Archive for the 'Blogosphere Explorations' Category

08
Apr
13

Not a trap, but a feature

So why are dungeons full of weird-ass deadly traps anyway? Someone built the place at some point, and surely putting a spiked pit in the middle of the main hallway or a poison needle on the bathroom doorknob was asking for trouble. It would be nice to have a plausible explanation for such things!

Fortunately, our good friends at RPGnet have compiled an exhaustive list of bizarre deathtraps along with tortuous justifications for their presence! Many of the explanations border on the ridiculous; others gleefully leap over that boundary into full-on gonzo surrealism. But the thread is a gold mine for weird traps and weirder backstories that should inspire any DM.

To quote the introduction to the thread:

Old-school dungeon crawl scenarios frequently contain mechanisms and architectural features that seem to serve no imaginable practical purpose, unless one presumes they were deliberately designed to mess with adventurers’ minds. From fountains of acid, to strangely situated pit traps, to Goldbergian contraptions that kill anyone who enters the room in entertainingly baroque ways, it sometimes seems like every dungeon is a malevolent underworld labyrinth with a personal grudge against the PCs.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing it that way, but sometimes it can be more fun to take these inexplicable features and try to imagine what their original purpose might have been – that is, to justify them as something other than purpose-built adventurer-shredding devices.

Click here to read more about room-sized winepresses, mimic farms, electric thrones, exploding phylacteries and ultradimensional sharks.

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02
Sep
12

Wear a Tall Hat Like a Druid in the Old Days

By stringing together lines from Mark Bolan lyrics, this Abulafia generator has everything you need for generating the themes of your next D&D game. A million thanks to Jeremy Duncan at Dandy in the Underworld for creating this handy non-pharmacological tool for injection of the daydreamer fantasy strain.

I’ve been buckling down to read Playing at the World cover to cover, after intially dipping into pages at random and then picking the brain of its author Jon Peterson as often as I could at Gen Con. I haven’t yet reached the chapter on the cultural influences of fantasy and swords & sorcery that fed into D&D. Convenience sampling indicates that this section is typically completist and uses primary sources to reveal all kinds of antecedents that are new and exciting, but I don’t yet know what it makes of T. Rex. Certainly I learn something about the early ’70s from the fact that a band whose first drummer was called Steve Peregrin Took was able to make it big with a mash-up of druidic lyrics and video effects of clouds drifting against mirrorshades.

One idea that came up in talking with Jon was that pattern recognition is fundamental to D&D. This is central to Playing at the World‘s theme of simulation because it means that the level of detail provided by the game can be very coarse. Given just a few dots and lines, humans will tend to see a face; add gamers’ willingness to participate in the process of imagining another reality and you get vivid experiences from a handful of d6.

An example of pareidolia, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”

For me, the enjoyment of pattern recognition in itself is part of the pleasure of playing in the old-school style. Random encounters, sparse one-page-dungeon keys, and evocative hex descriptions all foreground the experience of making narrative sense out of very minimal inputs. And playing with systems like OD&D that are full of lacunae and contradictions compels pattern recognition at the table on the level of game design; we’re cobbling together both an imaginary universe and the way we simulate it. I find that a high level of indeterminacy in story and system go hand in hand to create the sense that we’re discovering an independently real place through play. Both the things we discover there and the lens through which we view it are continually adapting as this other world comes into focus.

However, thinking about T. Rex also points out that pattern recognition works on familiarity. We see faces in rocks and trees because we’re humans and that’s what our brains are primed to see. Bolan’s lyrics often touch on mythology because that’s a deep well of familiarity that can be tapped with just a word or a sentence fragment.

It’s unlikely that T. Rex was any kind of formative influence on D&D’s creators, especially never having been big in America, but there’s no doubt that a huge part of D&D’s early audience was made up of the kinds of longhairs who thrilled to find hobbit references in Led Zeppelin lyrics. Gygax didn’t see Tolkien as a significant contribution to D&D, but this becomes academic once hundreds of thousands of people seize on the game as their gateway to Middle Earth. Likewise, the fact that the face on Cydonia is in reality just a coincidental arrangement of shadows on rocks shouldn’t limit our enjoyment of this:

One of the major accomplishments of the OSR has been doing the kind of religious education you need to see Jesus’s face in a tortilla. Marc Bolan’s lyrics can look like word salad if you don’t bring a big investment in druid hats to the party, while they’re super exciting if you care a lot about Beltane walks. Likewise new-school gamers didn’t see the virtue in random encounters causing TPKs because they hadn’t read The Seven Geases, and scorned games that generated narratives of amoral murder-hoboes because they lacked the Vancian language that made Cugel’s similar exploits suitable material for “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy.”

