequence of failing a grapple here is that the defender gets to score a hit with his weapon (or more than one, if he has multiple attacks) on you as he throws you back. I like this better than the idea of being stunned for a round, which doesn’t have much precedent otherwise (can you throw someone to stun them in other situations?) and is hard to make sense of if a round subsumes many different events, esp. a minute-long round. If you succeed on the grapple, some of your allies may be held at bay by the defender’s weapon, but you manage to grab him before he can follow up on these feints and threats and make them actually damaging.

Here, for completeness, is the original example of combat from the Strategic Review:

Example: Ten Orcs surprise a lone Hero wandering lost in the dungeons, but the die check reveals they are 30‘ distant at the time of surprise, so they use their initiative to close to melee distance. lnitiative is now checked. The Hero scores a 3, plus 1 for his high dexterity, so it is counted 4. The Orcs score 6, and even a minus 1 for their lack of dexterity (optional) still allows them first attack.As they outnumber their opponent so heavily it is likely that they will try to overpower him rather than kill, so each hit they score will be counted asattempts to grapple the Hero:
– Armor of the Hero: Chainmail & Shield — AC 4.
– Score required to hit AC 4 — 15 (by monsters with 1 hit
– Only 5 Orcs can attack, as they haven‘t had time to
Assume the following dice scores for the Orcs attacks:
Orc #1 – 06; #2 – 10; #3 – 18; #4 – 20; #5 – 03.

Two of the Orcs have grappled the Hero, and if his score with 4 dice is less than their score with 2 dice (one each) he has been pinned helplessly. If it is a tie they are struggling, with the Hero still on his feet, but he will be unable to defend himself with his weapon. If the Hero scores higher than the Orcs use the positive difference to throw off his attackers, i.e. the Hero scores 15 and the Orcs scored but 8, so the Hero has tossed both aside, stunning them for 7 turns between them.


super awesome lets pretend time (pt 2)

I managed to clear my schedule this week to help Tavis with his after-school D&D program.  I guess this is Week 4?  (I probably shouldn’t call this Part 2, since it’s the fourth week, but hey.)

My job was to help one of this week’s Dungeon Masters with her prep, and to help her batch of kids stay focused.  Five things were noteworthy:

1.  Our first sandbox!

Although Tavis had observed several railroad adventures in Weeks 2 and 3, this time around we had our first sandbox dungeon.  “My” Dungeon Master RaQuel, with help from her dad, obtained one of those poster-sized battle maps used in 4e: a small town adjoining the ruins of a castle.  The Dungeon Master had prepared a little encounter in each building, which could be explored in any order.  The encounters were plausible, interesting, and (weakly) interconnected.  It was delightful to see.  (I think Tavis said her dad used to be a gamer, and she admitted he helped her a little; I’m curious how involved he was with the design.  But regardless, it was very well done.)

2.   Our first GMPC.

“Okay . . . So, this fire goblin jumps on your head!  He is eating your brain!”

“Ha ha ha, my brain…. my brain . . . . it’s so big, it’ll be a big meal!”

“Okay, so when the fire goblin is eating your brain, he becomes good.  He’s a good guy now.  He is your slave because of your brain.  He is like, ‘Yes master!’ because your brain is so strong.”

(a round later)

“The fire goblin turns into a boulder.  [Places wad of tinfoil on the map.]  It’s a boulder made of tinfoil.  With eyes in it.  And the tinfoil is like really good armor.”

(a round later)

“Okay, you could run to the tower, but the Fire Tinfoil Goblin says, ‘Master, jump on me, I’ll roll there, I’m faster.’  Okay, so do you jump on him to roll there?”

(a round later)

“The prisoner won’t leave without his parakeet, but the parakeet wants food.  There’s a peanut in the tinfoil goblin!  It says, ‘Master, I have the food.  If you want it.’  Do you want it?”

3.  You Will Never Guess What Victor Did!!

The Dungeon Master wrote on the map “Adohna’s Chest!”  But then Victor wrote down “MAdonhna’s Chest” and we opened it!  Hee hee hee!

