Archive for April, 2012

30
Apr
12

One Page Dungeon: The Vault of Illusion and the Cube of Power

This is literally the only piece of the map I could post separately without giving away any important dungeon secrets!

I never seem to get my schedule matched up with the One Page Dungeon contest. In 2009, I drew up a dungeon, “Hilduin’s Vault of Illusions,” for the very first contest, but I got distracted and failed to turn it in by the deadline. Luckily the effort didn’t go to waste, since I was able to run my players through it for two sessions. And in 2010 and 2011, I completely lost track of the contest, finding out about the deadlines only after they’d passed.

But this year, fellow Mule author Greengoat posted his own doubtless-brilliant entry this past Friday. (I haven’t read Devil Gut Rock in hopes that I’ll actually have a chance to play it someday.) This gave me three whole days to produce my own entry! Fortunately, by recycling and updating my original entry — and with a brilliant artistic assist from Red Box New York player-cartographer Josh Krause — I’ve made the deadline and unleashed a horrid little package of tricks and traps onto the old school gaming universe.

For your gaming pleasure: The Vault of Illusion and the Cube of Power.

The Vault sums up, for me, a specific thread of old school play. It’s mean and unfair, but not in the sense that the referee has any personal animus toward the players. Rather, it’s structured to trick the players into getting themselves into trouble. While it’s not as vicious or deadly as the Tomb of Horrors, the same principles apply: the guy who built the place in-game (rather than the module writer, who built it out-of-game) did not have the adventurers’ best interests in mind!

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28
Apr
12

To Hell with ACKS, Let’s Play Scout Destroyer Unfathomable

Over at the Autarch forums there’s been some discussion of taking the Adventurer Conqueror King System past its current 14th level cap. There are many subtle design and setting-economy challenges involved, which pale before the question so what  comes after King then, huh, smart guy?Fortunately I have a ten year old supply of child labor around the house, which can be usefully put to work on thorny issues like these. As it happens, Javi already solved this one over a year ago. Hearing me talk about names for this thing I was working on, he was like “yeah that’s a pretty good system but it doesn’t go far enough.” Here are the expanded titles he rattled off :

  • -1: Egg
  • 0: Chip
  • 1: Scout
  • 2-3: Wanderer
  • 4: Adventurer
  • 5: Leader
  • 6: Commander
  • 7: Overtaker
  • 8-10: Conqueror
  • 11 – King
  • 12-13: Overlord
  • 14: Destroyer
  • 15: Legend
  • 16: Legend-King
  • 17: God
  • 18-21: Alpha God
  • 22: Controller
  • 23-24: Unfathomable

The first two things written here are eggs and chips, but I think that’s because I recorded this on the leftover Gary Con event ticket I was using for a grocery list.  I can see Eggs as a level title for a zero level character, but leveling up to Chips is harder to explain.

EDIT:

added my guess at their ACKS equivalents, and Egg and Chip 

27
Apr
12

One Page Dungeon: Devil Gut Rock

This is cross-posted from my illustration blog last night. I’m sorry if this is bad form, but no one reads my illustration blog anyway and this is a free goodie for you loyal readers. I gotta do something to make up for my lack of talkie-talkie on the mule blog. – das Goat

So, in the interest of triggering more rpg game-playing in my recalcitrant friend, I challenged him to make an entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest this year. Although he is well versed in the nature of dungeon adventuring and RPGs from way back in his youth, he balks at currently playing for various reasons of time commitment and free time. However, he is quite keen on the study of structures and the creation of “game play objects” like miniature painting and particularly making war-game scenery. I knew he would be up for some dungeon design.

So I emailed him the link to the One Page Dungeon contest on a lark, realizing that we had just over a week to go before the submission deadline. But it would be fun to goad him into a competitive effort and the process would be good for my infrequent DMing as well.

After he took the bait and started discussing ideas with me, I started to look through the OPDC webpage in earnest and saw that there were actual prizes awarded and I got even more excited. And then I looked through the winning entries from the previous years and got a bit nervous. There was some good stuff, both from a visual standpoint and play-wise. It would be some stiff competition.

