Archive for December, 2010

25
Dec
10

Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 6

So, this is my final part of a series of posts on creating a regional sandbox map. In brief, we have been using random (or even, dare I say, subconscious) systems of mapping and encounter planning to supply broad strokes of our campaign region. After this first step we have been thinking through the features that appear and fleshing them out with an eye on the narrative potential of the results.  Essentially, if you roll it on the Judges Guild tables, you have to explain it somehow in the fiction of play, across a whole region the size of New York State.

At this point in the process, most of the divining and reading of the oracles is finished. We have our hex-map that has formed a core of detail around where the players have been placed in the start of the campaign. There are still many other encounters on the map that are broadly painted and ready to be fleshed out as needed when the players approach, but for now we have all the pieces that are necessary for several weeks of table play, possibly months. The only thing that is missing is a map of the region that the players might acquire in a dungeon haul or civilized area, a map made within the fiction you might say.

I always pictured my campaign for this map as a place where the players would be plopped into the landscape via a magical portal. Once they found a city they could obtain a loose map of the area but they would have no prior knowledge of the lay of the land beforehand, thereby emphasizing the hex-crawling and exploration elements.

So I made this map as a something they could buy from behind a bar at an inn, something accurate for medieval-style knowledge but not quite accurate on scales or distances. (click to zoom in)

Two things are readily apparent on close inspection: I have a trouble with good place-names and my calligraphy is not up to snuff. I wanted to just bang out the map so some of the crudeness is intentional for the sake of speed, but also notice what a difference a bit of color makes. Instead of drawing a map in pencil, giving it to the players across the table and telling them “you receive this crudely painted map”, I can now just hand them a crudely painted map. It’s not professional fantasy cartography, but the feel and saturation of real painted paper is hard to beat for a game prop.

(In defense of my naming of places, most of the village names were generated in the Judges Guild Villages Book. Dolecherry and Silent Diamond are weird but they do make my Sleeping Giant Hills sound quaint/hackneyed.)

The obvious difference is that I have excluded any map reference to ruin or lair entrances as that would take the player exploration/tracking accomplishments away from them. I suppose it is reasonable to place those on your player map depending on your campaign style but I would prefer that my player’s get there by tracking down rumors and chasing trouble.

The physical steps for creating the map are pretty simple and favor the visually-skilled DM but well within anybody’s effort.

  1. Take a thick sheet of watercolor paper and pencil in the locations of all the major features of your chosen map region taking into account the roads, rivers, and position of forests and mountains. You don’t need to draw in each mountain and tree, but you should outline the regions where they go. This is where you can get all odd with your distances to reflect the quasi-medieval sense of travel and distance. Emphasize the position of the larger cities and the close villages, the cartographic artists probably never left town anyway. Organize the shapes as something that is pleasing as an image and not really accurate to “life”.
  2. Take a black pen, I recommend a technical marker like a pigma or rapidograph, and practice making some uniform symbols for each of the terrain features that will be in your map. Notice how some of my mountains or hills look crappier than others? That is because I did not practice enough and was adjusting my style as I drew on the map.
  3. Draw in your symbols and features, paying close attention to the placement of your rivers, villages, castles, and cities. For example, make your expertly crafted city symbols first and then connect them with roads afterwords. Keep a look out for river crossings and mountain passes too.
  4. Double the black outline on large or important feature like big volcanoes or skull-shaped mountain edifices.
  5. Erase all the pencil marks off the page with a white vinyl eraser, the blank ink should all stay put.
  6. Now the fun part, get out your watercolor kit and mix up some nice greens, ochres, grays and blues to color in your nice ink drawing. Watercolor is it’s own beast. It is literally the hardest painting technique to learn (seriously, even fresco allows you to paint over). But the whole point is to have fun. My advice is to paint with the tip of the brush hairs for the details, use a napkin to knock excess water off the brush, and try painting into pre-wetted area of the paper to see the color bloom out.
  7. Let your map dry thoroughly for a bit and then place your painting under a stack of heavy books. (where will you get those oh gamer?) You can glue a little map-maker’s seal or a written legend in a empty area of the map.
  8. Give the map to the players at the table and watch them crudely mark it up as they explore and get cheeto dust all over the fine elven woodlands.

Thanks for tuning into this little series of posts and I hope you have some fun making and playing on your maps soon.

21
Dec
10

How awesome is your fighting man?

The image of the super-hero cutting a swath of destruction and mayhem through a troop of goblins is a key D&D trope. But how to simulate an overpowering attack in the confines of abstract combat rounds? The increasing “to hit” ability of the fighting-man (paired with better saves) captures the hero’s increasing prowess. But simulating combat vs. multiple enemies requires an additional mechanic – hopefully one that lets players be awesome(1). Otherwise a 10th level fighter takes eight rounds to slay eight goblins every time, and that is not awesome.

AD&D addresses this in two ways. Fighters get multiple attacks as the gain levels, and versus enemies of less than one hit dice they get an additional attack each round per level. This allows a lord to indeed put down eight goblins in a round or two.

Another more random possibility: a variation on Zak’s kung-fu points, where hitting your number could mean, for instance, that damage you do in that round applies to all enemies within melee range.