(This was, to the 8 year old boys, indescribably hilarious.  They hero-worship the 12-year-old boys like Victor.)

4.  Elementary School Teachers are Vastly Under-Appreciated

Spending 80 minutes supervising 5 little kids and getting them to focus on something is hard work.  Oh man.  One kid was literally bouncing off the walls, doing flips over the sofa, doing weird postures that would break his neck if any other rambunctious child bumped into him.  (As a lawyer, I look at this child and see FUTURE PERSONAL INJURY PLAINTIFF written on his forehead.)

I don’t know how teachers handle 30 of these little dudes.  I leave the classroom and want a belt of rum just to steady my nerves.

5.  These Kids Like D&D

Leaving the session, I asked Joan (one of the other Dungeon Masters), “So, hey, is this stuff fun?”  And Joan responded, “Yes!  It’s my favorite game, even more than chess!”  Which made me feel really happy.


Blackmoor Dungeons: What Mapping is Good For

Last week, Bob (who I am fortunate to know from the awesome Cyclopeatron blog and the equally awesome So Cal Mini Con) wrote me to ask:

I think I recall in one of your blog posts or comments you mentioned having run First Fantasy Campaign. I am struggling to understand how to make this dungeon fun – on the surface it looks like a horribly tedious nightmare maze. I can’t comprehend how players could stay interested in mapping and exploring a complex maze dungeon like this, especially if they’re mapping off of verbal descriptions.

The quick answer for how I made mapping non-tedious was that I bypassed verbal descriptions as much as possible by drawing the parts of the dungeon visible to the party on a wipe-erase TacTile. The party’s mapper then just had to copy my sketch and add it to their own map. I had graph paper available for each of my Blackmoor runs at Gen Con, and offered it to the players along with the suggestion that they designate someone to keep the map. Early on, one group said “we don’t need to map, he’s drawing it for us” and I was like “yeah but I’ll erase it as soon as you go off the edge of this tile…”

The first time I ran Blackmoor Dungeons was at the Arneson gameday I blogged about here. These players did a moderate amount of exploring, but the group included a number of players from the NY Red Box crew so we had a pretty smooth understanding of how to negotiate mapping together. I find that having worked out these procedures makes it much easier. When I tried to map El Raja Key at GaryCon II I had a hell of a time because I wasn’t used to the way that Rob Kuntz counted from the square we were in when he called out descriptions; I wound up getting a lot of help from Luke Gygax sitting next to me, because he was accustomed to Rob’s way of doing things.

Both groups that I ran at Gen Con this year wound up going down by instinct as soon as they realized that moving laterally tended to lead to many branching corridors and rooms that were often empty. I found this to have a cool psychological effect – all the odd angles created a sense of being somewhere strange and unsettling, and the tension grew with each time they entered a room and found nothing: when would the shoe drop? The tendency to make downward progress led to the party taking on encounters beyond their weight class with memorable and exciting results. I much preferred this to the urge to clear out everything on a level that you get when said level spoonfeeds you a steady drip of challenges and rewards, laid out in a neatly comprehensible way so that all you need to do to get out is follow the trail of enemy dead from one room to the next.

My first Gen Con group, the second expedition I witnessed, didn’t ever really need a player map. Their 1st through 4th level adventurers got into two encounters in the basement right after entering the dungeons, then hit the Orcian Way and wound up dining at a banquet held by two balrogs on the tenth level! There was no chance they’d fight these guys, backed up as they were by dozens of wights and a small army of orcs, so instead they convinced the balrogs to send the party after Sir Fang, who they killed. Their experience this party had was more like a modern lair dungeon – go in, get quest, fight boss battle – and although this result was wholly surprising to me, it shows that you could set up a conventional scenario within a nightmare maze megadungeon. Doing so would combine the advantages of new-school adventure design, like a focused goal and encounters pre-planned to be exciting, thematic, and meaningful, with the old-school benefits of massive freedom to go off the rails in interesting ways and the utterly convincing evocation of a dungeon environment that’s much too huge and inimical to care about your personal goals.