Oh well, I figured. I told him we should blast through the process, try and get them submitted and then take turns playing each other through the dungeons one night. (Maybe shouting over to Mrs. Greengoat about how much fun this was.) That would be the best part and I could use my entry for a future session with the notorious NY Redbox Crew.

So after too much time spent on inking my isometric map and cramming as much text as I could decently fit on a sheet of paper I was finished. I wanted a good playable dungeon and kept my visual extravagances limited for readability and clarity. Or maybe I tell myself that because the map is kinda bare.) It has inspired me to get into more isometric cartography in future endeavors.

Tools used: I inkjet printed an isometric grid straight onto Borden & Riley Paris Paper and penciled in the rooms. I used india ink with brush and pen straight over that and added the keyed numbers digitally. Wrote the text in Open Office and did layout in InDesign with free fonts. I should start using all open source software in the future. Adobe habits are hard to break. I listened to the Melvins.

Use and Enjoy:

OPD_DevilGutRock_Greengoat

24
Apr
12

The Seven Geases

"Inhabitant of Hyperborea", by Clark Ashton Smith. Rumors that this was Rahbar Vooz's character sketch are unfounded.

Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases,” which Michael Mornard says was his and Rob Kuntz’s pick for the quintessential literary expression of what Dungeons & Dragons is about, can be read online. Go do so now, and then I will ruminate on some passages:

The Lord Ralibar Vooz, high magistrate of Commoriom and third cousin to King Homquat, had gone forth with six-and-twenty of his most valorous retainers… He and his followers were well armed and accoutered. Some of the men bore coils of rope and grappling hooks to be employed in the escalade of the steeper crags. Some carried heavy crossbows; and many were equipped with long-handled and saber-bladed bills which, from experience, had proved the most effective weapons in close-range fighting with the Voormis. The whole party was variously studded with auxiliary knives, throwing-darts, two-handed simitars, maces, bodkins and saw-toothed axes. The men were all clad in jerkins and hose of dinosaur-leather, and were shod with brazen-spiked buskins. Ralibar Vooz himself wore a light suiting of copper chain-mail, which, flexible as cloth, in no wise impeded his movements. In addition he carried a buckler of mammoth-hide with a long bronze spike in its center that could be used as a thrusting-sword; and, being a man of huge stature and strength, his shoulders and baldric were hung with a whole arsenal of weaponries.

Everything about this passage, from the big party of henchmen to the details of their equipment, is pure D&D.

“Most of the caves were narrow and darksome, thus putting at a grave disadvantage the hunters who entered them; and the Voormis would fight redoubtably in defense of their young and their females, who dwelt in the inner recesses; and the females were fiercer and more pernicious, if possible, than the males. “

The discussion of women and children amongst the humanoids of the Caves of Chaos often focuses on Gygaxian naturalism, but Clark Ashton Smith is no naturalist.  There is something pulpy and visceral about the image of  Ralibar Vooz slugging it out bare-handed with the females and the young of the Voormis; I think it’s the implication of savagery on both sides, so far removed from a duel between gentlemen with shiny epees and clean white fencing jackets.

“You speak in terms of outmoded superstition,” said Ralibar Vooz, who was impressed against his will by the weighty oratorical style in which Ezdagor had delivered these periods.

I think I remember reading that Gary wasn’t a CAS reader; certainly Klarkash-Ton is the most notable omission from the AD&D Appendix N reading list. (CAS does appear among the Moldvay recommendations.) However, whimsically baroque dialogue is a key ingredient in the D&D canon  by way of Jack Vance. Vance was famously influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, which suggests a line of transmission to Terry Pratchett. The Discworld books were ones Gary said he would have added to a modern Appendix N, and in our last session of Ramshorn Dungeon Mornard used a reference from a Pratchett (was it The Truth?) to describe how rapaciously the locals tried to pass themselves off as potential hirelings to claim the free meat and ale I foolishly promised.