A third approach is seen in Empire of the Petal Throne. Once a hit has been determined in EPT, the damage (number of dice rolled to determine damage) in part depends upon the relative level of the combatants, so:

Why, yes, I am level "Vee Eye Eye Eye"

The example included in the rules extends the possibilities: damage can be applied across multiple enemies. The example is worth quoting, since it is open to multiple interpretations:

This becomes important in melees in which an advanced level character fights more than one low-level opponent. Fighting three Kurgha (one die creatures), a 9th level warrior rolls four dice. If he scores a total of 18 or better, he kills them all, since thier maximum total hit dice cannot exceed 18 points. A 4th level fighter does 2 dice damage to these same creatures, and the referree then rolls to determine the hit dice the three kurgha can take: let us say a 6, a 4, and a 2, totalling 12. If the fighter scored a total of 10 on his two dice, he would kill the weakest two Kurgha and leave the strongest one with only 2 points remaining!

How this works in mixed-level opponent situations is left as an exercise for the reader. One fallout of this system – any 10 hit die creature could in theory slay a group of 1st level players in one round with the swipe of a claw…

Do you have an alternate or favorite way to allow fighting-men characters to be awesome? Feel it is unnecessary? Please add in comments!

(1) ”Awesome” here is a shortcut for “engaging play” – awesome could be spearing two orcs at once, an epic fumble, or whatever fun and unexpected thing the dice and situation dictate, as long as it captures the attention and imagination of the players at the table.

21
Dec
10

Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 5

This is the fifth installment in my series of posts on making a sandbox-style region map using automatic drawing methods and vintage Judges Guild random tables. We have gone through these steps so far:

  1. Create a nebulous outline of a continent map with scribbles and loose pencil drawing.
  2. Use a cheap watercolor kit to randomly splatter our map with terrain colors and then paint in all remaining white paper with chosen color areas.
  3. Make a high resolution scan of our loose painting and zoom in on a region to map.
  4. Use free graphics software to place a hex grid on our chosen map region.
  5. Use old Judges Guild random tables and maybe a computer script to roll our encounters for each hex and determine if they are a Village, Castle, Ravaged Ruin, or Lurid Lair.
  6. Draw in loose roads to connect villages and castles with compatible alignments.
  7. Start to think of the narrative reasons for differences in alignment and race between populated areas.

What we have so far is a map like this:

We have come to a loose understanding of an adventuring region of about the size of New York State or just shy of the surface of Oregon. We know where the major attractions and mysteries lay. We know which ones are bad/chaotic and which ones are good/lawful. We don’t have their names or their specific details, but these can be rolled up on the fly as the PCs travel  through the land. What we really need is a solid chunk of tight territory with more information that can serve as a home-base region for a new campaign.

I am in some old red-box style campaigns that have stretched for multiple years of play and I don’t think we ever got the itch to strike out overland, long distance, all at one go. It is always a gradual expansion of known territory. Maybe the big sweeping exploration is for level seven and higher, where you can fend off the frightening probability of OD&D wandering dragons,  but I know that a “Keep on the Borderlands” or “Nentir Vale” size area is a good starting point for a beginning campaign.

The time has come for us to draw in some hard features on a hex by hex basis. We need to name our places, determine our inhabitants, and find their relationships to drive the interests of our players that stalk the six-sided wilderness.

For this next step, we need to use our digital wizardry to zoom in even more. I picked a likely spot, as shown by the red outline above, and cropped down. Like my first printed region map that I used to mark encounters on before, I made a letter-sized inkjet print of my image. The numbered hexes are still in place from when I overlaid the main region map. I clipped a piece of clear acetate over the print-out and used a technical pen to doodle in my features. You can draw directly on the printout if you desire, I just drew on the transparencies so I could scan the doodles in again and layer it cleanly over my map in my graphics program. At this point you could even remake the entire map using your own digital cartography brushes in GIMP or other mapping programs of your choice. But, as you can probably tell, I like the touch of the hand so I went at it and came up with this:

The first thing that I did was to consult my main region map and find out where my encounters were. I made up a consistent little map symbol for Castles with a little tower , Lairs with a little cave, Ruins with some crumbling structure, and Village hexes had some square dots that seem to indicate a building plan. I admit that the villages look a little unclear but I was trying to ape the B&W cartography of the Wilderlands Of High Fantasy Maps and failed. I like my little towered city better in the center.

After the main encounter symbols went down, I connected villages and some castles with road systems represented by dashed lines. I tried to imagine the paths of least resistance while traveling through the splotchy terrain and then also started to put rivers, mountains, and forests in where I thought the color of the paper demanded it. Notice how I put a high pointy mountain symbol on all the dark gray watercolor spots and then the smaller hill features around the other rough spots. In the process, I saw a yellow patch of  earth on the south-east corner of the map and decided that some hills would form a rain-shadow over an arid section of the region. I guess I have some rudimentary weather patterns now.

The rivers should be placed so they are always flowing downhill in some manner, so I usually started them in mountains or hills and had them flow through or by villages on their way to the ocean. Creating the roads first reminds you to draw in a bridge or a ford in the waterways when you need to. It is better to put the information on the map so you won’t forget about it later. I made a shadowy outline of the forest and decided it would represent a real thick wood. There would be trees and sparse copses in many hexes but I wanted the big green spots to be unbroken forests. All the blank hexes would be either plains, or scrub, or grasslands, or gentle hills. I guess I could also come up with symbols for those hex types but I liked the effect of the color popping through the map.

