Archive for May, 2011


rick jones, sorcerer (pt 3)

Avengers 57 by John Buscema

Using Sorcerer to run Atomic Horror type stuff, which I only know from comic books:

building a sorcerer scenario: the relationship map

In Dungeons & Dragons, players typically navigate a dungeon, designed more-or-less as a flowchart.

Zork I as flowchart

Sorcerer is one of many role-playing games that doesn’t work well in that format.  Instead of constructing a flowchart that depicts physical space, you build a house of cards, the “relationship map” showing lines of tension between NPC’s.  Here’s an example I found for some version of Vampire:

somebody's Vampire game as "house of cards"

Players, in the process of pursuing their own interests, will knock into the house of cards, and hijinks ensue.  All of this is addressed at great length in Sorcerer’s Soul, one of the supplements to the game.  But I’ll work out an example over the course of a couple posts.

N.B., obviously some of the really famous D&D modules use both techniques.  I’m thinking of something like B4: The Lost City or B2: Keep on the Borderlands, where the dungeon-dwellers have their own factions, alliances, and vendettas which the players’ arrival will inevitably throw into disarray.

step 1: draw lines of sex and death

All this day-dreaming about alternate Marvel Comics rosters makes me think about the House of Pym, and how it influenced the formation of the Avengers.  So my source fiction is gonna be Avengers comic books from, like, 1963 through 1973, with a focus on Hank Pym and the people linked to him.  Scripted by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, illustrated by Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and John and Sal Buscema.

At this stage, you plow through the source material again, keeping an eye out for relations between characters, particularly primal stuff like sex and killing.  Then you draw a little map: click to embiggen.

by some miracle I am not a virgin

genealogy of the Vision, 1967 through like 1973

Christ, that’s a lot of people!  Let’s pluck out the main characters:

The Pyms:

  • Goliath is a mad scientist with a massive inferiority complex.
  • Wasp, his wife, a generation younger.  Fabulously rich, spoiled nymphomaniac.  “Supportive” in a belittling way.
  • Ultron is Goliath’s creation: an indestructible, brilliant, genocidal robot with an Oedipus complex.

The Williams:

  • Wonder Man: a businessman who embezzled from his own company.  He gets blackmailed by the Enemy into becoming a double-agent.  He dies, heroically, as a triple-agent.
  • Grim Reaper is Wonder Man’s brother.  He’s not wrapped too tight.
  • Vision is Wonder Man’s brain downloaded into the body of a ghost-like robot.

The mutants:

  • Scarlet Witch is a ex-terrorist mutant who falls in love with the Vision.
  • Quicksilver is an ex-terrorist mutant who is rabidly possessive of his sister, the Scarlet Witch.
  • Magneto is a terrorist mutant who emotionally dominated Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.  Later revealed to be their father.

The sub-plot:

  • Goliath II (a/k/a Hawkeye) is Goliath’s jackass friend.  Naturally the original Goliath supplies him with an addictive steroid in the interests of national security.  He is sweet on the Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch.
  • Black Widow is an alluring Soviet spy who’s got Goliath II wrapped around her pinky finger.  Her ultimate loyalties are extremely murky.

step 2: identify moral crimes

Doesn’t have to be illegal, just morally disturbing to the reader.

  • Goliath, at Ultron’s urging, tries to scoop out the Wasp’s brain and plant it into a robotic body.  Because he loves her.
  • Ultron (Goliath’s darker side) scoops out Wonder Man’s brain and places it into a robotic body.
  • Goliath and the Wasp are locked into an extremely toxic marriage filled with physical (and emotional) abuse and a constant struggle for dominance, mainly fueled by Goliath’s raging insecurity, which the Wasp exploits when it suits her.
  • Magneto emotionally abused his children into joining his holy vendetta against the human race.  When the kids have second thoughts about it, he arranges to shoot the Scarlet Witch so that Quicksilver goes berserk and rejoins Magneto’s team.  Their betrayal costs the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver their only human friends.
  • Goliath II is wild for the Black Widow, but she exploits him in service of the Reds.
  • The Grim Reaper goes crazy when Wonder Man dies, and swears revenge against a whole bunch of innocent people.  (Oddly, he’s kind of okay with the idea that someone scooped out his brother’s brain and put it in a robot.)  (The Grim Reaper is a pretty lame character.)

“but i only care about dungeons and (inexplicably rare) dragons”

I’ll get back to D&D soon.  I want to finish this up.  Later this week we’ll conclude scenario creation for Sorcerer.


mighty marvel minimalism

A brief post because I’m tired after a long but enjoyable game of BrickQuest, run by our man Foner.  (Maybe Charlatan will share pictures and recollections.)

On the heels of yesterday’s post wondering what Marvel Comics would have looked like without Jack Kirby, here’s another probably pointless thought experiment:

What happens if you only used the superheroes featured in the 1984 Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game?

To refresh, that would be . . .

What If . . . 9 (second series), Rich Buckler pencils

  • Spider-Man
  • Wolverine
  • Captain America
  • Captain Marvel
  • Thing
  • Mister Fantastic
  • Invisible Girl
  • Human Torch
  • Thor (mentioned)

And on the villain side:

  • Doctor Octopus
  • Radioactive Man
  • Scorpion
  • Beetle
  • The Fixer

If you wanted to include guys with speaking parts in the rule books:

  • The Watcher
  • Doctor Strange
  • Beast
  • Professor X
  • Jarvis
  • Doctor Doom
  • Arcade

As noted in the Kirby post, it wouldn’t look too different, since most of the Marvel Universe was explored by the Fantastic Four.  There’s some version of the Avengers, and references to the X-Men.  Presumably the line-ups of both of these teams would be wide-freakin’-open for brand-new characters, created either by the Judge or by the players.  To me, it seems to hold just enough of the familiar Marvel Universe to be playable, but also so much is absent that  it’s practically a blank canvas.