The fact that we’re now ready to play the DCC RPG as a “system that cross-breeds Appendix N with a streamlined version of 3E” depends on a lot of work getting people to read the fantasy canon that enables us to make a vivid image out of the minimalist elements of 1974-era D&D. My favorite part of being in the loop of the DCC development team was getting one another up to speed on the things ’70s fantasy means to us. Here’s one example from Erol Otus:

“George Barr is one of my favorite artists because he puts personality into his creatures, they all seem to have intentions. Little did I know that some 20 years later I would be sharing artistic duties with him on Star Control 2. I don’t remember Alan Garners story in detail except I have a feeling its one of the several that formed the basis for Harry Potter.” – Erol Otus, 2010 email

If the OSR is ready to rest on its laurels and go gently into that good night – which is a thesis I offhandedly advanced at Gen Con and need to explicate in a future post – it’s because we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding random Mark Bolan lyrics as a gateway to the wonders of 1970s daydream fantasy. However, the fact that there are still more of these awesome paperback covers Erol turned me onto which I haven’t blogged about yet means that maybe there is still some distance to go before we deposit our corpse in the well where it will taint the groundwater for generations to come.

13
Aug
12

Playing at the World: A Nuclear Weapon in a Hand-Cart

I just got my paperback copy of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games from Amazon. It is impressively huge, and after checking out some of its 698 pages at random, I was compelled to track down this quote from Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

Sometimes I’ll be blathering on about the early history of roleplaying and people will say “hey Tavis, you should write a book about this stuff.” In the past I’d feel bad that this was unlikely to happen, but now I no longer have to worry about it. The position has been taken by Jon, who (to extend the Snow Crash analogy) I firmly believe has a tattoo on his forehead consisting of three words, written in block letters: EXTREMELY THOROUGH RESEARCH.

I first heard about Playing at the World back in March, when Emily Melhorn contacted me for help in trying to get Mike Mornard’s permission to reproduce in the book a map that he’d drawn for the original Greyhawk campaign. She said that Jon had purchased the original of this map at an auction many years ago, and that “he would like to use it to illustrate how the secrecy of a dungeon map was a fundamental design innovation of D&D, which he then further describes how “secret information’ was used in previous wargames.”

This sounded like a pretty cool thesis, and at first glance it looks like Playing at the World is going to take it to lots of interesting places. But Peterson’s killer app – the nuclear warhead on a dead-man switch that he’s carting around to discourage any would-be bad-asses – is his degree of access to primary materials. Just hinted at in this original email, it’s on full view at the Playing at the World blog, where he began busting out a fantastic assortment of ur-texts beginning with Domesday Book #1 and the Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger #1.

In the comments there, early D&D scholar Daniel Boggs writes “For Pity’s sake Jon, why don’t I know who you are?” I think the answer is that the wings of the OSR devoted to rediscovery of original approaches through actual play, and self-publishing of retroclones designed to support such play, have gotten the lion’s share of attention in the circles (like the OD&D boards) that I hail from. The community efforts of roleplaying collectors, like the Acaeum, represent equally vital and dedicated wings of the OSR cathedral. Previously I’ve only sensed the scale of those wings via echoes at places like the North Texas RPG Con which seem to bring out a lot of collectors. Playing at the World is proof that I’ve been missing a lot. It’s an achievement even grander in scale than OSRIC, and like the first retro-clone I expect it will be the foundation for a lot of further expansion by fans and scholars. As Jon says in reply to Dan’s comment:

One of the reasons why I took on this book project was because, as a collector, I have access to some obscure resources that haven’t gotten a lot of prior attention. If you glance through the book, you will for example find a reproduction of a pre-D&D Blackmoor character sheet, with the original names of the abilities and so on. I also have some circa-1974 letters from Arneson, including material that sheds light on which ideas from the Blackmoor system Gygax rejected. Having the big picture from Corner of the Table really helps as well. In short, there are a lot of resources that the community has lacked to date. Expect that as people start assimilating what’s in the book our picture of early Blackmoor will probably shift a bit.

This is exciting stuff! If you’re at all interested in the history of this thing we do, you owe it to yourself to follow the blog and buy the book.

Rob Conley mentions that Playing at the World “doesn’t have much in the way of personal stories about the individuals of the early days.” Although this would seem to leave an un-filled position, I am glad to report that Mike Mornard, a badder motherfucker than I could hope to be, is taking care of it with a memoir of those early days titled We Made Up Some Shit We Thought Would Be Fun. That work is forthcoming; given the dense goodness of Playing at the World, I’m hoping it will take me long enough to read it as it does Mike to write his reminiscences so that I can put down one and pick up the other.