So there, I had my complete home-base region all mapped out. All I needed to do now was make a dungeon or three, name some villages and inhabitants, figure out who occupied the ruins, castles, and lairs and then create some relationship maps to goad the PCs into investigation or activity. (Village A is bothered by lair B, castle C is guarding ruin D, etc.)

The drawing and symbols are not all consistent or neat, but I was doodling directly without practicing much so I think it came out alright considering. The information that the map contains is what is important. You shouldn’t have to worry about how your map looks unless your players are going to see it, like a handout map.

So tune in for the sixth and final part of my sandbox mapping posts… the Player Handout Map.

21
Dec
10

Casino Dice & Regional Variations in Old-Schoolers

casino dice picture

In a gambling casino, the dice are extra large red celluloid cubes… Dice – said to have been invented by Palamedes who taught the game to his countrymen during the siege of Troy – are the oldest known objects men have used for the purpose of gambling. They have been excavated from cities dating back to 1000 B.C.: made of ivory, knucklebones of sheep, carved from stone or metal. Pagan priests used them when they wished to ask the advice of their gods. The answer to any burning question of the hour lay in the way the numbers came up. There are men today who put that same trust in the extra large red celluloid cubes.

-No House Limit, Steve Fisher (Hard Case Crime)

I’ve recently been grooving on the Hard Case Crime series. Their reprints of pulp noir novels are exactly where my reading tastes are at right now, and (gaming relevance approaching) Lester Dent’s Honey In His Mouth is so good that I think it may be worth seeking out his Doc Savage books, for those of you who like your D&D cast in the mold of two-fisted pulp action rather than a heist caper. The cover of No House Limit, plus the above passage on dice, reminded me that I wanted to talk about some observations I made at So Cal Mini Con III.

WordPress informs me that this initial reminder was back on August 25th, 2010; I drafted the above then, and let it languish until Cyclopeatron’s post Understanding Crappy Dice Apologists reminded me again today.

The observation I was going to make was that the old-school gamers I met in Anaheim had a striking number of big celluloid dice, as well as nifty cases to carry their gaming stuff in. You can see both of these in the picture of Cyclopeatron GMing Gamma World below, and I was so impressed with the stuff Telecanter could carry in his Traveling GM Kit that I asked him to pose with it after Javi and I played in his game.

I like to think Cyclopeatron is saying "Behold the power of my casino dice and lacquer boxes" in this picture but it probably ain't so.

DM_Kit

Telecanter & his amazing Travelling DM Kit

As the title of this post suggests, I was originally thinking of this as an example of regional variation, with an appropriately regional explanation. People in Southern California live close to Las Vegas, so they have greater exposure/access to casino dice. And they drive to their games, so that the important consideration is not how much you can carry on the subway but rather keeping it well-organized so that getting into and out of the car isn’t a nightmare of packing and re-packing.

On first reading Cyclopeatron’s post, I was like “oh it’s not a local cultural thing after all, it’s just that those guys were hip to the demonstrable bias of other dice, which I wrongly perceived as the quaint folkways of Southern California.” And in fact looking at those pictures of the Anaheim con didn’t provide much empirical support for my conclusion; on the one hand most of the d6s on view there were not casino dice, while on the other hand I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Greengoat here in NYC sporting a set of celluloids and he definitely has a sweet case for carrying minis in. So there is some support for the argument that I lack true scientific realism.

But the great thing about what Cyclopeatron has to say about dice is that he doesn’t prioritize one over the other. He demonstrates that we can talk rationally about objective qualities of dice, but he’s also glad to celebrate the weird customs and magical beliefs about dice that are a unique part of roleplaying culture. And since culture is what transmits knowledge, these two perspectives are inextricable. Intellectually I value the precision of my Zocchi dice; emotionally I treasure them as a reminder of being converted by the man himself during his last year as a Gamescience exhibitor. Likewise, when I get my casino dice, the pride I take in their engineering qualities will be matched by my pleasure in being part of a network of blogging and actual play that connects me to people who tell me cool things I want to know. (On that tip, Bruce Lee plays ping-pong with nunchuks, and a friend’s personal rock reviews and related tales).

The final thing that I want to talk about related to Cyclopeatron’s post is this, from the comments:

Heh, this whole elitist rant reeks of the same carrion spewed forth by those that swear there is only ‘one true game’, think that the basement calender reads 1973 and use playground phrases like TETSNBN. I have not time for such things and am dropping my subscription to this blog. When/if you fall off your elitist high-horse I’ll return.

Which gives me an opportunity to repost this, originally from a thread at the OD&D boards about why gamers are so negative about one another’s differences in gaming preference:

I think that a big source of negativity is the human superiority/inferiority thing, which we get from primate dominance behavior. As kids, lots of us were told that people who played sports were better than we were because we played with books and dice and miniature mans. This kind of message is so pervasive in our cultures that it’s hard to say “no that’s crazy, you like one thing, I like another, we both like to play so let’s either find something in common or agree to disagree.”