Almost all of the villains are technological super-genius types.  The Scorpion, of course, is a lackey mutated into a freakish form by science run amok–presumably he’s out for revenge or dominance against other super villains, as well as against heroes.  And Arcade is, apparently, the deadliest assassin in the world–maybe he wiped out all the other X-Men.  (Ugh, it kills me to write that.  Arcade is a terrible character.)

Presumably Doctor Octopus and Wolverine have something in common in their origins: both are cyborgs.  Doctor Doom, scarred after his college experiment, may have studied sorcery under the tutelage of Doctor Strange.  Spider-Man and the Scorpion were both belted with radiation, possibly linking them to the Radioactive Man somehow.  Professor X and the Fixer may once have been close allies (replacing Magneto and Mentallo, who fulfill reciprocal roles for each character), until the Fixer betrayed him by harvesting DNA from Xavier’s students.

It’s possible that without the Puppet Master, there’d be no Alicia to take the edge off the Thing–meaning he’d still be carrying a torch for the Invisible Girl, and might still be in his raging, hair-trigger mood from early in the series, sort of filling the niche vacated by the Hulk.  And without the Hulk to have epic battles with, maybe the Thing takes his aggression out on Thor from time to time.

I don’t know where I’m going with this.  D&D blogs occasionally ask, “What if we only used monsters from the Fiend Folio” or whatever, so I figured I’d go through an analogous exercise.  I think where I end up is, “Gee, how about that . . . Okay, moving on.”


marvel minus kirby

What would the Marvel Universe look like without Jack Kirby?

Daredevil 7

My rule: all characters commonly credited to Kirby are out.  Furthermore, all characters who debuted in a title created by Kirby (Wolverine in Incredible Hulk 181) or in a spin-off of a Kirby title (everybody in New Mutants) no longer exist.

Titles we simply wouldn’t have:

  • Avengers
  • Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders
  • Fantastic Four
  • Incredible Hulk
  • Invincible Iron Man
  • Journey into Mystery (The Mighty Thor)
  • Marvel’s Space-Born Super-Hero, Captain Marvel
  • Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos
  • Sky-Rider of the Spaceways, the Silver Surfer
  • Tales of Suspense (Captain America)
  • Tales to Astonish (featuring Ant-Man & the Wasp and the Hulk)
  • X-Men
  • (Several late 70’s titles like 2001, Black Panther, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and Eternals)

A small handful of Silver Age titles would survive:

  • Amazing Spider-Man (pace authorship disputes)
  • Here Comes . . . Daredevil, the Man Without Fear
  • Strange Tales (featuring Doctor Strange)
  • Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner

It’s the loss of Fantastic Four that really hurts.  No Negative Zone, no Inhumans, no Kree, no Skrulls, no Blue Area of the Moon.  Without the other titles no Asgard or Stark Industries.

You lose female superheroes, at least in the Marvel Silver Age: there weren’t many to begin with, and without Kirby there are none.  The first black superhero wouldn’t be the Black Panther (Fantastic Four 52, July 1966) but instead the Prowler (Amazing Spider-Man 78, November 1969).  Jimmy Woo was among the very first Asian-American leading heroes in comics (Yellow Claw 1, October 1956), but he’s a Kirby character too.

And you lose creators.  Claremont, Byrne, Englehart, Starlin, Gruenwald and Simonson are all best-remembered for their work on Kirby-created titles or spin-offs, and under this experiment their voices would fall almost entirely silent.

what’s left?

By the 1970’s things expand out a bit:

apparently you had to be there

  • Adventure into Fear with the Man Called Morbius, the Living Vampire
  • Beware!  The Claws of . . . The Cat (a/k/a Tigra)
  • Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu
  • The Most Supernatural Superhero of All, Ghost Rider
  • Giant-Size Man-Thing
  • Howard the Duck
  • Iron Fist
  • Luke Cage, Hero for Hire
  • They Came from Inner Space, Micronauts
  • Night Nurse
  • The Man Called Nova
  • Omega the Unknown
  • Red Sonja
  • Rom, Space Knight
  • Savage Sword of Conan
  • Shanna the She-Devil
  • Skull the Slayer
  • Son of Satan
  • To Know Her is to Fear Her . . . Spider-Woman
  • Supernatural Thrillers: The Living Mummy
  • Tales of the Zombie
  • Tomb of Dracula
  • The Power of Warlock (okay, I’m cheating a little)
  • Werewolf by Night

Moving into the 1980’s…

  • Cloak and Dagger
  • Comet Man
  • Dazzler (arguably)
  • Elektra: Assassin
  • Jack of Hearts
  • Killraven, Warrior of Worlds
  • Longshot
  • Marc Spector, Moon Knight
  • Power Pack
  • Punisher War Journal
  • Rocket Raccoon
  • Speedball, the Masked Marvel
  • Team America
  • U.S. 1

put that into a cliche-larded archetypal game setting

In the grey centuries before the dawn of History, men and women fought demon-spawn.  With cultists fleeing the sinking of Atlantis came the Serpent Crown, bringing with it madness, death, and power.  The insidious litany of Set was memorialized in the Darkhold, repository of the foulest sorcery, and from its black pages were created the nosferatu and zuvembies.

These horrors stalked among us for millennia uncounted.  The blood tide of chaos was only cast back through steel and sorcery wielded with desperate courage.  (Welcome to Conan, Red Sonja, and so on.)

That legacy of evil persists even into this very age.  Unearthly things creep through the Nexus of All Realities and strike bargains with the unsuspecting or sire children with the unwary. (Okay, so, our modern day super-horror titles like Man-Thing, Son of Satan, and Ghost Rider.)

Memories of bygone days have faded, and ever anon man yearns to know that which is forbidden to him, prying matter apart to glean its secrets.  No surprise that in these vain experiments have left a mark on unlucky witnesses, who are lauded and shunned in equal measure.  (Spider-Man, Daredevil, Cloak & Dagger, Power Pack, etc.)