Owing to such precipitancy, he failed to notice that the web had been weakened and some of its strands torn or stretched by the weight of the sloth-like monster.

I was (mis)telling the plot of “The Seven Geases” at Gary Con and Jim Skatch said “That’s the same story as Gilgamesh.” Notably, this was before I got to the ending!

I’ve been talking recently about whether role-playing games are truly a new thing under the sun, and if so, why it is that they weren’t invented sooner. I think that for lots of human history, legends were lived as much as told: sacred narratives incorporated into one’s daily experience, such that each of us takes on the role of the hero. The ending of “The Seven Geases” holds nothing sacred; the protagonist’s striving and fate are enjoyed from an ironic distance.

As literature, this distance lets us admire the impressionistic color and Smith’s lingustic brushstrokes. As source material for a game, it makes room for uncertainty and multiple protagonists. Attempts to make D&D into a heroic myth are unsatisfying because the hero’s triumph is foreordained, and the possibility of failure is necessary for player agency to be meaningul. And on a practical level, having one mythic hero who represents human aspiration is a bad fit for RPGs as a group activity; who is going to play Gilgamesh’s sidekick?

“The Seventh Geas” says that you can have any number of characters as bad-ass as Lord Ralibar Vooz, with his mammoth-hide buckler and 26 dinosaur-leather-clad henchmen, since any of them can have their illustrious career ended by a failed Spot check. Lots of later editions focus on fulfilling the promise of epic heroism; “The Seven Geases” says that the original game is really about coming oh, so close.

I should also say that Mornard uses “The Seven Geases” to illustrate that D&D is the story of the world, not the characters in it. I don’t have a particular quote to make that point, and hopefully he’ll do the job better in the comments than I could have.

23
Apr
12

Female Fighters of Color in Reasonable Armor

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

A post in which I talk about an art order gone wrong has gotten some attention in internetland, so I thought I’d celebrate an instance of an illustration becoming better in the transition from a designer’s vision to an artists’ hand. Above is Julie Dillon doing it right, below is my original art order:

Illo #4: Brawling Fighter
Specification: 1/4 page color

A FEMALE HUMAN FIGHTER grabs the wing joint of a GARGOYLE with her left hand while swinging a FLAIL towards the monster with her right hand. The fight takes place on the rooftops of a sprawling fantasy city, but the background is mostly dominated by the gargoyle’s spread wings. The figures are struggling at CLOSE QUARTERS, and the gargoyle is trying but failing to claw its way out of the woman’s grasp.

FEMALE HUMAN FIGHTER: She’s compact and sturdily built, with close-cropped curly brown hair and colorful earrings visible because the gargoyle has knocked her helmet off; it might be visible falling toward the bottom of the frame. She has dark brown skin and brown eyes; on Earth you’d guess she was from sub-Saharan Africa. She’s wearing SCALE ARMOR, a coat and Roman-style skirt of steel plates covered in colorful leather, with chainmail on her arms and greaves on her shins; in places the leather has been clawed away to show the metal underneath. Her FLAIL is a simple but brutal wood haft as long as her forearm, with a spiked ball on a chain about half the length of the haft.

GARGOYLE: The gargoyle should appear as depicted in the Monster Manual (115), except that it has moss and lichen growing on its surface.

The details that I described that weren’t picked up on, like the helmet falling off (to justify showing a face and still upholding reasonable armor), are more than made up for the sheer awesome of the gargoyle’s piteous expression as it tries to escape.

At the time I did these art orders I’d been reading about the Race in D&D presentation at Nerd Nite. In addition to having my own old-school agenda in describing weapons and armor that could possibly relate to the viewer’s experience of life and history, I was interested in seeing how many non-white depictions I could get into a D&D book. Here’s another Martial Power II illustration Julie did, followed by its art order:

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

Illo #44: Arrowhead Commander
Specification: 1/4 page color

A FEMALE ELVEN ARROWHEAD COMMANDER squats on the ground and uses an ARROW to draw a TACTICAL DIAGRAM in the dirt, which looks a little like a football play illustrated with circles and arrows. With her free hand she points at an ally outside the shot, telling them what their part in the plan will be.