It was the second Gen Con group, my third overall, who showed what player mapping is really good for. First they figured out that lateral stuff was challenging, so they adopted an always-turn-left rule. Then they found that lots of rooms were empty(which I improv’d as being pirate quarters currently with no one home) and started looking for down stairs. At one point they found an apparently room with nothing but a little treasure, which I improv’d was the gilding on a weirdly carved gnollish floor covered in offal and maggots; this spooked them so much that they left it alone. Then
they realized that there were fewer down stairs than ones going up, and used their player map to contemplate where they might be if they went up.

The tension mounted with each time they went down and still found no encounters to tell them whether they were on a level whose denizens were way too tough for them. Then they found an unkeyed room with “ghost room” written on the map, which I improv’d in a creepy way. Then they encountered three high-level M-Us, developed a tactical plan to surprise them, and got away with it – gaining literally a ton of gold and ten tons of silver. So now they’re six levels deep, as burdened as they possibly can be, and with half an hour left in the session they’re hoping to get back to the surface intact.

What ensues is an enormously enjoyable process of mutual map consultation. They’re using their player map to tell me which way they’re going to get back. I’m following their progress on my DM map, watching to see if they take a wrong turn, and counting squares to see when I next get to check for a wandering monster. I roll these in the open, so there’s a collective cry of relief each time I don’t roll a 1. The players also cheer each time they work with the mapper to tell me which way they’re going and I begrudgingly acknowledge yes, you’re in an area you’ve seen before. When they successfully used their map to re-emerge into daylight, there was a tremendous sense of

There was also a real sense of discovery – I had no idea from looking at the Blackmoor Dungeon maps that this is how it’d play out, and there were lots of emergent properties that were deeply surprising and fun for both me and the players.  Even the guys in the third group, who had lots of dungeoneering savvy like the left-hand rule, I don’t think had any
more experience with this kind of super-old-school nightmare maze. The very bare-bones key was also real satisfying for improvisation – I drew information onto the map (monsters, treasure) like I was talking about in this post, so it was very fast and free-flowing.

I had so much fun with Blackmoor Dungeons that I’m planning to run it again at Gen Con, perhaps as a pair of continuous 12-hour delves with players dropping in and out. I will eventually post maps of the areas players have visited before: presumably they have supplemented their loot by selling these maps to other would-be adventurers!


Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve just finished working on a grant for my day job which would create a program for training emergency medicine physicians to do clinical research. One thing this means is I’ll have more time for posting. Another is that my head is full of phrases from the bureaucratese you use to communicate with the National Institutes of Health.

NIH policy says that any time you want them to give you money for a research training program, you have to demonstrate that it will include instruction in the responsible conduct of research. This means that one of the things you’re required to teach is ethics, or why you shouldn’t intentionally infect Guatemalan prisoners with venereal disease.

Last night, as we were preparing for the third Dungeons & Dragons afterschool class, James and I decided that it was time for some instruction in the ethics of roleplaying games. We decided to go about it by breaking up the kids into discussion groups before we get down to playing.

The first thing we’ll do is to have the kids talk about a time that their character made a mistake, and what happened as a result. After everyone’s answered, we’ll ask: Did you have fun when that happened?

If the consensus is yes, making mistakes is as fun as succeeding because it makes exciting and unexpected things happen, we’ll move on to the message: Since making mistakes is part of the fun, you don’t have to listen when someone else tells you what your character should do. There’s no right way that they know and you don’t; it’s all about making your own decisions and enjoying the consequences.

For the second discussion, we’ll switch from talking about the game to talking about real life. Here’s a list of things that have happened to everyone; talk about one time it happened to you.