Yet this time mankind does not struggle against the darkness alone.  Across cosmic gulfs, alien intelligences–no strangers to the endless conflict between Law and Chaos–have sent strange emissaries to Earth to aid, inspire, and lead.  (Yep, Rom, the Micronauts, and Rocket Raccoon.)

isn’t this pointless?

Yeah, I guess so.  It beat doing real work.  Plus it lets me toss up this cover, which in this hypothetical would not be a sideshow curiosity, but rather  a huge frickin’ deal:

art by Michael Golden



stop! kirby time!

Metron, painted

From Fuck Yeah Kirby!

"Howdy Pardners, spend some time with two deformed freaks!"

From a 1990 Comics Journal interview.

Kirby, based on a story by Clarke and Kubrick

From a super-long but rich discussion of Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jim Steranko’s adapation of Outland.  I have not seen either of these movies.

Steranko, based on a story by Peter Hyams

Aw hell, some Jim Steranko in there too, just because the whole thing is on-line.  I didn’t even know it existed!


simple marvel minion rules

Gearing up for a one-shot of the Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game (“MSH”), I’m wondering how to handle the minion arms race.

Ordinary villainous henchmen–your street thug, your violent civilian in a lynch mob–has around 20-30 Health Points.   If you’re a superhero, you’re going to be fighting mobs of these dudes frequently, and you can’t afford to spend too long plowing through them.

We ran into this exact situation a few years ago, when a friend was playing Nightcrawler dealing with an violent gang of anti-mutant bigots.  Nightcrawler connects with a punch maybe 60% of the time, for 6 points of damage.  He would, on average, need six rounds to subdue a perfectly ordinary guy.   This is extremely disappointing, because the one thing Nightcrawler can do reliably is whomp on whole mobs of minions.

Now, sure: Nightcrawler might get lucky and stun people with a single hit, using finesse and talent rather than raw power.  But that requires him to score a very rare “red” result on the combat table (around 5% of the time) and for the minion to then fail an Endurance saving throw (which happens about 50% of the time), so Nightcrawler is only going to take someone out with a single hit about 2.5% of the time.

So two ways to handle this: boost Nightcrawler’s Strength score to around 30 points, or lower the minions’ Health to 6 points. (I guess you could also make stuns easier by massively changing the game’s economy, but sheesh, lots of work.)

Boosting Nightcrawler’s Strength is kind of a bad solution.  Your Strength score has an objective value in the game: if you have 30 points of Strength, you’d be able to lift 1 ton, which doesn’t fit Nightcrawler at all.  We’d have to reconfigure the Strength chart, and boost everyone else up accordingly.  Plus it would de-value characters’ body armor: if you have 20 points of Body Armor, Nightcrawler couldn’t hurt you with 6 points of damage, but would wear you down if he did 30 points.  Nerfing body armor might not be a bad thing, since it’s extremely powerful in this game, but I think that step needs to be thought-through very carefully.

The easier solution would be to use something like minion rules.  Here’s a thought:

Minion Rank Health Points Example
Feeble 2 Schoolyard bully. Angry invalid.
Poor 4 Civilian, riled up by Hate-Monger or whoever
Typical 6 Normal, un-organized criminal hoodlum guy
Good 10 Serious crook. Mobsters. Policeman.
Excellent 20 Mafia hit-man. Soldier. The Enforcers.
Remarkable 30 Super-goon.
Incredible 40 Robotic or extra-brutish super-goon.
Amazing 50 God-goon

Minions can have the same Primary Abilities as any other NPC, just that Health is figured based on their Minion Rank rather than totaling up the scores of their physical Primary Abilities.  Optionally, Minions can have an Endurance equal to their Minion Rank, making them easier to slam and stun.

As soon as a minion gets a name and agency, he or she ceases to be a minion and becomes a regular NPC, with regular Health points and so on.

Note that this also would permit certain characters to have Minions as a super-power: in any particular scene you can have 1d10 Minions to assist you, at a cost of, say, 10 Karma per minion.

ETA: getting the last word, from the future, but in the past

So I’m incompetent at blogging.  Below, Zak S comments,

If your Nightcrawler guy is walking up to minions and smacking them, the wrong player’s playing nightcrawler.

I meant to throw some images in a reply comment, but I don’t know how to do that.  So:

it kills me I can't place this issue - I think it's Dave Cockrum's art though

And then also:

Claremont and Byrne - like, issue 131 or 132

I’ll be generous and say that reasonable folks can differ over something so vitally important to the world at large as Nightcrawler’s ability to show off in comics from, like, 30 years ago.  So it’s not like Zak is insane: this character does have a license to get creative.  But I think this is an established trick, too, and I’d like to be able to pull it off a little bit more reliably.


rick jones, sorcerer (pt 2)

Building off Part 1.

"Betty, I love you, but you're crazy."

What in God’s name are you babbling about?

  • The Incredible Hulk, vol 1, issues 1-6 (this is the only stuff I know well)
  • Donovan’s Brain
  • It Conquered the World (boy does this sound like a Sorcerer story)
  • Little Shop of Horrors
  • The Quartermass Experiment
  • The Iron Giant
  • The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Basically, any “science-horror” from the 1950’s and 60’s featuring an alienated protagonist with a problematic relationship with an inhuman force.  If you know any good examples, please pipe up in the comments!

misfits of mad science

One of the fun things in Sorcerer is putting together specific types of demons, lore, and so on.  This is where setting acquire a lot of the occult trappings, superhero continuity, and all that stuff that gamers love so dearly.  Here’s a very rough draft of some of that, consistent with the tenets of Kirbytech.

Skrulls from Outer Space

Deliquescent slime-mold entities who have parasitically colonized the Andromeda Galaxy, the Skrulls have set their sights on the conquest of Earth.  Longlived and patient, the Skrulls have opted for a strategy of subversion.  By promising Earthmen scientists the fruits Skrull research, the Skrulls hope to corrupt our greatest minds and take over the world.  In Sorcerer terms, these guys are Passer demons (meaning they walk around independently) with Shapeshift and an appropriate Cover, desiring Power.  Within the Empire there are many competing rivalries, and even a sub-species of renegades, the Dire Wraiths.  (Can inflict Special Lethal Damage with their lightning-like tongues, and the Need to consume cerebro-spinal fluid; telltale is leaving a thin layer of ash behind after feeding.)