06
Mar
12

Rumors of Dwimmermount

Here is the rumor chart I made to bring events from the inaugural G+ session of the Dwimmermount Kickstarter campaign into the continuity of the game I subsequently ran at the Brooklyn Strategist. The idea is that Locfir having gotten busy with other projects, Locfir’s Man (formerly known as the candlemaker Ungril Ungfarm) escaped from being charmed. Scuttlebutt is now echoing from the tales he brought back from the dungeon expedition he participated in with Pigfoot the Hog (human fighter), Burgoth the Mage (human you-guessed-it), and Locfir the Astrologer (elf). These are a little Locfir-centric because Locfir’s Man is making out like a bandit on his association with the elf and in fact refuses to answer to the name Ungril any more.

Photos by David Ewalt, aka Old Axehandle, from the last Brooklyn Strategist session

  1. Pigfoot discovered material components that make the ventriloquism spell lethal AND merchants are buying up all the fortress-town’s supplies of chain, caltrops, oil, and torches.
  2. Locfir made Burgoth lick a Thulian pillar of submission AND Burgoth is now hemiplegic and enslaved in Locfir’s sanctum.
  3. The party all cast charm person on one another to protect themselves from outside influences AND when they returned from the dungeon one of them had been turned into a gnome nonetheless.
  4. The bearded face of a Man spoke to Locfir AND taught him how to initiate himself and others into Thulian wisdom.
  5. Locfir filled a wineskin with a fluid he found very interesting AND pouring it on Burgoth brought him back to life.
  6. The party was attacked by metal skeletons AND Burgoth controlled them using a lever.
  7. The party found the petrified body of Turms Turmax’s courtesan AND she revealed to them the secrets of the Thulian doors.
  8. The party found a renegade Dwarf AND the others of his kind are searching for a cemetary of their kind that is being desecrated.

All of these are potentially knowable to characters in the Fortress of Muntsburg. I had the players roll a d8 apiece to see which rumor they had heard just because I didn’t want to read them all out at the start of the session, but I don’t think any of these are spoilers at least for my own approach to embracing meta-knowledge. If you read this post and then play in my game that’s awesome you saved some reading rumors aloud time. We’ll work together to imagine the reason that your character is particularly well versed on what’s being talked about in Muntsburg’s taphouses.

Step one of my approach involves acknowledging meta-information the players might have – some of the stuff above you can guess at if you’ve read Zak’s post. The reason the the map of the first level can be seen in the picture to the right is that I placed it in the dungeon as treasure, knowing at least one of those present had seen it in the Dwimmermount teaser in the Adventurer Conqueror King rules we were using.

Step two is then using this to screw with the players. James beautifully set the stage for this by changing the dungeon since the ’09 PbP game, so that the first time Locfir entered after three years away he freaked out that none of his maps were quite right. Part of the reason these aren’t spoilers is that each has two parts, separated by AND. Either part could be true or false. The idea is to give players some ideas about things that might be interesting about the dungeon – in this case, things that our group of players actually was interested in (well OK maybe just me, Locfir was always either running away or having to be dragged away from things only he cared about). Then if and when they do encounter something that might relate to the rumor, their dread and paranoia is entertainingly multiplied by the bad things they’ve heard or the likelihood that I made a false good rumor to trick them into doing something foolish.

The way I figure this works for the Judge is that if the players want to try to investigate the rumors further, they can spend some time (I recommend a week) in town rolling against an ability score or however you like to do this kind of thing. The results are, using an assumption that you’ll wind up with a range like the Apocalypse World-type system where a total failure is a modified 6- on 2d6, total success is 10+, partial success anything in between:

  • Total success: you learn whether both parts of the rumor are true. (If you like to be more stingy with information, decide which part you want to pursue and you confirm or deny that half.)
  • Partial success: you learn one false part of the rumor, Judge’s choice, or that no part is false. (Or maybe you learn it all at a cost or complication.)
  • Total failure: the Judge gets to invent and spread a rumor about the investigating PC. (Or trigger a town adventure, rival party attack, etc. if your group is in the mood, or impose a penalty on the PC’s die rolls due to too much buying of drinks in town means bad hangover but no info.)

Judges, if you haven’t read the adventure yet just decide “true or false” depending on what sounds good to you. Discreetly make a note on the rumor table to help you figure out what you said later when the party finds that thing in the dungeon (if it even exists at all). Likewise if you are about to prep the dungeon, thinking about these rumors as you read should help you keep your eye out for cool stuff (even though James has hit on what is for me just the right level of evocative detail vs. easy to read). And if you think your players know too much about the dungeon, these rumors are meant to be a good guide to which switches to flip to change things up.

