Archive for April, 2011


Quick and Dirty Idiosyncratic Wilderness Encounter Charts

The Marsh/Cook Expert set has a nice, neat set of random wilderness encounter tables in the back. Similar tables can be found in other editions. These are pretty nifty in that they cover a wide range of terrain types, providing different encounter sub-tables for each type of terrain, so you won’t see the same monsters in the desert that you ran into in the jungle.

Nonetheless, there’s still a certain lack of variety. Might there not be different monsters on the jungle-covered Isle of Dread than in the rainforest of Hepmonaland? Won’t the humanoid tribes in the hills near Greyhawk be less powerful, numerous and varied than those in the Broken Lands? Surely the partially tamed wilderness in Furyondy isn’t going to be infested with big-ticket monsters that can butcher your 2nd-level party. And what about the demons and undead that should be roaming the downs and barrens of the domain of Iuz? I don’t see them on any of the standard tables.

So yeah, having distinct wilderness encounter tables for each region is awesome. But it’s also a lot of work! Fortunately, there are several quick and dirty way to make an idiosyncratic wilderness encounter chart. See below!

1) Steal it from a module. Are your low-level PCs traversing a marshy shoreline in a civilized — albeit unpleasant — area? Use the encounter tables for Nulb in T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil, which are full of relatively weak monsters, including pirates! On the other hand, the dragon-infested encounter table in X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield is well-suited to really nasty badlands where only high-level characters dare to tread.

2) Alter the distribution on the top-level table. Wilderness encounter charts generally have a top-level table which, when rolled upon, sends you to one of many sub-tables. For instance, with a table like this:

1 Men
2 Flyer
3 Humanoid
4 Unusual
5 Animal
6 Humanoid
7 Dragon
8 Dragon

… you can just roll a d6 instead. Presto, no more Dragon subtable, and no more dragons!

3) Modify the top-level table to make certain results common. For instance, in the above table, instead of eliminating entries #7 and #8 outright, you could replace them with “7: Merchants” and “8: Brigands” for a dangerous trade route. Alternately, if they’re going through the haunted Bone March, you could bump it up to a d10, with entries of “7: Skeletons”, “8: Zombies”, “9: Ghouls” and “10: Wights” to make the undead far more prevalent.

4) Use the tables as-is, but replace inappropriate or undesired results (maybe you don’t want Frost Giants in this volcanic badlands, or Giant Lizards in that taiga) with something else — either with a specific pre-determined entry, a “Special Replacement Table”, or with a whimsical spur-of-the-moment choice.

Give one of these quick and dirty wilderness encounter mods a try. If you do, let us know how it works for you!


Emergent Behaviors: Don’t Sacrifice That Hireling!

A year ago, I posted about how players try to ditch their hirelings in order to avoid giving them a share of treasure. While not exactly counter-intuitive, this is a situation that doesn’t always go hand in hand with the DM’s preferred style of play. But it’s an emergent behavior that comes out of the intersection between rules and player goals: if the aim is to acquire gold and XP, and hirelings bleed off gold and XP, then it’s in the PCs’ interest to ensure that the hirelings perish in the line of duty before they can get their share.

(It also leads to weird situations, such as when a PC becomes an NPC and the party decides to stop giving him a full share of treasure for no apparent in-game reason. Which is perfectly explicable from a player perspective but utterly silly from an in-game perspective!)

In the following year, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no reason not to twiddle the rules in order to create a more desirable outcome. So, how might one go about encouraging players to keep their hirelings alive — or at least not discouraging them from doing so? By tweaking the distribution of gold and XP.

1) Hirelings that demand a flat fee instead of (or in addition to) a share of the profits will spend or cache that money before going on an adventure. This avoids the ghoulish prospect of PCs looting their hirelings for their fees.

2) If the PCs give a share of treasure to a hireling, give the PCs some of the XP value of that share of treasure! Now, you probably don’t want to give the PCs full value here — hirelings already provide significant benefits in play, and you may not want the choice of whether to use (or betray!) hirelings to be a total no-brainer. But if the players know that their characters gain at least some XP from rewarding their hirelings, then those who want to play their characters as decent employers don’t have to feel like total chumps for doing so.


A Coin for Tavis

Tavis’s post today is a great read, but it lacks a Joesky coin.  All the more egregiously, I think, given the spirit he writes it in.  So here’s a quicky for generating a dragon with a fistful of dice (it takes two colors of dice): Roll 2d4, 1d6 (black, for clarity), and 3d6 (white).  The black d6 is what color the dragon is (1=white, 2=black, 3=green, 4=blue, 5=red, 6=gold). Add the 2d4 and the black d6; that’s how many hit dice the dragon has.  Add up the white 3d6: If it’s equal to or lower than the dragon’s hit dice, it can talk and cast spells.  You may ignore the 3d6 roll if it’s a gold dragon (or, alternately, ignore the 100% talking rule in B/X).