Instead, we tend to buy into the basic assumption and react to being made to feel inferior by trying to make what we like into an assertion of superiority: “no actually I’m better than you because books are mind-expanding and dice are oracular and nerds make more money than sports stars.” It’s great to celebrate what’s unique and awesome about RPGs, but when it becomes a superiority thing:

– focusing on the us vs. them aspect erodes common ground; I want games that I can play with people who also like sports. I suspect that a reason many of us as kids abandoned “basic” for “Advanced” D&D and now are in a market dominated by games that are 576+ pages long is we want to feel superior to those who aren’t bookish enough to master all this complexity; having been excluded from sports etc. we now want revenge by making our games exclude all but an initiated elite.

– when we’re amongst ourselves, the behaviors we learned from this history – of being made to feel bad about the games we play, and responding to that by asserting that our games actually make us superior – continues even outside the context in which it sorta made sense. We’re all gamers, so it’s crazy to still do this us vs. them thing amongst ourselves! I think Ron Edward’s name pushes buttons because people think he’s saying his way of playing is better than theirs, so now they’re not interested in engaging with his ideas, they’re defending and counter-attacking. (Note that it is often the case that people are in fact saying they’re better than you; I’m not denying this at all, just saying that the non-crazy reaction is “yeah whatever, let’s talk about this cool thing instead” and maybe deciding to hang out someplace where the discussion isn’t dominated by assertions of superiority, such as here!)

So sure, some people in our little world really are elitists. But often this accusation is aimed at people who are making reasonably objective statements – these dice are inaccurate – and expressing personal opinions on the matter – such dice are crappy. When you take this as someone looking down on you, get up in arms, and wait for them to fall off their high horse, isn’t it more about your own delusions that some people are above others & your reaction to feeling that your rightful place on this hierarchy is threatened?

Just as Cyclopeatron is fascinated by the psychology of dice, I’m intrigued by the ways that fantasy roleplaying both encourages and challenges hierarchical thinking – a higher-level character more or less is a better person than a lower-level one, but D&D is a social game that can be easily derailed by dominance struggles around the table. (Compare online multiplayer games, where the impersonal nature of the medium much better facilitates PvP and comparing who pwns who). When I argue that some kinds of RPG facilitate hierarchy more than others, this is somewhere between a fact an opinion; it’s not to say that you or I are better or worse than one another because we like those games, or don’t. I want to be your equal, so that we can get together and have a good time as peers on a level playing field where our precision-engineered dice will dispense justice to one and all alike.

18
Dec
10

Year of the Dungeon Art Gallery Opening

Image by Tony Dowler

Readers interested in D&D and contemporary art are urged to check out Tony Dowler’s show at Cortona Cafe in Seattle, WA, which opens tonight. Tony says:

I’m having a show of my art at Cortona Cafe in Seattle’s Central District all December. Come by Saturday Dec 19th and have a glass of wine with us.

I sure wish I could, and if you are in the area I hope you’ll do so and tell us about it!

17
Dec
10

A Post-1979 D&D Inspirational & Educational Reading List

Perhaps still in time for the holiday super saver shipping, here’s my personal list of recommended reading for D&D players, a supplement to the original Appendix N in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide:

  • Baker, Kage. Anvil of the World & its sequels
  • Banks, Iain M. The Player of Games, Use of Weapons
  • Barnes, John. One for the Morning Glory, Kaleidoscope Century
  • Chabon, Michael. Gentlemen of the Road
  • Cook, Glen. Black Company series
  • Cook, Hugh. Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series
  • Harrison, M. John. Virconium
  • Holdstock, Robert. Mythago Wood
  • Holmes, J. Eric. Maze of Peril
  • Hughart, Barry. The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox
  • Jones, Diana Wynne. Homeward Bounders, Chrestomanci series, etc.
  • Lynch, Scott. The Gentlemen Bastard series
  • Meynard, Yves. The Book of Knights
  • Moon, Elizabeth. The Deed of Paksenarrion
  • Powers, Tim. On Stranger Tides, The Drawing of the Dark
  • Pratchett, Terry. Discworld series
  • Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. Tomoe Gozen, The Golden Naginata, and Thousand Shrine Warrior.
  • Sfarr, Joann and Trondheim, Lewis. Dungeon series
  • Shea, Michael. Nifft the Lean & its sequels
  • Sterling, Bruce. Schismatrix
  • Swanwick, Michael. The Iron Dragon’s DaughterThe Dragons of Babel
  • Wolfe, Gene. Book of the New Sun, The Wizard Knight

Hyperlinks are provided haphazardly, and signify nothing about the works linked or not.

I chose publication after 1979 as a clear line of separation to make this an add-on to Gygax’s original, as a list of my own favorite D&D-esque books would show a high degree of redundancy with the ones he chose in ’79. In addition to all the ones everyone’s read, I’ve particulary enjoyed Lin Carter’s Worlds End series, John Bellairs, and Margaret St. Clair;  and if everyone hasn’t read The Broken Sword they should.

Some of the ones I’ve listed here would likely have been added to Gygax’s list had he written it later. At EN World he said this was true of the Discworld books, and he wrote a glowing back-cover blurb for the American edition of one of Hugh Cook’s fantasies.

The chronological cutoff did mean leaving out some things I personally would have added to the original:

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Book of Imaginary Beings, others.
  • Davidson, Avram. The Phoenix and the Mirror
  • Klein, Otis Adelbert. Planet of Peril
  • Smith, Clark Ashton.
  • Swann, Thomas Burnett. Day of the Minotaur
  • van Gulik, Robert. Judge Dee stories.