FEMALE ELVEN ARROWHEAD COMMANDER: She wears HIDE ARMOR made of the skin of a colorful snake and has a LONGBOW and QUIVER OF ARROWS slung over her shoulder. Her face is lined with age and experience, and the brown hair she’s braided over her ears is turning grey. Her skin is leaf-brown, and her nose and cheekbones are as bony and angular as the male elf shown in the Player’s Handbook (40).

Let me start by noting that a frequent reason my art orders didn’t come out the way I write them is that I don’t know what I am doing while art directors and artists are experts. Looking at this illustration, it is clear to me that if she was drawing with an arrow and pointing at someone at the same time, she would fall over.  Thinking about issues of representation has to ride on top of accounting for the pragmatic business of illustration, about which I am largely ignorant.

The character shown here was not taken from actual play. However I did write this around the time that I started using a d6 to randomize the age and gender of my PCs and NPCs, which caused elderly women to show up a lot more often in my games. There’s a little gray in the hair of Julie’s illustration, but it’s not striking. I don’t know whether the art direction process toned down the character’s age, or if my description passed through untouched but lined faces were just not something the artist was interested in.

I took the language about leaf-brown skin directly from the 4E PHB – I wanted to be sure what I was asking for was within canon, and it’s noteworthy that this was explicitly said to be a way elves might look – but that detail doesn’t seem to have made it into the finished piece. I’m inclined to think that it dropped out in the art direction step of the process, given Julie’s  proven flair for painting dark-skinned women:

Planetary Alignment, copyright 2012 by Julie Dillon. Click to purchase prints.

To give some props to my fellow writers on Martial Power II, its art director, and Julie once again, I’ll close with a kick-ass illustration fitting the title of the post which I didn’t do the art order.

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

20
Apr
12

I’m a Third Level Gen Con Industry Insider Guest of Honor

I am proud to make two announcements concerning yesterday’s events:

  • My Glantri character, Gael Ur-Boss, reached third level – the greatest such achievement of any PC I’ve played in Quendalon’s campaign!
  • I was announced as one of the Industry Insider Guests of Honor for Gen Con ’12.

Particular reasons I care about these announcements:

  • Playing Glantri is fun. Having a character who is more capable will make it more fun (although it is to be noted that third level is nowhere near making Gael a force to be reckoned with in any Glantrian party these days).
  • Doing panels and workshops is fun. Having a larger audience resulting from the extra publicity from these being on the Industry Insider track will make it more fun (although it is likely that the bulk of this audience will be attracted by those GoHs more illustrious than myself: Wolgang Baur, Stan!, Dennis Detwiller, James Ernest, Matt Forbeck, Jess Hartley, Kenneth Hite, Steve Kenson, T.S. Luikart, Michelle Lyons, Ryan Macklin, Dominic McDowall-Thomas, Jason Morningstar, Susan Morris , Mark Rein-Hagen, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Gareth-Michael Skarka, Christina Stiles, George Strayton, Richard Thomas, Rodney Thompson, and James Wyatt).
It’s a truism that no one wants to hear about your character. I’m deliberately drawing a parallel by talking about my beloved Gael (did I tell you that s/he got a +1 to Constitution just from becoming a six-year-old orc instead of a five-year-old one, even before s/he leveled up?) in the same breath as my Gen Con appearances. These are games you can play within the world of roleplaying. If you invest enough time and effort, you’ll get a recognition which is meaningful to the other players in your group.  But even should you make it to name level, it’s still a game that’s pretty uninteresting to anyone not intimately involved.
That said, here are some reasons you might care about these announcements nonetheless:
  • You will be adventuring in Glantri and need a comrade with not zero, not one, but two whole first-level cleric spells!
  • You will be at Gen Con this summer and might be interested in stuff I’ll talk about at the panels and workshops I’ll be on.