Phantoms of Limbo

Visiting Earth from the earliest days of our species, the Phantoms are intelligent patterns of flux in the Higgs Field.  When conditions are right–either in the ionosphere during sunspot activity, or as the result of the magnetic field contortions in a Moebius cyclotron–the Phantoms arrive.  They cannot be seen by the naked eye, but photographs and other reflections reveal weird blurry patterns in the air.  As immaterial beings, the Phantoms hunger for physical sensations, experienced vicariously through the humans they work with: in particular they get high on the operation of various “mood-chemicals” in the human brain related to violence, guilt, sexuality, and transgression.  In game terms: Inconspicuous demons, usually with the Shadow, Psychic Force, and Link abilities, possibly others as well; Desire is typically Sensation.

The Skrulls and the Phantoms are at war: the Skrulls seek to subvert and mind-control the human race, whereas the Phantoms derive sustenance, or some kind narcotic, from human depravity.

Radioactive Monsters

Some “demons” are entirely home-grown, rather than as intruders from beyond.  (Treat as Immanent demons from Sorcerer & Sword:  as creatures from this world they cannot truly be Summoned or Banished.)  As is well-proven in peer reviewed scientific journals, radiation makes ordinary creatures ginormous and incredibly strong.   (High Stamina score, abilities likely include Big or Vitality.) These creatures may be mindless or super-intelligent, but hunger for wanton destruction.  (Desire: Mayhem.)  Without constant gamma-ray bombardment they will lose their potency (Need: radioactivity.)

Radioactive monsters are usually Passer demons, but might be Parasites (radioactive spider-bite) or Possessors (Hulk, Lizard).

Thinking Machines

Computers and robots are invariably created to benefit all mankind through great intelligence (Boost Lore) and invulnerability (Armor).   Equally invariably, having a servant who’s smarter and stronger than you can lead to trouble (Desire: Knowledge, but frequently Mayhem as well).   Pioneering work in this field stems from early Nineteenth Century research conducted at the University of Ingolstadt, techniques which involve grafting human neural tissue to overcome limitations of computer hardware design.  (I’m trying to think of what the Need would be, what the “demon” requires in order to function.  Best practice is to make it something that endangers the “sorcerer’s” humanity, which is to say – personal loyalty, friendship, decency to others.)

put that together for me

Here’s a stab at Rick and his gamma-irradiated friend.

Rick Jones

early on, the Hulk always tries to kill Rick

  • Stamina 2, Scrapper
  • Will 6, Zest for Life + Vow
  • Lore 2, Apprentice
  • Cover 6, Crafty Juvenile Delinquent
  • Humanity 6 (starting)

The Hulk

  • Type: Immanent Possessor (host: Bruce Banner, subconsciously complicit)
  • Telltale: Grey-Green Skin
    • Big: seemingly impervious to harm
    • Special Non-Lethal Damage: titanic strength
    • Travel: leaping
  • Stamina 9
  • Will 10
  • Lore 3
  • Power 10
  • Desire: Mayhem
  • Need: Gamma Ray Bombardment

Bruce Banner would be an NPC “sorcerer” and Rick’s mentor.  The Hulk, in these early issues, is “bound” to Rick rather than to Banner.  Because Sorcerer is more of a horror game than a supers game, this version of the Hulk is “under powered” to comics fans, but should be able to dish out and withstand a great deal of damage, at least on a personal scale.  If you want more protection, I’d add the ability Armor.


Classic Rob Kuntz Modules on Loot!

Today’s deal at Gamerati’s Loot! website is definitely of interest to readers of the Mule: five classic adventures by Rob Kuntz, who co-DMed the original Greyhawk campaign along with Gary Gygax and created many of the seminal pieces of early D&D history. Much of this stuff remains unpublished, such as El Raja Key, Rob’s own castle + megadungeon combination – third in the lineage after Blackmoor and Greyhawk – and the world of Kalibruhn, which was once slated to be Supplement V for OD&D and then later a Pied Piper release based on “400 typed pages out of the several thousand pages of notes, maps and ancillary material extant on it.” Pieces of Rob’s work which did make it into print, like  Maure Castle (Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure), are amazing, especially (to my tastes) when they haven’t been translated into later-edition d20 presentation, and that’s what Loot! is offering up today.

Here’s the description; since their website only shows each day’s deals, if you’re not reading this on May 19, 2011 you’ll need this to tell you what you missed out on:

For all you collectors of awesomeness we have a great out of print deal from 1987. Maze of Zayene #1-4, Garden of the Plantmaster & City of Brass Promo Flyer (1st Printings). As an little bonus this includes a promotional flyer for the NEVER released “City of Brass” module! Written by Rob Kuntz one of the most memorable writers for TSR.

Full titles included:

Maze of Zayene Part 1 – Prisoners of the Maze
Maze of Zayene Part 2 – Dimensions of Flight
Maze of Zayene Part 3 – Tower Chaos
Maze of Zayene Part 4 – The Eight Kings
Garden of the Plantmaster (stand alone adventure)

All are in near mint to mint condition IN THE ORIGINAL SHRINKWRAP.

Some notes to make this not just a “buy this now” post – although yes, you should do that right away, I’ll wait here while you do.