I’ve tried to keep to the parameters established by the original Appendix N by focusing strictly on novels and short stories, despite the ample evidence that movies, other games, comic books, etc. were important influences on the corpus of classic D&Disms. (I made an exception for Sfar and Trondheim’s Dungeon, because it’s just so damn good.)

In the spirit of the original, I didn’t worry much about lumping SF and fantasy together. Genre considerations did convince me to move the following into this footnote, which are nevertheless a big part of my education in adventures and heists :

  • Child, Lee. Reacher novels.
  • Dent, Lester. Honey in his Mouth
  • Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Gold, David Glen. Carter Beats the Devil
  • O’ Brien, Patrick. Aubrey-Maturin series
  • Winslow, Don. The Winter of Frankie Machine, California Fire and Life
  • Westlake, Donald. Dortmunder series, Parker series (written as Richard Stark), Kahawa

What would you add to Appendix N? Post it in the comments; if it’s one I meant to include but forgot I’ll add it above!

16
Dec
10

Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 4

So for my Ouija-board-esque method of sandbox mapping, I had made a hex-grid of my chosen region and I applied the nebulous hues of the terrain with a kid’s watercolor kit. I now needed to provide more details for adventuring like roads, rivers, villages, mountains, hills etc. The first step was to go straight to my Judges Guild encounters that I rolled up using my junky little python script. It gave me a final printout with about 150 different villages, castles, ruins, and layers listed by hex coordinates that I could place right away without looking at the underlying terrain colors. I did not have details of all the encounters. The lairs and ruins could be rolled up later, but the castles and villages were really important in that they had an alignment and a race associated with each listed encounter.

I printed up my freshly hexed map on my inkjet printer (photo matte paper is great) and then clipped a piece of clear transparency to it, like the clear plastic you get for overhead projectors. With the transparency I could write and sketch in the details with a permanent marker and then I could scan it in again for whatever reason. I went down the hex columns on the map and looked for the proper coordinates for each of the encounters on the programmed list and marked a V, C, L, or R in a fine point marker. Any encounter that landed in the water would become an Idyllic Isle, but the rest pretty much stayed where the “fell”. (You could also place the letters on the hexes with the image layers of GIMP, but I felt like using my hands for my mapping and locating.)

Evil castles or villages would get a red circle and good villages and castles would get a green circle. Right away, I had clumps of good settlements and clumps of evil settlements that could suggest some type of politics or borders in my small local region. I could start putting in dotted lines to connect the villages and castles with roads and start wondering about how the encounter placement worked in a narrative sense. Why would an evil hobgoblin settlement be right next to a lawful-good human settlement? Maybe there is a siege going on, maybe the Hobgoblins are a large mercenary camp that defends the larger human village. Why are there evil dwarves occupying this castle? This sandbox style of planning is all about divining some type of meaning from what the random results provide. There is always the ability to fudge, but the whole point of the method is to provide a springboard to your interpretations.

So I had a rough idea about what encounters goes where on the region map, and I could continue to flesh out the whole area, naming all the villages, placing all the roads, and placing the definite terrain and rivers all within a hundred or so miles of the characters. But then again, do I really need 150 encounters and surrounding terrain detailed to begin play? I didn’t think so. And besides, one of the key tenets of sandbox play is to structure details around what the players start to provide. We needed to leave room for the screwed up village that one of the PCs originates from.

With this in mind, I decided to zoom in even more, and save the fiddling for a tighter focus map, something I would imagine as being a good “home-base” area like The Keep On The Borderlands or something of that nature. It was time to start drawing in map symbols and naming stuff in a small locality…

Continued to part 5…

15
Dec
10

The Taste for Gratuitous Difficulty

I’m postponing part two of my post about the DCC RPG and Castle Zagyg/Mad Archmage to talk about the results of last year’s Anonycon experiment. Unlike this year’s planned comparison of running the same adventure with different rule systems, this was an unplanned natural experiment: I played in two different games, D&D 4E and Time & Temp, run by the same GM, Kevin Kulp. As I’ve said elsewhere, Kevin is a fantastic GM with an arsenal of techniques at his control that I think could make any game sing, so it was really interesting to see how my experience varied according to the rules he was using.

The reason I’m revisiting this now is that this week’s New Yorker has a piece by Nick Paumgarten profiling Shigeru Miyamoto, the hugely influential Nintendo game designer. Miyamoto is an interesting guy, but what really caught my attention was something introduced in the background of the article, a synopsis of Roger Cailois’s 1958 essay “Man, Play and Games.”  According to Paumgarten,

Caillois also introduces the idea that games range along a continuum between two modes: ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty,” and paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy.” A crossword puzzle is ludus. Kill the Carrier is paidia (unless you’re the carrier). Super Mario and Zelda seem to be perched right between the two.

For starters, I love these terms – not the Latin roots but their explanatory phrases, which would make great names for Vancian spells.  More importantly, the idea that the important dimension for assessing a game is its relative admixture of “the taste for gratuitous difficulty” and “the power of improvisation and joy” precisely expresses what I felt about playing 4E and Time & Temp last year.