  • You were excluded; other people went off and did something in secret, intentionally keeping you out of it.
  • You made a mistake and other people yelled at you and tried to make you feel stupid.
  • You were put down; someone acted like they were better, smarter, more powerful than you.
  • You were robbed; someone cheated you out of something you had, or the share you deserved.
  • You were attacked; someone used words or violence to try to hurt you.

The message here is that it feels bad when these things happen in real life. D&D is not real life, but it still feels bad when someone treats you badly. Playing a role-playing game is a way to have fun with your friends; treating one another badly makes it less fun for everyone.

The last idea I’ve had is that I don’t have a lot of control over who these kids are. Everything that some young boys do is going to become an acting-out of their pecking order and its internal struggles for dominance over one another. Some boys are going to be attracted to D&D because quantifying the abilities of their alter ego gives them a tool in this struggle: I’m better than you because my character can beat up your character, thanks to this 18 ability score I “rolled” or the optimized choices I made.

What I do have some control over is what characters the kids play. The world of D&D is a dangerous place; in order to survive long enough to become a hero, your character had to become a trustworthy team player. Trying to enforce pro-social behavior will drive me nuts; encouraging the roleplaying of a pro-social character is what the game is all about.


Dungeon Drawings & Character Sheets in NYC Art Galleries

This is an awesome time to be in and around New York if you’re interested in the intersection of roleplaying games and the art world. If you’re not interested in this it’s because you didn’t know it existed; I dare you to check out the parts of that interesection that are coming into local galleries and find it un-interesting.

Happening right now is Mat Brinkman’s show PHANTASMAGORIA at the Hole, 104 Greene St., until Oct. 23rd.


image by Mat Brinkman from the Hole gallery website


The exhibition press release promises “an advance previewing of selected work by various artists from a yet to be released Necro~Demonic Dungeon~Crawl~Warfare Boardgame. What will this be like? We don’t know.” I suspect, however, that the number of people who go to art galleries & know what a dungeon crawl is like is both large and growing.

I missed the opening to this, but Todd L. reports:

All I knew about Mat Brinkman– before today– was the comics I had seen in Kramer’s Ergot. I didn’t know if his dungeon-y imagery was hipster-retro-slumming, or heartfelt. After today’s rush to hang the art & the subsequent arrival of the crowd– we had time to converse, and I am pleased to report that the artists are genuine gaming-friends.  Of the game topics we discussed, my favorite moment was when one of the collaborators mentioned “Rifts”. Now there’s something that would blow the art world’s mind.

Opening tomorrow from 6-8 pm is Zak Smith‘s A Show About Nothing, at Fredericks & Freiser, 536 West 24th Street. It runs until Nov. 6, 2010.


The show’s press release doesn’t mention gaming, and Zak’s RPG projects (D&D With Porn Stars, I Hit It With My Axe) are rarely mentioned alongside his art-world ones (Illustrations for Each Page of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pictures of Girls, We Did Porn). So I wrote to him to make sure it was OK to mention his exhibition in this context, saying “I’m tempted to do so because I feel like the convergence of art, gaming, and NYC right now is remarkable, but I respect whatever degree of separation you want to maintain.” Zak responded:

Go ahead, I mean, I think the fact that half the decent artists working today know what a beholder is as relevant as the fact that half the artists in Beckmann’s time painted Pierrot. One of the
pieces is a drawing of big dungeon.

Opening October 22nd from 6-9 pm is Doomslangers: A Project by Casey Jex Smith, at Allegra LaViola on 179 E. Broadway until December 3rd.