  • I believe Garden of the Plantmaster, like Bottle City, is derived from one of the special areas in the original Castle Greyhawk dungeons, making it a fragment of one of gaming’s Holy Grails.
  • From a collector’s point of view, it’s nigh unbelievable that you can get these all at once, in shrinkwrap, with a promotional poster, for such a low price. However, having been a publisher it makes perfect sense. The customer sees scarcity because they’re on the far end of a distribution pipeline. There are ever so many ways this pipeline can break down, from troubles in the distributor and hobby store chain to lack of initial consumer demand to suck things through, at which point the publisher on the other end gets stuck with crate after crate of ’em. What seems beautiful, precious, and jewel-like in isolation – and oh, how I can’t wait for my copies of these modules to arrive – seems like so much slowly yellowing tree pulp when you have a lot of  it on your hands.
  • Even in the long-tail days of the Internet, maintaining these distribution networks is costly and effortful. In theory, my old company Behemoth3, Inc. still has print copies of A Swarm of Stirges and Maze of the Minotaur to sell you – in the dog days following the collapse of the d20 boom, we sure didn’t run out of even the 600 we did print-on-demand. However, the website we had that would have let you order them from us direct is long gone; we weren’t making enough to justify paying its hosting fees, especially when each year in which we didn’t dissolve the company’s assets meant another annual cost to stay current as an S-corp. (B3’s foolish decisions would fill another post by themselves). Assuming you reached us somehow, it would take some effort to figure out whose attic has the boxes of these copies, and more to haul them out and mail ’em. And we’re just talking about a six-year-old smallest-of-the-small-presses product here!
  • The stories of TSR’s vast warehouses, filled with endless crates in which relics are hidden, winding up in the dumpster make more sense to me from this perspective; yes, it’s tragic, but in publishing as in war, veterans have a jaded perspective on tragedy. All the more kudos to the Gamerati, then, for not only uncovering this wondrous treasure hoard but also moving it through a working distribution network that transforms it from burdensome crates of paper into gaming jewels once again.
  •  Erik Frankhouse, the Gamerati Network’s sales manager, was at Gary Con III; although I didn’t get the chance to meet him this year I’ll be sure to do so next time. Might this bode more such treasures of interest to old-schoolers coming down the pike? It can’t hurt to sign up for Loot!’s email notification service just in case…

Illusionism and Improvised Puzzles

A trilithion is three standing stones; a dolmen is a portal tomb. In play I called this a henge, which is wrong.

Like my previous post about illusionism, this is a reflection on the refereeing style I used for the last D&D birthday party James and I ran. To recap, the kids in my group rolled a wandering monster, which I decided to use to provide them with a map leading to the location of two magic items, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. James and I had prepared what these items did, but not where they might be found or what was defending them.

When the griffon-riding adventurers reached the hilltop where I’d told them the map said the horn of the valkyries was located,  I used a wipe-erase board to present the players with a situation map. “At the peak, you see a pair of standing stones, with a third stone laid across the top,” I said, drawing as I went. “Surrounding that is an area that’s scorched and burnt, parts of it are still smoking. You can see some dead bodies lying on the ground in this burnt area. Over here are trees that weren’t damaged by whatever happened here.”

Given that all of this was off the top of my head, what was I thinking? Here are the principles that I was using:

  1. Make it concrete. Drawing a map bought me a little time to think, but more importantly it gave the players a specific set of elements to work with – the trilithion, the burnt area, the zone of safety – each with a graphic reminder that these are the things we’re going to be interacting with in this scene. Vagueness is the enemy because it allows for an overwhelming number of possibilities; pinning myself down to these few elements was important for the same reason that improv actors start a sketch by having the audience provide them with a name, sentence, or concept that they’re going to riff on.
  2. Focus the mystery. The players’ goal is to snag the horn of the valkyries, but when they arrive it’s nowhere to be seen. That sets up a puzzle, which is great, but it also takes away the obvious path to the goal that’s motivating their efforts. I used the standing stones, a genre icon of the mysterious and otherworldly, to quickly suggest a new motivation. Without this hook, the search for the treasure might have become diffuse and frustrating.
  3. Set the stakes. The presence of the dead bodies establishes that something here is deadly; it sends the message to the players that they need to proceed with caution. (I’ve learned not to use the term “skeletons” when playing with kids, because that sends a different message: there’s something here to fight, yay!) I think it’s a good idea to signpost dangerous traps even when they’re planned ahead of time and thus somehow existing independently of me, but since I’m making this all up as I go along, I’d feel like a jerk if I just up and decided that touching the stones zaps you dead. Showing that someone made a wrong move and suffered lethal consequences lets me introduce consequences into play with a sense of fairness.
  4. Establish the limits. As a referee, I’ve learned that putting trash on the staircase will throw players into a frenzy of trying to figure out what’s going on. This can be useful when I don’t know what’s going on, because it buys me at least fifteen minutes to think and also spurs the players to generate lots of conjectures which I can use as inspiration. However, that kind of threat analysis can be paralyzing if it spins out of control. By drawing a perimeter of untouched trees around the area, I was signaling that this much at least is safe, you can get this close and try things out without fear,  in order to forestall an ever-widening panic zone.

So even though many of the kids in this group had never played D&D before, they immediately start thinking like adventurers, eagerly grappling with the problem of how to extract the maximum loot at minimal risk to themselves. Meanwhile, I’m improvising the situation, letting my reactions to their actions and ideas define what’s going on in the world we’re all imagining together.