This year, Eric and I played in a session Emily Care Boss ran of her storygame of alien first contact, Sign In, Stranger. Afterwards we got into a conversation with Jim Crocker of Modern Myths and Time & Temp’s designer Epidiah Ravachol. Later I got to play his forthcoming Swords without Master,  and Emily was my first playtester for the DCC RPG & Zagyg/Archmage mix, which is why conventions in general and Anonycon in particular are awesome: you get to not only talk about different games but actually experience the way each of you plays them, which cuts past a lot of the usual noise to get to the heart of the discussion.

So during this conversation, I told the story of the two games I’d been in with Kevin as DM:

Each session had a climactic beat-down with a really compelling set-up in the fiction. In 4E, we were riding flying carpets in hot pursuit of the evil vizier who’d tried to have us exterminated during a diplomatic summit in the City of Brass, and now we finally caught up to him and could apply the much-deserved smacking. In Time & Temp, we’d set up an ambush to rescue Paul McCartney from an alien time-traveler who was trying to ensure that he “blew his mind out in a car” as per the coded messages in Beatles records, and how cool is that? So these were both fights I really cared about, but the systems we used to play them out made a big difference in how it felt to win.

In Time & Temp, the looser mechanics let us think of lots of awesome things to do, but somehow it didn’t feel like we had earned our victory; I couldn’t dispel the suspicion that Kevin hadn’t just let us win because it was dramatically appropriate for us to do so. The 4E  mechanics put up a lot of resistance to doing awesome things, but that meant that victory had a visceral feeling of accomplishment. I knew exactly how hard it had been to triumph, because I knew the difficulty of the rolls we had to beat, could track the dwindling resources of each side, etc.

I feel weird about this, because in many ways I don’t like the fiddly 4E approach. Part of the pleasure of the session was the display of our collective system mastery; we’d all put in the hundreds of hours necessary to step through the complicated procedures involved in our fictional smackdown pretty quickly and integrate reporting what we were doing at this mechanical level with narrating our characters’ heroic exploits. I don’t want RPGs to require this level of investment, but I have to say that it was more satisfying for me to win only after going through a lot of intrinsically boring little steps to convince myself that yes, we really did come out on top.

Caillois’s continuum between two modes lets me boil this down: 4E gratifies my taste for gratuitous difficulty, which Time & Temp couldn’t (in this scene) due to its greater power of improvisation and joy.

Some further implications:

  • Gratuitous difficulty in games can be usefully subdivided into the kind that involves a risk of failure – that you won’t be able to think of a word in a crossword puzzle, or roll high enough to hit a target DC in 4E – and the kind that just involves procedural work, as in calculating your attack modifiers or crossing out the clues you’ve already answered.
  • Engaging with the gratuitous difficulty of procedural work can make joyful improvisation more satisfying.  Eppy pointed out that, in Time & Temp, working out the Sudoku-like puzzle of the Matrix allows you to feel justified when you narrate that of course, the precise item you need to save your bacon is under the chair, because you the next thing you’ll do will be to back in time to put it there. Part of this is just that the game gives you rules you can follow to decide whether or not that’s possible in the fiction, but that could also be true in 4E (did your DM agree to let you research the time-travel spell, can you meet the requirements for casting it, etc.) Having stepped through gratuitously difficult procedures makes Bill & Ted gimmicks feel earned in Time & Temp the way that WWF smackdowns do in 4E.
  • Players with a taste for gratuitious difficulty may be disappointed in a game with no risk of failure, even if it offers a lot of procedural work. The sense that my character’s life isn’t in danger is often my complaint when I play otherwise-gratuitously-difficult 4E, and its reintroduction is why I like George Strayton’s Legends & Labyrinths 4E houserules.
  • The risk of failure can be entirely fictional. Sign In, Stranger and Swords Without Master are games strongly focused on the power of improvisation and joy. Both brilliantly use mechanics to add some procedural work to the process of collaborative roleplaying (the use of colors to constrain and guide re-incorporation of player input in SI,S; the shifts of tone and phase in SWM), and neither involve the risk of mandated failure you get from a bad roll in 4E. Ultimately I found the latter more satisfying because we were telling a swords & sorcery story about how my character’s life was frequently in danger; imagining this to be true satisfied my taste for gratuitious difficulty in a way that the less visceral stakes of a science fiction story about my character’s struggle to learn did not.
  • All the kids in the afterschool D&D class put a high value on difficulty. My guidelines for making an adventure involve deciding whether the DC for a given obstacle is “easy” (8+), “medium” (11+), or “hard” (14+); one week one of the boys accused another of stealing the idea of “difficult” (19+), and I had to step in to say no, it was an independent invention. When I asked them what they wanted from the adventure I’m running for them tomorrow, the #1 request was that it be “really hard”. All this has always mystified me because they hate it when their characters fail, but now I realize that they’re expressing a taste for gratuitious difficulty – which I suspect has been even more acutely unsatisfied due to my attempts to strip away the procedural work of the 4E rules we’re nominally using and introduce more of the power of improvisation and joy.
  • Dice are great tools for RPGs at both ends of the continuum, as they can create a risk of failure and also provide unexpected results as a spur to improvisation. Sign In, Stranger uses an impressive array of diceless tools to do the latter, including exquisite corpse, Mad Libs, and drawing narrative elements from a cup.
  • The dungeon beneath Blackmoor Castle is, for me, the first and still the greatest example of the form because like Super Mario, it exactly hits my sweet spot on the game continuum. All dungeons provide the rigid flowchart structure to constrain and direct player input, but Arneson’s horribly tedious nightmare maze adds a heightened degree of gratuitous difficulty to the process of negotiating the party’s movement through the dungeon, and the contrast makes it especially joyful when you finally get into a room where group improvisation brings the inspiringly sparse dungeon key entries to life.