Finally, you don’t have to pay any attention to this continuity in your version of Dwimmermount. Pigfoot and Burgoth and Locfir don’t have to be in the setting at all, they are non-canon for sure and I am pretty sure it will make James frown thoughtfully if you start tossing canon around so don’t do it. If the party goes to investigate what’s going on with Burgoth and he exists he can be whatever you want, I recommend secretly a polymorphed dragon living in some kind of polyhedral melting pocket-plane.

Empty Kingdom if you are a home for media artists make it easy for me to credit this painting to Ryan Browning with name and year and stuff the way galleries do.

The one thing you should be sure to respect in your campaign is that if it has a Locfir he is fantastically wealthy but no PC will ever find where it is hidden, and he has like a million hit dice and just started that one HP rumor to tempt fools to disrespect him so he can do weird elf things with your still-beating heart.

I liked the way this worked and will be doing it for the Keep on the Borderlands events we’re doing with ACKS at Gary Con IV.

08
Nov
11

devious wessex trap

I am currently engaging in a real-life hexcrawl of Jeff Rients’s Wessex campaign setting.

map copyright Jeff Rients

Now, Jeff made some mapping errors, I think.  Hexes 0113 and 1004 are both hilly as fuck, 1004 especially.  Most of the line between 1310 and 1403 isn’t as hilly as depicted.  But also, the roads are wrong.  Here is a rough sketch.

Also, the City of Christminster, in addition to housing the invisible college of wizardry, perhaps with Roger Bacon as its master, harbors Wagon Pixies who set cunning traps for outlanders.  To wit:

The discerning eye will notice that, due to the slope, you not only have to find Reverse, but have to be going really fast to overcome gravity.  But if you mis-shift into First Gear, that means you will smash into the lower car.  If, however, you manage to get into Reverse, you will race back into the wall.  Either way, you must Save versus Liability at -5.

Maps of an Anarchy-period keep, Tintagel Castle, and Merlin’s Cave to follow next time I get wifi, which may be after I get back.

01
Jun
11

joesky, you shall rue this day (2 weeks ago)

belated newsflash!

Respected OSR blogger Joesky the Dungeon Brawler cannot be taken seriously!

Joesky is the eminence grise behind Wednesday Night Fights, in which ferocious gladiators engage in a pugilistic dialectic.  Full well knows Joesky the nihilistic credo of Cormac McCarthy’s ultimate antagonist, the archonic Judge Holden:

“Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport require the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.”

Therefore, thanks to Joesky, the penultimate battle: Tom Selleck’s mustache versus William Shatner’s weave.

yet he who flies close to the sun must not secure his feathers with wax!

Months ago Joesky pit Doom against Doom: Thulsa Doom versus Doctor Doom.

Weeks ago, Joesky realized he’d left these two fighting unattended all that time–and declared the fight for Thulsa Doom.

The outcome is scarcely less preposterous than Joesky’s sophistry: Doctor Doom can’t really be a magician (can he?!) and therefore Thulsa Doom wins, because magic beats science:

QUICK AWSNER: FUCK IT AND FUCK YOU MARVEL COMICTS.  NO WAY IS DOCTOR D. A SORCEROR – NOT ON MY WATCH, DICKHEADS.  HES JUST A JERK IN SOME ARMOR . . . DOES SCIENCE EVER BEAT MAGIC, I DONT THINK SO)

A most fallacious syllogism!  Joesky straight bugging!

Doctor Doom was always a combination of science and sorcery, going back to his first appearance.  Check out that bookshelf!

Doom's verbal metaphors are so crushingly cliche'd that he has to reinforce them with auxiliary visual metaphors

New York’s finest nerds have debated “How can you possibly beat Doctor Doom???”  The consensus of Gotham’s sages: you cannot.  Only Doctor Doom can defeat Doom.  Doctor Doom can defy causality and what we foolishly believe to be purely linear time:

thulsa doom is merely the rough draft of skeletor

‘Nuff said.

helping to pay joesky’s tuition

Here is Conan, statted for the Marvel Super Heroes RPG.

KING CONAN of Aquilonia

Conan of Cimmeria: Thief, Pirate, Raider, King

Primary Ability Rank Secondary Ability Score
Fighting Amazing Health 130
Agility Remarkable
Strength Excellent Karma 66
Endurance Remarkable
Reason Typical Resources 40 per week
Intuition Remarkable
Psyche Remarkable Popularity 30

POWERS

None

GEAR

  • Broadsword. Inflicts 10 points of Hack and Slash damage.
  • Maille. Absorbs 4 points of physical damage.

TALENTS

  • Woodcraft
  • Edged Weapons
  • Thievery
  • Sailing
  • Military
  • Leadership

let’s class this up with some more mccarthy to close

Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked and bowing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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