Now go read Tavis’s post, if you haven’t already.


What the Old-School Reformation is Fighting For and Against

I’ve been thinking more about the Big Reality article in Rhizome I posted about earlier, specifically this quote:

“[I]t is assumed that the work of art,” Artie Vierkant wrote in The Image Object Post Internet, “lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum, the images and other representations disseminated through the Internet and print publications, bootleg images of the object or its representations, and variations on any of these as edited and recontextualized by any other author.” The RPG resonates with this condition as a thoroughly cross-media phenomenon, one that exists between rulebooks and games; its codes travel among tabletop, computer, and simulated battlefield.

If you’re an outsider, it makes sense to see role-playing games as part of this huge phenomenon in modern culture that involves having an avatar that levels up through experience gained in many separate but inter-related imaginary worlds. D&D is, after all, where all this transmedia stuff got started, and over at the GaryCon boards Emperor Xan is making a case that D&D is specifically responsible for the internet, via an article by Julian Dibbel:

n 1969, BBN had won the contract to build a new, decentralized kind of computer network for the Defense Department. Called arpanet, the network was the beginning of what would eventually be called the Internet, and while it would be a gross exaggeration to say Crowther invented the thing, it doesn’t seem too far off the mark to say he wrote it. Not single-handedly, of course, but if there was one coder on BBN’s small programming team who was truly indispensable, Crowther was it. “Most of the rest of us,” one teammate later recalled, “made our livings handling the details resulting from Will’s use of his brain.”

The guy he’s talking about there is William Crowther, and in addition to writing the Internet he also created the first computer RPG, Colossal Cave Adventure:

Here was where Will’s own historic moment began. As he later explained to an interviewer, he had lately taken to playing a new kind of game called Dungeons and Dragons, getting together with some of the guys from BBN whenever enough of them had the time. The particular D & D scenario they were playing involved a lot of imaginary traipsing through the woods and caverns of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and in it, Crowther role-played a thief character, called simply Willie the Thief. The game was intensely absorbing, and though he didn’t exactly play it to escape from reality, the distraction couldn’t have hurt: Will and Pat’s divorce was on its way and soon enough arrived. “And that left me a bit pulled apart in various ways,” said Crowther. “In particular I was missing my kids. Also the caving had stopped, because that had become awkward.” Between wife, kids, and cave, the divorce had taken from him most of what had given his life its shape, if not its meaning. Faced with such a loss, many men Crowther’s age would have turned to desperate consolations — drinking too much, having affairs with twenty-year-olds, blowing paychecks on high-end audio equipment. Others would have simply despaired. But Crowther, being Crowther, had a different idea: “I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps [include] some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing.”

So yeah, D&D is responsible for the modern age. But I think the OSR is against it. As Ethan put it in his Salon piece,

Pure and simple, for many, D&D represents a lost age: It was an individualized, user-driven, DIY, human-scaled creative space separate from the world of adults and the intrusion of corporate forces. As Allison rightly noted, D&D recalls that day “before orcs and wookiees were the intellectual property of vast transmedia corporations.”

The OSR isn’t into D&D itself; we love D&D because it was the original role-playing game, and we celebrate what it was originally. A thing you do in a room with other people, some of whom are maybe your wife and kids. An activity you do in a physical, social space that relates to your passions for similar real-life group experiences, whether that’s spelunking in Mammoth Cave (like Crowther) or recreating medieval life (whether in miniature, like Gygax and Arneson, or through the Society for Creative Anachronism like guys such as Poul Anderson who were their literary inspirations).

The Protestant Reformation started as an internal debate within the ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church, but it wound up lighting a fire under all of Europe. Likewise, the OSR started out as an internal argument among hard-core roleplayers, but ultimately I think it’s the whole glittering transmedia edifice that we take issue with. When we say that modern editions of D&D are too much like videogames, we’re taking issue with videogames themselves. When we rail against dissociated mechanics, we’re saying that we want the things we do with our imagination to have traction in our day-to-day experience of the real world. And when we express dissatisfaction with the way the RPG industry leaders are increasingly chasing the development of intellectual properties that can spawn profitable transmedia enterprises, we’re fighting to prevent devaluation of the original miracle of role-playing games: the greatest way ever invented to collaboratively create ideas that soar in the mind’s eye and explode like fireworks, leaving nothing behind but memory and satisfaction.