Finally, here’s some more from the New Yorker piece that I think is worth thinking about as a counterpoint to the discussion of what’s lost when underground exploration is codified into standard operating procedures*:

Miyamoto recognizes that there is pleasure in difficulty but also in ease, in mastery, in performing a familiar act with aplomb, whether that be catching a baseball, dancing a tango, doing Sudoku, or steering Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping on Goombas and Koopa Troopas. His games strike this magical balance between the excitement that comes from facing new problems and the swagger from facing down old ones. The consequent sensation of confidence is useful, in dealing with a game’s more challenging stages, but also a worthy aim in itself. “A lot of the so-called ‘action games’ are not made that way,” Miyamoto told me. “All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?” In his own games, Miyamoto said, “You are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that itself can be a joy.”

* I know I read some good blogging on this recently; if someone can post the link in comments I’ll edit it in here!

14
Dec
10

Digital / Analog Procedural Sandbox Region Witchcraft – part 3

Now that I had a big rough continent map made with my cheap watercolor and pencil techniques I was ready to begin adding some type of form to the elemental crayola chaos. I didn’t want the players to be flying across continents on the backs of eagles quite yet, so I needed to bring my focus down to a smaller region of the map to begin to pick details.

I knew that the area covered by the Wilderlands Of High Fantasy maps in the Judges Guild publications could roughly fit the surface area of New York state (275 x 167 miles in hexes). This helped me to zoom in and pick a spot on the coastline of my rough map that looked nice. The spot had a lot of green, a coastline, and some splots of gray for mountains. A nice variety of land to travel but nothing too crazy on the map, I would save my red leaf tree forests for later.

So I moved into the digital realm and scanned my painted map with my desktop scanner at a high resolution. I set it at 600 dpi because I knew I would be zooming in and I would rather the map details be the tooth and texture of my paper rather than the resulting pixels of a low end scan. I then opened the image file in GIMP and prepared to select my region map. To do this properly I needed to have my region map overlay so I could pick just the right rectangular box of my painted map that would fit my hexes. I needed to find some way of making digital hexes.

My quest was resolved when I found the excellent Boardgame Extensions for Inkscape written by Pelle Nilsson. If you did not know, GIMP and Inkscape are two free software packages that are used for editing digital image files. GIMP is for raster graphics and Inkscape is for vector artwork. The Boardgame Extensions in Inkscape allowed me to generate a hex map that was just the right size and with the right numbering sequence. It just needed a little graphical tweaking to make it look like a simulation of a Judges Guild region overlay.

Here is a zip file of the vector and raster hex overlay to use for your own map.

I then selected my now reduced region of the map and used the Layers function in GIMP to place my hex overlay over my painted section. You can adjust the opacity of the images and change the way the layers interact (multiply) to have only the black of the hexes visible. This way you could have as much or as little information on your map as you want. One layer for roads, one for villages, etc.

There, my region was laid out, and I knew what all my travel distances were, but there were no rivers, roads, encounters, definite regions of mountains, forests, etc. I just had vaguely suggestive color blots to maybe suggest changes in terrain. It was time to start finding out the lay of the land…

Continued in part 4

13
Dec
10

Glorious Swinginess: Results from the DCC RPG/Castle Zagyg Experiment, part 1

Rules have emergent effects; those that don't fit an individual group's approach may not be used in play. (Cartoon for the DCC RPG by the Wizards of Ur.)

With Anonycon 2010 now just a happy memory, it’s time to review what I learned from the experiment of running the Castle Zagyg adventure using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. This was interesting for me because:

  • I’m well versed in how this adventure plays out using other rulesets. Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works was written for Castles & Crusades; its unofficial completion Castle of the Mad Archmage was written with AD&D 1E in mind; and the other seven times Eric, Joe, and I have run this adventure at conventions & the playtests thereof, we’ve used Lamentations of the Flame Princess and house-ruled AD&D. I was curious to see how using different rules would change the experience.
  • In my previous experience with the DCC RPG (as a player at GaryCon and a DM at Fal-Con) we’ve played adventures written specifically for this system. I was interested to see how the feel of the game would carry over to a different scenario (Castle Greyhawk’s open-ended megadungeon vs. a Tomb of Horrors-style tournament-linear deathtrap).

I’ll start by addressing comments from readers of the original post. Scott asks:

Can I get some details that distinguish the DCC RPG?

Sure, but first some caveats! My experiences are based on a playtest version. Anything I talk about here may have changed by the time the game is released, and nothing I say should be taken as the official word; this is just my experience as a GM and playtester of the still-unfinished system.

The most striking distinguishing feature that I saw emerging from the rules was that the DCC RPG is designed to generate unpredictability. (In part 2 I’ll address Gregor’s comment and talk about some other features of the game that emerge from other, non-rule aspects of the system).