Casey Jex Smith, "Davroar Arboshare", 2010, from the Allegra LaViola website


The gallery website has a little info and a list of participating artists:

The game of Doomslangers will commence Wednesday, October 20. You are invited to watch the players and receive a free character card in the subsequent two days. The game will finish with a performance and opening ceremony on Friday, October 22, 6-9PM.Ryan Browning
Jared Clark
Chris Coy
Tyrone Davies
Daniel Everett
Timothy Hutchings
Allan Ludwig
Gian Pierotti
Casey Jex Smith

ArtSlant has more, including an interesting description of what D&D is about:

The exhibition includes drawing, painting, installation, performance, video and sculpture all related to the group Doomslangers, and their Dungeons and Dragons adventure to protect the city of Dingershare, root out evil, and make sure the Silver Noni Fruit does not fall into the hands of Lord Ricaek. Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game that allows players to immerse a created character into a fantasy world of fighting, magic and adventure. A Dungeon Master moderates the player experience and creates the story line to which the players react to using dice rolls, statistics and structured yet free-form system of play that is derived from miniature war games. The original game was published in 1974 and created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Over the last 5 months, these eight artists have been invited by Casey Jex Smith to play this D&D campaign from various parts of the country using videochat and in turn, make art that reacts to their experience. As the artists negotiate the day-to-day realities of an adult “responsible” life in the real world, the need for a community in which they can participate becomes stronger. The ability to communicate and play the game over the Internet frees the participants to live how, and where, they like while still offering a defined structure to create narrative, meaning, magical weapons, and monsters that hoard treasure.

During the first 3 days of the exhibition, visitors to the gallery can create a free, personalized character sheet that allows them to begin playing D&D. On Wednesday, 20th October the Doomslangers will finish their 5 month long campaign in the Gallery basement. The next day, NYC resident Tavis Allison will be the Dungeon Master in a campaign that visitors can participate in. For the opening on Friday, 22nd October visitors are invited to come dressed as their favorite D&D character or monster, participate in the final battle against Lord Ricaek, drink heal and mana potions, and hear music by acclaimed bard, Lark Dreambow. Beholders are welcome.

So yeah, on Thursday the 21st, I’ll be running a D&D game in the basement of an art gallery in Manhattan. I’ll be trying out some of the ideas for how to engage players walking in from the art world with moldy or non-existent experience of RPGs that I developed from doing the D&D installment of Ryan McGinness’ 50 Parties, and drawing on my experience as a Tower of Gygax GM where handing out death ribbons and maintaining a high player flow-through rate is part of the step-right-up carnival fun.

The artist bios at Artslant also have some interesting info that speak to the ways that art and gaming interface as well as the tensions around how the borders around each world are maintained:

Timothy Hutchings is a gamer and visual artist who often betrays the viewers’ sympathies and trust while delving into the history of film, minimal aesthetics, and chance based conflict resolution.

Ryan Browning combines elements of the traditional Romantic landscape, formal abstraction, and the simplified forms of digital representation to investigate a possible mythology where the virtual and the real are forced to evolve a new and sublime natural order.

Chris Coy works with the activities and escapist strategies of the suburban (usually white and often teenage) male.

Casey Jex Smith addresses personal identity in finding meaning between three seemingly disparate worlds: religion, sci-fi/fantasy and “high-art”.

Om Saturday, November 6th, at 6:00 pm, Allegra LaViola will be hosting a panel in which I’ll moderate a conversation between the artists I’ve hyperlinked above, plus Chris Hagerty (aka Greengoat on the New York Red Box & nerdNYC forums) and whoever else we can round up, will be discussing something along the lines of this blurb I wrote up:

Art and games are both forms of ritualized human creativity. When Marcel Duchamp  gave up the former to pursue the latter, he famously said “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” The interface between art and games is especially provocative for many artists whose imaginations were shaped by the 1974 publication of Dungeons & Dragons and the  uniquely free-form and collaborative genre of role-playing games that it inspired. This panel brings together studio artists and role-playing theorists to explore the ways in which making art is like and unlike playing a role within a game.

I’ll post more about this, and the email discussions that led up to it, as the date draws nearer. One thing that still isn’t really decided is whether or not we really will try to have “role-playing theorists” on the panel; I just stuck that in there to justify having myself be a part of it so I could ask the questions I want to learn about without having to wait to raise my hand, and throw stuff into the mix without trying to pass it off as a question.