Martin Luther wanted to save Christianity, not end it. Likewise, I’m not arguing for a Luddite overthrow of everything that’s come out of the intersection of D&D and computers. Internet tools like the New York Red Box forums are uniquely great for finding and organizing players for open-table gaming, maintaining narrative continuity, and mixing play-by-post solo adventures with big group heists. Desktop publishing has generated an unprecedented wealth of gaming materials. And this blogging thing is a great way to create a community in which to refine and share ideas.

Nor am I saying that transmedia is anathema to the old-school spirit; on the contrary, the founders scarfed up as much fantastic inspiration from as many different media as they could. Old issues of the Judges’ Guild Journal were happy to run cartoons spoofing Star Trek and Alien, and a disintegrator from Larry Niven’s Known Worlds fits right into Erol Otus’s Booty and the Beasts. But when movies and books started being about role-playing games in turn,  this circular, self-referential process started spiraling away from the DIY spirit that made D&D unique.

The Reformation fought for the primacy of the individual religious experience, and so they wound up fighting against the people who were invested in maintaining the whole glittering edifice that distracted from that experience. Here in the OSR, I think we’re fighting that same battle. We stand against the people who want to take imagination out of our real lives and make it a virtual commodity. We fight for the new ways that technology can enhance the experience of shared social creativity and make it more true to the original miracle of 1974.


Rhizome on RPGs in Contemporary Art

Casey Jex Smith turned me on to an essay in Rhizome last month, Big Reality, that talks about the ways that role-playing games are reflected in recent works of art. There are some examples that’ll be familiar to those who attended the panel on D&D in Contemporary Art, others that were new to me at least, and lots of interesting quotes like this one:

The creator(s) of a novel, movie, or drama have combined details into a whole by the time it reaches an audience; those media come with spatial and temporal guidelines for consumption. But just as network connections are constant and pervasive, RPGs are open-ended, played with regularity and long-term commitment. Gaming (like, say, tweeting) doesn’t have the same distance between medium and audience as reading or film-going – there is a constant awareness of the self’s participation in a bigger system, and a feeling of contribution to it. RPGs, like internet use, move at the speed of life. I think this affinity is what has prompted many artists to include allusions to RPGs in their works. Whether they adapt the forking structures or the surface details of fantasy and science fiction, whether those references are direct or oblique, references to the culture around RPGs can be shorthand for reality’s mediation by immaterial systems.


The Serpent Barque

In Wander Ships: Folk-stories of the Sea, with Notes upon their Origin (1917), Wilbur Basset relates a tale that I cannot help adapting for my sea-borne menagerie.  Not a ghost ship, this one: This is a ship of devlish nightmares in the shape of a Chinese dragon.

The tale begins with some tiger hunters searching for a ship to carry their unexpected prey:

“Back toward the hills,” he said, “where the sun has not yet come, but a few li from Foochow, we set a trap for the great tiger. This morning we heard noises, and coming to the cage found in it a hideous serpent that goes upon his belly and upon short legs. His eyes are dead. and upon his head are horns. At first we were afraid, but the cage is mighty for strength and he cannot escape.”

The hunters appear to have found their man- a junk captain sailing for the South, and Formosa:

“We will see your serpent,” [the captain] said, “and if the cage is strong and your money rings true, he goes south with me.” The captain slipped out of his padded jacket and into a stout coat and went quietly over the side into the boat. Pulling ashore, they dragged the heavy boat upon the beach and made their way to the lonely valley where the cage was. They looked in very frightened upon the prisoner and he seemed small and not so terrible in the sunlight and they forgot their fears and laughed at him.

Pitiable fools, really: Dragons are proud, and- as they discover at sea- do not take mockery lightly.

[A] hoarse and raucous sound, half scream, half roar, once more blared forth, and they saw in the fierce light the broken bars of the cage and the horrid body of the serpent, emerging from his prison. The eyes were as festering pools in some foul desert, lusterless and dead, and above the slimy neck the head seemed raised in the half light to the level of the menacing cloud that was sweeping by and that mingled its vapors with the noxious breath of the monster. During that moment of awful visions, when death from wave monster and storm glared at them as in the light of day, the crew seemed to cling to life only by virtue of that tenacity which marks the sailor of every race. The gulf of darkness that succeeded swallowed up their fears with the great wave, the vision of the monster and the storm cloud, and as the little craft sturdily surmounted the crest of the following wave, so rose their confidence and fortitude, self assertive and buoyant, and they took heart and prepared to defend themselves.