    • Kids: Is there any writing on the stones?
    • Me: Yes, as you fly over them you can see runes carved into the front of each stone.  This is a no-brainer – it’s impressive how many conventions of the fantasy genre are already known to nine-year-olds – but I draw a sketch of the stones and rune-writing to make it concrete.
    • Kids: Can we read it?
    • Me: I don’t know, why would your character be able to? Throwing questions back is a good reflex for an improv referee. Apart from just buying time to think, it gets the players involved; few will pass up a chance to fill in the details of how and why their character is capable of fantastic deeds.
    • Kid #1: Because I’m a magic-user!  As noted previously, we didn’t have the kids do the character generation process that, from edition to edition, has made sitting down to play D&D ever more like filling out a tax form. However, it seems the basic ideas of classes are also part of the conventions third-graders have absorbed.
    • Me: You can tell that it’s magic writing, the kind that’s used in spells, but you’re not sure what it means. This is because I’m not sure yet either, but we’re closing in on the writing being part of a magical lock or trigger.
    • Kid #2: Let’s send the hippogriff we found down there and see if it gets burnt up!
    • Kid #1: No, it’s an animal and we made friends with it, we can’t make it get hurt!  Although Kid #2 clearly has enormous natural potential as a D&D adventurer, I’m impressed by Kid #1’s convictions. Alignment is another thing we haven’t introduced, but this kind of morality is something I want to encourage and explore…
    • Me: The letters on the top stone light up with a red glow.  So now I’ve decided that the trilithion is a gateway. Only those who prove themselves morally worthy will be allowed to pass through to the Rainbow Bridge, where the Valkyries wait to give the horn to true heroes.
    • Kid #2: Oooh! OK, I want to look at the dead bodies on the ground. Can I tell what killed them?
    • Me: You see the charred bones of humans; some are surrounded by melted metal that might have been armor and swords. These are mingled with what look like the bones of lions with wings. Reincorporation – taking things that have been established before and tying them back in as the story unfolds – is a powerful improv technique for creating meaning, depth, and coherence.
    • Kid #2: Hey, this is what happened to the rider of the griffon we captured! Those guys came here with the map to find the treasure, but they did something wrong and only that griffon escaped! This is good adventurer thinking, of the less morally-questionable variety that I want to reward…
    • Me: The letters on the left stone light up!
    • Kids: All right! What if there’s an item you’re supposed to put into the stones? Someone should fly down there and check it out. Not me, though, I don’t want to get burned!
    • Me: The letters on the last stone turn dark. Now these two are glowing red, but these are a deep black. I’ve decided that the last virtue the gate is looking for is courage, and am signifying that the players are displaying its opposite.
    • Kid #3: I’ll ride my griffon between the stones and see what happens! This kid also has a great D&D career ahead of him, although he’ll roll up a lot more new characters than the guy who herds livestock ahead of him into every potentially dangerous situation.
    • Me: As you bravely descend towards the stone, the runes on the last stone change from black to red. Your griffon soars between the stone, and everyone else sees you disappear! What you see is a rainbow stretching down from the clouds. A knight rides a horse down the rainbow, and as she draws near she takes off her helmet so that her long hair blows in the wind. “You have passed the test and proven yourself worthy of the Horn of the Valkyries,” she says. “You showed Compassion when you chose not to send the griffons to their deaths. You showed Intelligence when you learned from the mistakes of those who came before you. And you showed Courage when you approached the gate despite the danger.”

One definition of illusionism says that

In order to qualify, the players must be presented with a choice or series of choices that when made seems to affect game events, while in actuality the consequences of each option are the same.

I don’t think this kind of illusion of choice is what’s going on here. At some points during the discussion, the kids talked about just flying away from this situation and seeking out the cloak of shadows instead. If they’d done so, the consequences would not have been the same; the scenario didn’t require them to get either magic item, and I would have been just as happy to see them go flying around at random capturing Pokemon and beating up wandering monsters.

However, we are in the realm of “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players dream up,” which some of the commenters on the previous post had problems with. Justin Alexander said:

I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between “I’m going to change the game world to match what the players are saying” and “this bit of blank canvas hasn’t been filled in yet and Bob just said something clever”. As a player, the former would de-invest me in the game world. The latter, on the other hand, is A-OK in my book: It’s simply a fact of reality that no fictional game world can be wholly pre-defined, and saying “I definitely WON’T have the balrog by a servant of Galfeshnee because that’s what Bob said” would be just as artificial to me as saying “the balrog WILL be a servant of Galfeshnee because Bob said it”. I’m not sure where “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players” would fall on this scale. (For example, “I’m going to design a murder mystery, but not both figuring out who actually did the murder. I’ll just wait for my players to come up with a theory that sounds good.”) But since it would annoy me to the point that I would probably quit playing with a GM who did it, I’m going to lump it into the first category.

And Stuart concurred:

Being presented with a mystery that we wasted time trying to figure out when there was in fact no solution would definitely annoy me to the point of quitting the game. I think it’s important the players understand whether there is in fact anything to figure out looking back, or if it’s all about looking forward and collaboratively improvising something new.

I would be psyched to have Justin or Stuart playing in my game, so I want to figure out how I could keep them from getting so annoyed they would quit! Let’s first address the issues about honesty and disclosure by imagining that I was explicit about this at the start of the campaign: As you decide where to go in this sandbox, sometimes you’ll encounter pre-planned adventures I’ve placed in a location: modules prepared by others, or less often, completely written out by myself ahead of time. In this case, I’ll pretty faithfully stick to the text to decide what you find when you go there. Sometimes you’ll go places I haven’t prepped for, so I’ll use procedural generation and improv tools like wandering monsters, interpreted on the fly, to decide what you find. And sometimes, to give meaning to things that come up in play and to advance my own DM agendas, you’ll encounter the edges of stuff I’ve just made up, or for which I have some pre-existing ideas about what’s going on without having decided on all the details. I’ll do my best to conceal from you that this is what I’m doing because I want you to engage with these conspiracies, NPC machinations, events in the world, etc. in the same way you would if they were part of a pre-planned adventure, and because I want you to experience your character’s unraveling of this situation as if it were a discovery of something that existed in the world of the game even though it’s really an improvised co-creation.

For Justin and Stweart, and folks who share their feelings: Would this be the point at which you’d say “this isn’t a game I want to play,” or would you get annoyed only if the illusion kept slipping and making it apparent when the content was improvised? And do you foresee that becoming apparent because improvised stuff was annoyingly more shoddy or awkward than the stuff prepped ahead of time?