Panels etc. are yet to be determined, but here are the ones I said I “would feel comfortable hosting” in the application to be an Insider GoH:

Fund Your Game Project with Kickstarter (panel)             

From publishing your RPG or boardgame to opening a gaming café, learn how crowdfunding can help you achieve your dream from those who have succeeded (and failed) with Kickstarter.

Raising Money for Charity with Gaming Events (workshop)

Learn how you can use your gaming skills to help a good cause by studying previous examples, getting practical advice, and participating in a celebrity roleplaying event to raise money for a gaming-related charity.

Record and Share Your Roleplaying Sessions (workshop)

Podcasts and actual play videos are increasingly popular as ways to share the excitement of your games and help bring new players into the hobby. Learn how to get started!

Teaching Games (panel)

Educators, parents, and kids share their experiences with programs that introduce kids to gaming, from school curricula to homeschooling to summer camps, and pass on advice and inspiration.

Getting Paid to GM (panel)

A survey of professional opportunities for roleplaying gamemasters and advice on how to get started.

Lunch hour being over, I should get back to the business of Getting Paid to Have a Day Job, but will perhaps come back to this topic (or ones raised in comments) in future.

18
Apr
12

More Concentrated and Powerful than the Original

An OSR blogger in the making, presuming that these '60s types are about to roleplay with Perky Pat

This week’s New Yorker has a piece about the phenomenon by which the forty-somethings who act as the gatekeepers for popular culture like to examine events “forty years past… the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.”

Some thoughts inspired by this:

  1. My own current fascinations are indeed more often not things I actually experienced, but those that I was too young to appreciate; the OD&D and Judges’ Guild stuff I didn’t own has more of a hold on me than the AD&D and TSR stuff I did.
  2. The writer, Adam Gopnik, talks about a 20 year cycle riding within the 40 year one, “by which the forty-somethings recall their teen-age years”. This could be used to point at any number of things in the OSR, and the fondness I felt for the movie Detention, which involves time travel to 1992. (Nick Mizer liked it too and is not a forty-something. The actual teens in the audience were not impressed, despite the reviewers who thought you’d need to tweet a thousand times a day to enjoy the film.) She Kills Monsters also combined ’90s and D&D nostalgia.
  3. Gopnik uses Mad Men as his example, which is a good a reason as any to point out that the ’60s science-fictional predictions of roleplaying invariably involve hallucinogens –  Thomas Disch’s “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire” and Philip K. Dick’s “The Days of Perky Pat“. SF about RPGs after 1974, like Dream Park or “The Saturn Game“, clearly seem to be talking about D&D instead of altered states of consciousness.
  4. From the article: “It is the forty-years-on reproduction of a thing that most often proves more concentrated and powerful than the original. Dixieland gets played more often than archival jazz.” Likewise I find it hard to believe that the way we approach games that were played back in the day does not achieve the old-school ideals more often than people were able to at the time, given how many more years worth of experience we bring to the task. (This is not to say that experience with wargames, which I lack, is not as important to good RPG play as anything else; it’s more that I have the advantage of having grown up in a culture in which games and fantasy of whatever kind were more prevalent .)
  5. Also from Gopnik: “If we can hang on, it will be in the twenty-fifties that the manners and meanings of the Obama era will be truly revealed; only then will we know our own existence.” I’ve already seen this happen with decades I lived through, and remember waiting for the ’90s to end so someone would explain what they were about.
  6. I think that Gopnik’s argument about the Beatles doing ’20s pastiches because it pleased/teased George Martin holds true the more you’re in a domain with a gatekeeper. With TV and contemporary art exhibitions, I am fully convinced.
  7. With fantasy specifically, I still think that there is something about the looking back to an idealized past that is endemic to the endeavor – we may be nostalgic for the D&D of our youth, but even in our youth it spoke to a nostalgia for the never-was which is perhaps something else altogether. However, thinking about the popularity of Mad Men helps pin down how much of our thing is this appeal of fantasy vs. the general pop-culture retrocycle.



Past Adventures of the Mule

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