… With fear drawn faces they drew back, then rushed it with uplifted blades. But their blows never fell. Out of the fetid nostrils of the beast issued a cloud of breath that broke upon them with the suddenness of tropic night, encircled them in the roaring of a thousand tempests and drifted lazily on to leeward over their stricken forms. … So quickly had moment passed that but for the broken bodies on there seemed no hold for memory to reconstruct it. No man approached the dead comrades. No man was to take up the fallen sword of the dragon slayer; none dared approach within reach of that death dealing breath.

The junk is abandoned to the dragon in a storm, but rather than sink, it is piloted by the beast:

No man knows the fate of the unhappy junk ,whether she still carries her foul passenger and cruises restlessly up and down the stormy yellow seas, or whether her ribs are bleaching long since upon some lonely strand. Some say she cruises still and is waiting for a captain.

Basset’s notes interpret the tale as a plague metaphor and, as he moves into a broader discussion of the folklore of plague ships, report this snippet from Assemani’s Bibliotheca Orientalis:

Perhaps the oldest European legend of phantom ships is of brazen barks seen off infected ports during the great plague in Roman times. These were veritable devil ships, whose crews were black and headless demons.

Now we’re talking.  Below are LL-style statistics and a description of Bastard Serpents, an unusual subtype of dragon known to pilot ships at sea with a crew of corpses.

Bastard Serpent

The Bastard Serpent is a debased dragon. The parentage of this subtype is unclear and likely variable, though they certainly lay some claim to the red dragon’s bloodline.  Unlike most of their nobler kindred, the bastard serpent is wingless and cannot fly- a humiliation spawning a pridefulness and disdain unusual even for a dragon.  It is a capable swimmer, and at adulthood its serpentine form can encircle smaller ships.  These serpents’ scales are brackish and ruddy, and covered in a thin, muculent film. They uniformly possess a fearsome crest of horns.  They are typically (80%) found in the command of a felucca, skiff, or junk manned by a charred and headless crew.  The falling pitch of this dragon’s horrid breath reduces many victims’ heads to ashes, but those left intact festoon the ship now manned by their former bodies. From this Serpent Barque, the Bastard seeks out victim ships to plunder.

Bastard Serpent
No. Enc.: 1 (+ crew)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 90’ (30’), swim 180’ (60’)
Armor Class: 1
Hit Dice: 8 (5-11)
Attacks: 3 (2 claws, 1 bite) or 2 (1 head butt, 1 bite) or 1 (breath)
Damage: 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d8 or 4d4/3d8
Save: F8
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XV
XP: 2,060
Habitat: Ocean, Coastal caves
Probability Asleep: 30%
Probability Speech: 100% (3 1st level spells; 3 2nd level)
Breath weapon: Cloud of burning pitch
Breath Range, Shape, Type: 30’ gob; Burning Pitch

Special abilities: Spells; Animate Dead on victims of its breath weapon once daily as Serpent’s Crew

Serpent’s Crew

No. Enc.: 5-10

The remaining flesh of these headless undead is burnt and ashen, and emits a charnel reek.  Treat as zombies controlled by their dragon master; the sight and smell of Serpent’s Crewmen requires a save vs paralysis or flee in fear.


Evolution and Runaway Selection in RPGs

Peacock, thy name is vanity; likewise the RPGA

When we talk about new role-playing games versus old ones, it’s tempting to draw a parallel to evolution. New and shiny ones must be better than their progenitors because they’ve had thirty-plus years in which to evolve, right?

The subtler fallacy here is equating evolution with progress. Natural selection is blind; it’s not tirelessly working to produce a better organism, it’s just rolling the dice on a bazillion character sheets and tossing them into an arena. If, umpteen iterations later, you find that fighters predominate and wizards have become extinct, this doesn’t really mean that fighters are better, just that they happened to be the ones who got along best in this particular arena.

I call this one subtle because, unlike evolution, there are in fact lots and lots of intelligent beings working night and day to make a role-playing game that is actually better than its predecessors. After we raise a glass to these stalwart champions of progress in the field of RPG design, I’ll point out that over time, lots of things that happen in gaming look more like blind chance than intelligent design. Great ideas get forgotten by future generations, while bad design gets ensconced (or, probably even more often, good design gets misunderstood for the worse by a generation of players, who then write it into the next wave of rules). Marketplace pressures seem more random than planned; no hardcore fan of RPGs doesn’t have their own list of good games forgotten because they didn’t sell, and others whose commercial success was undeserved when judged by system quality alone. And, as I’ve said here before, the new generation of design often addresses the things that its ancestors didn’t do well, rather than actually improving on the things that previous games did best. Seen in the right light, the supposed march of progress turns out to be a ring-around-the-rosy. Meet the new boss OSR, which is the same as the old boss precisely because it’s rebelling against its immediate predecessors.