On the one hand, I’m reading The Fantasy Roleplaying Game: A New Performance Art (courtesy of a birthday gift certificate from one of the White Sandbox players: thanks!). It’s got lots of interesting stuff that gives an actual informed perspective to the things I’ve been saying for a while now about how the part of RPGs that got commercialized are sheet music, which is ultimately frustrating because what we’re doing is a jam session. Brooks McNamara, who wrote the foreword, is a New Yorker but unfortunately a deceased one; the book also frequently cites Nicholas Fortugno,  whose assignment at Parsons led some players to drop into New York Red Box.

On the other hand, trying to explore this performance art perspective, which I’m just beginning to assimilate, might derail the opportunity to have a really interesting conversation with a lot of awesome visual artists who we’ll have a rare opportunity to get together on Nov. 6 and pursue the perspective that’s been brewing in our email conversation for months.

Feel free to comment on that, dear reader;  there’s still time to work it out. The immediate action item is Zak’s opening tomorrow night!


A Call for Better Dungeon Presentation

Over at the OD&D boards, a thread on determining the key texts for a graduate-level dungeon design syllabus inspired me to think about how to design a better dungeon for people other than yourself to use.

My experience running the original dungeon – 1971’s Blackmoor Dungeon – convinced me that, for the kind of dungeoneering experience I like these days, there’s not a lot of room for improvement in terms of content (and what there is was largely taken care of by 1979, when Paul Jaquays designed Lost Caverns of Thracia).

However, I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of presentation. No dungeon is as great on paper as it is in the designer’s mind, but I think that the degradation from the author’s mind to the DM-user’s doesn’t need to be as great as it currently is. In the case of Blackmoor Dungeons, Arneson’s intro in First Fantasy Campaign makes it clear that a lot of information got lost in the process of preparing the maps for publication; he says, for example, that he knew where secret doors were by the width of the line he drew, and had to go back and mark them more clearly for the cartographer. Trying to play the dungeons as published demonstrates that even more information was lost. Arneson also knew from deep familiarity which staircases drawn on level n connect to which staircases drawn on n-1, n+1, etc. When I’ve overlaid the maps to understand their spatial relationship, it seems evident to me that the annotations on the published map are a lot less reliable.

I think that the art of conveying information in published RPG adventures is not only primitive, it’s even less sophisticated than the maps that DMs instinctually construct for themselves. In part, this is because of the constraints of publishing: Rob Kuntz’s original map for Bottle City uses color extensively, which would have been cost-prohibitive even for TSR at the time. However, there are numerous ways of presenting information that DMs do for themselves but I’ve never seen in a published module. Because Stefan Pokorny is a visual kind of guy and I’m not, seeing his homemade maps from the ’80s was the first thing that really opened my eyes to the possibilities here. Since those are sadly not widely available, many great examples can be found in Stephan Poag‘s Mines of Khunmar (PDF):

Here’s a quick summary of some of the things this map tells you that you might need to know in play:

– Which way do the doors open?

– Where do those stairs lead?

– What is the base chance of finding that secret door? (1 in 6; this is the 1/6 in the hexagon)

– What is the most important thing you should know about the contents of each room? This is useful not just to jog your memory or give you something to tell the players to buy time as you look the room number up in the module key. It’s essential to have this info on the map because that’s where you need to go for a lot of the other spatial decisions involved in refereeing the dungeon. Are there monsters in range to hear the noise the characters are making? Does a detect magic pick up anything in a nearby room?

Here, the map gives us some extra 3-D information: how high up are the ledges, where does the pit go, how far down is the chasm?

Like telling you what monsters are there, the reporting of treasure is also very game-useful for rods of treasure detection and the like.

And noting that a dungeon element is present, but may not be visible to the players, is a basic courtesy of cartography that would have prevented any number of “oops” moments in my experience of looking at a published map and using it to describe what the adventurers see.

Does anyone know of published modules that have this level of useful cartography? Or other examples of homemade maps that provide enhanced experiences over polished professional ones?

I think Telecanter’s ideas about making mapping easy by presenting info on maps are a great step in the right direction!

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2010

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