This is in marked contrast to the most recent edition of D&D, a stated design feature of which was a reduction in swinginess. Narrowing the range of variation in outcomes is useful for game designers concerned with balance, adventure writers concerned with being able to predict whether encounters will provide a level-appropriate challenge for a party of PCs, and DMs whose pre-planned campaign arcs make them concerned with things like ensuring the characters have enough resources left when they meet the Big Bad to make it a challenging fight, but not so many that it’s a cakewalk.

However, many old-schoolers have pointed out that this increased predictability runs contrary to the sandbox spirit, which celebrates playing to find out what happens (as the new-school indie game Apocalypse World has it). We don’t want the heroes’ inevitable-but-just-barely triumph over the BBEG to be prearranged. We embrace systems that give players plenty of tools (from spells and magic items to referee adjucation of a clever idea) that can end or avoid a potentially grueling fight with a single action. And when a string of unusually high or low dice rolls turn a seemingly-manageable encounter into a bloodbath, we consider this not a failure of game design but an opportunity to demonstrate player skill by running away.

Unpredictability is something most of us advocate without doing anything about it. I’ve stated my own preference for a high-granularity system offering players the occasional chance to be the one whose decisions shape the entire session, rather than giving them lots of little choices each with a narrowly delimited impact on the outcome of an encounter. But the guiding principle for my house rule for critical hits – roll damage twice and take the higher result – was to reduce swinginess by keeping the results within the range that’s possible from a normal hit. (My more recent addition to this rule – making a roll of 6 on either die “exploding” so that you roll again and add it to the total – grew out of the desire to allow crits to deal truly extraordinary damage from a crit.)

The DCC RPG puts its money where its mouth is. Although its mechanical core is derived from D&D 3E, the DCC RPG repudiates challenge ratings (that edition’s tools for making the outcome of an encounter more predictable), and offers more new ways for things to turn out in a completely unexpected way than any other retroclone or D&D variant I know.

For starters, extreme dice rolls have more of an impact. There are awesome critical hit charts, whose “foe’s torso explodes like a blood blueberry” style is worthy of being called Rolemaster-esque (although which chart you use interestingly depends on character class rather than weapon type). Strangely I’ve never seen these come up in play, even though the fifth-level warriors in the Anonycon playtest were capable of scoring a critical hit against a one hit die foe on an unmodified roll of 16-20. Critical fumbles played a major role at the Fal-Con playtest, causing the friendly-fire death of at least one PC, but didn’t pop up in either of my Anonycon runs.

The most important source of unpredictability at Anonycon came from the DCC RPG spell check mechanic, where you roll a d20 modified by caster level & ability score to determine the effects of the spell you just cast. A low roll might mean that the spell doesn’t have any effect; a high one can produce unexpectedly potent effects. Here’s an example from the second of the weekend’s playtest.

Rat King: grossest wandering monster EVAR

Eric’s party had just defeated some creepy net-dwelling creatures when a wandering monster check brought a tide of ordinary-sized rats, on the backs of which were born seven rat kings. (The Castle of the Mad Archmage‘s encounter table specified 2d6 giant rats; this interpretation of that result was indebted to the system-emergent aspects I’ll talk about in part 2, as well as to Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants which I picked up at the So Cal Mini Con III’s book swap. )

Rather than confront these what WAS that things, Eric’s wizard decided to get the party into the room they’d just cleared and use the ward portal spell to keep the rats out. This is a classic old-school moment of swinginess: an ability available only to one character has the potential to end a fight before it even starts. 4E sees this as anathema – among other reasons, because an adventure designed around the expectation that this character can seal a door becomes unpredictable again if that character’s player misses a session – and so it eliminates the problem, first by making rituals like hold portal available to everyone who invests a feat and second by requiring them to take so long to cast that they can’t be used in a fight-or-flight situation. (Notably, folks interested in making 4E play more like 1E have reduced the casting time of rituals to a standard action).

“OK,” I said, “you have enough time to get inside the room and cast before the rats are upon you.”  Which is awesome; I love when players have choices that can radically alter a situation. And then the rules of the DCC RPG upped the stakes by tantalizing the wizard with the possibility of safe haven, but making it subject to the whims of fate:  “Roll your spell casting check and let’s see what happens.” Drama hanging on the outcome of a dice – this is why I play RPGs!

Eric rolled a 15: Portal completely disappears for 2d6 x 10 days, leaving in its place only a blank space of wall. During this time no passage is possible via normal means.

Whoa! I’d been excited by the way the rules would adjucate a simple but dramatic yes/no. This result of the spell check mechanic turned it into the improv principle’s yes, but… now you’re sealed into a room with no visible exit for weeks on end!

Everything that happened from that point on was hugely enjoyable for me as a GM because, just like a player, I was exploring the unknown; Eric and I were collaboratively working out the consequences of an imagined situation with no idea how it was going to turn out.

“Can the party tunnel out of here?”

“Well, it looks like the wall between the room and the passageway is just a few feet deep here,  let’s think about the tools you have – hammer, spikes, steel weapons – yeah you can chip away the masonry and slide out some of the stone blocks, but it’s going to take days. Did you bring rations?”

“Yeah, remember when I said I was shopping before I left town, we have a week apiece. Hey, wait, I have a spell that might help out here, contact patron. I’ll cast that before we get started.”

“OK, give me a spell check,” I said, rubbing my hands with glee. I’ll talk about what ensued as a result in part 2 of this playtest report, where we talk about color and non-rule aspects of the system that influence play.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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