The fallacy I think is easier to see is that, when we think about evolution, we almost always conceptualize it only in terms of natural selection where the most fit organisms survive. Sexual selection, the evolutionary driver we don’t usually think about, makes the more obvious counter-argument against the idea that newer games must be better. As Berkeley’s website Evolution 101 puts it,

It might be tempting to think of natural selection acting exclusively on survival ability—but, as the concept of fitness shows, that’s only half the story. When natural selection acts on mate-finding and reproductive behavior, biologists call it sexual selection… Sexual selection is often powerful enough to produce features that are harmful to the individual’s survival. For example, extravagant and colorful tail feathers or fins are likely to attract predators as well as interested members of the opposite sex.

I think that it’s more intuitive to think about how runaway sexual selection can invalidate the myth of progress in RPG design because we tend to lionize those who design games but mistrust those who buy them. I believe that my favorite designer is working to make a game that’s better than the ones he has at home; that’s why he does it, right? That’s natural selection for fitness. But it’s also easy for me to believe that this better game won’t survive because consumers are going to be attracted to the hardback with the full-color illos of the gorgeous woman with big fake boobs and not enough clothing; that’s sexual selection.

(Note that in this analogy the thing that gives a RPG a competitive advantage unrelated to the quality of its system doesn’t have to be actually, you know, sexy or even sexualized. A cover that grabs the eye and makes a sale regardless of the contents is what we’re talking about as sexual selection here; I just couldn’t think of any examples, like lots of guns or mecha robots, that weren’t open to charges of being sexualized imagery.)

This big dangling sac carries a high survival cost, outweighed by its advantages in sexual selection. Remind me to tell you about female hyenas sometime.

To make this theory more concrete, here are some examples of what I see as sexual selection in RPGs – cases where you get a ginormous peacock tail or cricket sperm-packet not because it makes you more fit to survive, but rather because it helps you close the sale &  become omnipresent among the next generation.

  • The RPGA. It seems to me that WotC’s RPG design has, over time, moved in the direction of extremely comprehensive but thoroughly dissociated rules which fetishize balance between the players, discrete packets of encounters, and the highly predictable outcome and goodie-yield thereof because this helps them find mates in the organized play community. I don’t think this is at all the same as “fit for survival in the larger marketplace,” because over time the RPGA has undergone its own runaway sexual selection. An emphasis on character optimization and grinding to level up, and the associated habit of steadily purchasing new RPG material, tends to drive away more gamers than it attracts in my experience. But these same characteristics, along with its high organization and visibility, allows the RPGA to inordinately draw the attention of the folks who decide what kind of RPGs WotC should be making.
  • Employment for game designers. I don’t think it’s ever been proven that some variation on the Monopoly model, where you just have the one game and sell it unchanged for all time, wouldn’t move more units of D&D than constantly selling new editions and supplements. What I do know for sure is that, if you did that, there’d be no work for guys who want to make a living doing D&D design. Like most gamers, I dream about having the job Gary Gygax invented for himself at TSR. Can I really say that if I became lead designer at WotC, I’d put myself out of work by calling a halt to the supplement treadmill and the edition cycle that keep me so well exercised? I strongly suspect that the design spaces of 4E and similar modern RPGs – elegant, complicated, balanced, precise, leaving lots of little techy holes to be explored and filled in – are another kind of peacock’s tail, whose effectiveness at convincing game designers to make more of that kind of game is way out of proportion to their fitness in producing satisfying play experiences among the total population of everyone who might like RPGs.

Since this post makes a blah blah sound but is long enough already, here’s a quick Joesky tax:

When you’re playing a RPG and need to introduce a new personality, roll 1d6. Odd means that personality is male; even is female. I find that the White Sandbox is unexpectedly full of powerful female characters after using this rule for over a year. Better yet, they surprise me and often circumvent stereotypes because I think of their role and personality first, then find out what their gender is.

The size of the number signifies age, so that 1 is a boy, 3 is a man, 5 is a grandpa; 2 is a maiden, 4 is a mother, 6 is a crone.  Doug Kovacs points out that RPGs (and fantasy in general) has plenty of beautiful young ladies and ugly old ones, but a 1 in 6 incidence of plain middle-aged women is unheard of (in part, he says, because they tend to get art-directed away when he tries to draw ’em).

Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2011

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