I feel like, for my style of DMing, the only way I’d include puzzles like the example above is to have them be more or less improvised. The closest approximation I can envision to the situation Stuart describes – wasting time solving a mystery that has no solution – sounds to me like what I fear would happen if I pre-scripted puzzles: wasting time trying to solve a mystery that has no solution that makes sense to the players. One great advantage of improvised mysteries is that they are guaranteed to have solutions that exist in the player’s minds, and specifically the best solution that evolves through play.

I have relatively little experience designing pre-planned adventures, and when I do they don’t tend to include mysteries and puzzles. Presumably if I did, I’d have more of a sense of how to set it up so that the players found their way to the designated solution without getting frustrated or feeling railroaded. As it is, I’m much more comfortable letting both the puzzle and its solution arise during play. The balrog random encounter referenced in the last post became an awesome moral conundrum: will the players decide to get out of a seemingly hopeless situation by sacrificing innocent henchmen to demons? Trying to set up dilemmas like that seems better suited for games with our Indie Filth tag, and even there I often feel claustrophobic when gameplay always gets re-focused on building to the next opportunity to test the characters’ beliefs.

I’m happiest when unplanned elements suggest ways to create puzzles, because I feel like that way the context is appropriate to the situation they’re placed in and the content can reference stuff that we all obviously care about and have in the forefront of our consciousnesses. The fact that these puzzles will usually start with a great lead-in, but not know the great solution ahead of time, seems to me like a small price to pay. But I dig that folks I respect may feel differently, and am eager to understand why.


The Power of Saying No

The New York Red Box group has two ongoing old-school campaigns: Eric‘s Glantri and my White Sandbox. Just as the presence of two professional baseball teams in NYC gives rise to the enjoyable rivalry of the Subway Series, the different approaches of these two campaigns create one of the productive tensions within our group.

I’d estimate that about a third of us play regularly or semi-regularly in both campaigns, with the remaining two-thirds being players in only one or the other. This largely boils down to whether people are available on weeknights for Glantri, on weekends for White Sandbox, or enjoy the luxury of having time for both.

But even if the division within our player base is basically due to factors extrinsic to the game, all of us enjoy having two mirror-image campaigns so that we can better understand the way things go in this one by comparing it to the way they do it over there.  As Naked Samurai memorably expressed:

Most of the Glantri campaign believes the White Box campaign goes like this. The session starts in a magic item bazaar, where they pick up stray magic items with the metric assloads of gold they are carrying in bulldozers. After lapping up a few Staffs of Striking and a Long Sword of Sharpness +4 or two, they wander around a valley until they seduce a few werebears, who sire their children. Then they enslave, like, a few tribes of gnomes to take care of their griffon mounts and tiny giraffes. After threatening several giant kings, who aren’t worth their time, they bump into a couple demons from the depths of hell, who they vanquish within half a round. Then they discuss, philosophically, why death has no meaning, as they stroll back home.

Not bad for fourth level characters.

Is this just the grumblings of players who should be content that they survived an adventure in Glantri, and even came away with a single silver spoon as treasure? No, there are indeed measurable differences that underlie the distinction N.S. is making here.

As in chaos theory, many of the biggest separations  in how the campaigns have evolved come from their original conditions. The Glantri campaign has always started new PCs at first level, while characters enter the White Sandbox at third level (following my decision to use Gygax’s house rules). At that link Cyclopeatron notes that “Gygax’s house rules are interesting because most of them make characters stronger”, but even the pre-house-ruled systems Eric and I each use differ in this regard; spells like hold person are much more potent in OD&D than their counterparts in Moldvay/Cook B/X.

But other differences suggest a divergence in play styles. James’ analysis of XPs earned in each campaign suggests that the rate of advancement per session of adventure is eight times faster in the White Sandbox than in Glantri. The fact that the bulk of these experience points come from gold means that we do indeed have adventures structured around the logistical difficulties in moving metric ass-tons of coin – one of the few kinds of difficulty that Glantrian players are not regularly exposed to. Back when we were grinding through the upper levels of the Caverns of Thracia, I made a conscious decision to increase the treasure levels (to a rough guideline of 4 gp for every 1 combat XP, suggested by Alexander Macris in a comment here at the Mule way back when) and have been playing out the implications ever since.

I’ve been saying recently that the White Sandbox is an exploration of the improv principle “always say yes”, while Glantri is a demonstration of the power of saying no. You could perhaps map this onto the distinction between paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy,” and ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty.”

Let me be clear that I’m not painting Eric as a joyless denier, or saying that the only reason to play in Glantri is a masochistic enjoyment of difficulty for its own sake. Experiences are fun because they balance both of these extremes; awesomeness is produced by the tension between them, and I can personally attest that the Glantri campaign is a reliable source of awesome fun. I’m interested in seeing Glantri as an example of the power of saying no because I need to harness that power for my own play, which has a tendency to go too far in the other direction.

Here are the things I think saying no contributes to a RPG experience, especially in a long-form campaign:

  • The satisfaction of overcoming opposition. Players in the White Sandbox really are worried about death losing its sting; even as raise dead becomes a more common event in the campaign, they want the possibility of the ultimate, character-sheet-shredding NO. (Spiritual mishaps are one way we’re hoping to balance these). The more often a character’s desires are denied, the more thrilling it becomes when they finally succeed. Heroes with a surplus of Staffs of Striking can be hard to challenge, whereas in Glantri, as Naked Samurai said earlier in the thread quoted above, “we need to actually be, you know, resourceful, to make it down the river.”
  • Maintenance of a consistent reality. Gene Wolfe turned me on to Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, many of which have a structure in which the priest-hero does things that seem really shocking and the mystery is why this is actually moral and necessary. There’s a great one where Father Brown sees this young man watching raindrops on a tavern window, and subsequently abducts him and ties him to a tree out in the rain. “I could see that you were on the verge of a grave theological error,” our hero explains. “I knew that you were thinking that the course the raindrops took was a product of your own mind, and took it upon myself to demonstrate that there is a reality upon which your desire not to be tied to a tree has no bearing.” Saying no to things that violate the fictional reality is necessary not only for believability and immersion, but also player agency. The world needs to work in predictable ways for people to be able to plan the likely consequences of their actions; we base our game-world expectations on our common experiences of the real one, in which stubbed toes reliably refute solipsism. The higher power level in the White Sandbox makes this harder because each magical effect the characters can produce gets us further away from the world in which we know what is and isn’t possible.
  • Lines and veils. I realized how much I’ve internalized the New York Red Box’s coolness policy about what kind of things shouldn’t be brought into a game at all, and which other things should be alluded to instead of shown, when I recently participated in a game that wasn’t played in a public space. All of a sudden I was dropping f-bombs left and right, liberated from self-censorship and able to speak all the things I normally say no to.
  • Maintaining the campaign’s tone. This is one Eric struggles with; having given up on a kind of saying no that looks like hard work means that my campaign automatically assumes the gonzo tone you get when nothing is forbidden. Wanting to do a different kind of game would mean having to say no to dissonances and mis-steps.

One thing I think is important is that saying no isn’t just something the DM does. That’s been the way it’s traditionally conceptualized, and in the above I’ve been focusing on Eric because as Glantri’s DM he’s the easiest way to personify that campaign. But in fact I’m the one who censors my own language when I play in Glantri, and I can’t think of any times I’ve needed to police the lines and veils policy in White Sandbox because respecting that is a communal effort.

This is crucial for me because I tend to get the power of saying no mixed up with having all the power and needing to be in control. When I’m DMing for kids and they come up with some totally unexpected idea, I often observe that my first impulse is to say no. On further reflection I realize that there’s no good reason to do so; in this context there’s no real game balance to be maintained, no consistent tone to be respected. I’m just reflexively saying no because I’m afraid that opening up to player input will cause things to spiral out of control and fall apart, with the implied fallacy that I’m the only important one who is capable of holding it together.

Saying no is one of the DM’s jobs, and in the afterschool class it’s a job I get paid for despite not doing it very well. Being disciplined about defining where the power of no holds sway is important, because it makes improvisation joyful by providing something to strive against. But doing this can be a collective part of playing, and sometimes relinquishing control to the players lets them enjoy the power of saying no.

In the White Sandbox, James gets a lot of enjoyment out of his character Arnold Littleworth, d/b/a Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, because he’s decided never to memorize any useful spells whatsoever. Even in a campaign where endless tiny giraffes could be his for the taking, he’s created his own gratuitous difficulty in order to make the one time that a useless spell saves the day a triumph over adversity. Sure, that adversity is imaginary and self-imposed, but what in D&D isn’t?


rick jones, sorcerer (pt 1)

“James,” no one asks, “where have you been?

Why don’t you blog anymore?”

I have been on an RPG bender, snorting powdered rule books, line after line of Gygaxian prose, until I’ve ruined my nasal cavities, and sticking irrational-sided dice into various orifices.  I’ve turned myself into New York Red Box’s very own Wandering Monster, showing up randomly at sessions and giggling at things nobody else thinks is funny, encouraging TPK’s through bad advice.  Then leaving early to snort more rule books.  Soon I’m gonna end up like my man Ska-Tay, mainlining retroclones and telling myself it’s no big deal since it’s just micro-lites.

Anyway: content!


Crossposted over at the Forge.

While trying to put together another one-shot for Marvel Super Heroes, I ended up thinking about the Hulk.

In the very earliest issues of The Incredible Hulk, which lasted for all of 6 issues in 1962, the Hulk is a rampaging atomic monster hell-bent on conquering the Earth, destroying the human race, and raping Betty Ross.  Not necessarily in that order.

This was a comic sold to children

even creeper in original context

The only thing holding him in check (just barely) is teenage delinquent and high school drop-out Rick Jones.  These early Hulk comics are really the story of an incredibly quick-witted and resourceful boy trying desperately to save the world from a monster he feels responsible for creating.

It’s a Sorcerer story, at least in its better moments.

This write-up isn’t meant to replicate Hulk comics precisely, but rather to play on the desperation, Cold War paranoia, atomic monster fiction of the time.  Rick and the Hulk are just one data point in there.

Sorcerer, for those who don’t know…

Is an RPG where you play Faust.  You’re a mostly-ordinary dude, except that through sorcery you’ve bound a demon into your service.  If you’re a PC, you probably had a really good reason for doing so, but the game is about finding out how well that works out for you. Your goal isn’t just to advance your own interests, but to somehow preserve a shred of your Humanity, which is sort of like your spiritual health.  It’s one of my favorite games and one that I wish I could play more often.

Sorcerer, as a rules text, is all about formal abstractions: “demon” doesn’t have to mean a critter from Hell, all that matters is that, however you define the term in your setting, the rules for demons apply.  (D&D analogy: maybe in your world, Fighting-Man is more of a samurai dude or a Wild West gunslinger, instead of a medieval European knight, but in all cases the rules for Fighting-Men would apply.)

Customizing Sorcerer for the setting

we'll get to you later, Doctor Pym

Humanity is loyalty, friendship, human decency type stuff.  You can roll Humanity vs. Will to compel someone to cleave to you.  Rick does this a lot to persuade the rampaging Hulk to cool it.

Demons are monstrous creatures and unearthly technologies brought forth by the atomic age.  Unprecedented outlanders, these oddities either do not respect or simply fail to understand the reciprocal bonds that make us human.  The monster’s Power score represents the scope or intensity of its loathing.

Sorcery is super science, the relentless pursuit of atomic energies and Space Age revelations that mankind was never meant to know.  Pursuit of knowledge in the abstract, with no regard how it will impact the rest of humanity, marks someone as beyond petty concepts like “loyalty” or “friendship.”

Lore is basically comic-book super science, doing stuff like contacting aliens on other planets, developing biological weapons that turn into blob-monsters, building robots, implanting wasp DNA into teenage girls, and so on.  This isn’t just science, but 1950’s “mad” science, things that just cannot possibly work.

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2011

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