Sunday, May 22, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt.5)

When you have a good set of themes for a science fiction setting, they serve you as idea and content generators. Every theme can suggest a piece of technology, a dilemma, A villain, an alien, or a revelation that you can use to help you build your campaign. Over the next few articles, I will cover different ways you can use your themes to tease out content, and how that will make a richer, more unified setting.

Technology

Fantasy settings rely on magic, wonders, and monsters to create extraordinary circumstances. It is the things that don't belong in the everyday world that don't just make it Fantastical, but give the PCs something to focus on. In Fantasy, either problems are caused by the magic and monsters, or can only be solved with them.

And in fantasy, you can draw upon pre-existing myths and folklore, as well as a rich tradition of pulp tropes to come up with the contents of your setting.

Modern role-playing settings rely on factions, contacts, and conspiracies to create something extraordinary for the setting. A well written conspiracy, a couple of secret societies, or a criminal organization, combined with some well done NPCs are what makes a modern setting seem like something special and worth pursuing. And again, it is these groups and NPCs that the PCs must focus on as the problem and the solution.

In a Science Fiction setting we have neither the familiarity of a modern or pseudohistorical medieval setting to work with from the beginning. And, while a good science fiction story might include conspiracies and criminal organizations, they require a lot of context to be made useful or understandable.

In science fiction, advanced technology, strange planets, and alien races create the extraordinary circumstances that drives the player characters: aliens, strange worlds, or tech that either create problems, or are the only means of solving them. 

Because Science Fiction it doesn't have the context of the modern world or a historical period or mythological backdrop, that technology has to be custom designed by the game master.

I am going to cover the basics of the technology and how you can use themes to develop the technology in your setting below:

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 4)

Whether you have chosen a Thesis or not for your Science Fiction Setting, by now you have a sense of your Tone. Not only will it shape the in-game elements of NPCs, technology, etc., it will also dictate the way you plan and think of your game, and how you will present it to potential players. 

One of the ways you will do this is by choosing themes for your campaign that are congruent with your tone.

Themes in a TTRPG campaign are not really that different from themes in film or literature: they are ideas that appear over and over again in different forms throughout the story. They are ideas that will likely be expressible in one to five words. Often they will be tensions you can express as "A v. B."

Pulling Out Themes: Babylon 5

Cast of Babylon 5, Season 3
As an example, let's look at the themes of a personal favorite, Babylon 5:

  • Duty v. Conscience
  • Letting others solve your problems is dangerous
  • Religion can imprison or uplifts
  • Foresight is a terrible burden
  • Alcohol solves nothing
  • Safety v. Privacy

All of these come from the central thesis of the series, which is "Can we really know Peace?"

Each of these themes appear over and over again in different forms in some combination in most episodes. There is rarely an episode that doesn't explore at least two of these.

I will try to cover these, one in detail, the others briefly in a way that doesn't assume you know the series. There will be spoilers, but the show ran over 25 years ago, so I consider that fair game. 

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 3)

One of the most critical components of any Science Fiction setting, whether it is in literature, film, video games, or ttrpgs, is the tone you choose to set with it. Tone is more than just the mood you try to set with the backdrop, it will tell us a lot about who the people in a science fiction setting are, and what kind of world they create

The technology that appears in your campaign will also need to reflect the tone. A Star Trek replicator that can all but end hunger would strip the need for money and that's the need to do dirty jobs that drove the characters in Firefly. Your choice of tone will help you decide what should be in a game, and what should not.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts pt. 2

Firstly, I am going to acknowledge a major source of inspiration for this series:

I have spent a lot of time looking at resources for developing science fiction worlds, and this video by Guy over at How To Be a Great GM is one of the best, most well thought-out presentations on the topic.

I am using this video as a jumping-off point for a lot of the articles to come.

I do think the video misses a couple of useful attributes of Science Fiction settings, and so I will be building a lot on top of its framework.



I am also drawing a lot on classes I took with Dr. Deborah Wills back in University, whose work on analyzing the structure and social context of Science Fiction helped bring Pulp and genre literature into Academic discourse as something that is both a legitimate art form, and that has important things to tell us about our culture.

And I will be including insights I've gained by paying particular attention to how certain science fiction TTRPGs present their settings.

With a liberal amount of reference to both popular literary science fiction books and TV sci-fi series, of course.

On Genres

As I am talking a great deal about Science Fiction, it pays to establish an important context of the genre as a whole.

Genres of literature art and media as we understand them now are relatively new construct. Before the 1950s most publicly available creative works for either considered "Art" or "Trash"; "Classical Music", "Traditional music", or "Popular Music" (said with disdainful undertone.) 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt.1)

I am on a roll creatively with my Eternal Ocean & Wreck project! Aside from a character sheet and an editing pass, I feel like Wreck is in more or less its final form.

The real challenge right now is building the world of The Eternal Ocean in order to actually get interest in the game. A science fiction version of Cairn with deep sea diving and some submarines is all well and good, but it isn't all that helpful to play unless you have a world to work with. 

In a TTRPG the Campaign and the game world are inextricably linked. In a way, the World is the Campaign, especially if you are playing with multiple groups using strict time tracking, or playing an Open Table / West Marches game. Your decisions as a GM are going to be shaped by the internal logic of the world. When fantastical things like magic and monsters, aliens or super-technology appear, it is your understanding of that world and how it works as a player that will determine how you approach it, and will also determine how the GM resolves it.

Fantasy has a distinct edge in this arena: most fantasy worlds are a mish-mash of European folklore, romanticized Early Modern cultures, and 1960s pulp tropes. Thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy in most parts of the world has a default set of assumptions. Japanese fantasy Anime, an American Fantasy Action RPG video game, and a French Fantasy Graphic Novel are all going to feel, to some degree, like a variation on Greyhawk.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Development Blog; Designing the Eternal Ocean

 

As I work on The Eternal Ocean , I intend to blog about the process here. And I wanted to start by talking about what my structure is going to be and my rationale for it.

To start with, what is The Eternal Ocean meant to be exactly, and how is my presentation going to reflect my ideas?

Because I am taking some pretty odd steps.

What Do I Want to Accomplish?

This is probably one of the most important questions you can ask yourself starting almost any project, and it is intimately tied with another question:

Who is this for?

The answer to that one is already in the dedication to Wreck to some degree: I made this game for my oldest son, who wants to be a marine biologist and study deep sea creatures. He loves anything to do with sea exploration from cartoons like Octonauts and The Deep to watching me play video games like Subnautica to just watching old Jaques Cousteau documentaries. 

He has already consumed an impressive amount of science fiction set in the deep sea, and I would love to help him explore the tropes of that particular brand of SF.

But I also wanted to create a world that reaches a little farther than Subnautica or even The Deep does. I wanted to create a setting where the kind of weird and wonderful stuff that you can see in classic science fiction works like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Time Machine. So I want a world full of secrets and mysteries. Not just Traveller underwater.

Of course, this idea hasn't stayed just a game for my son. I wanted to create something that, after I had done the work, I could also play with grown-ups. I wanted to make something for fans of classic science fiction like my gaming buddy Thomas.

Accordingly, I decided to make a game that relied a lot on exploration, and a world that had a lot of secrets. And I also wanted to make sure that there would be an incentive for discovering those secrets.

IIn other words, I want to create a game world that is full of secrets that feels satisfying to discover, and that feels more like a classic science fiction story then cinematic sci-fi.

What This Mean for Writing

Rather than creating a mechanical incentive,, I wanted to create an overall narrative reward for making discoveries. To this end, I have created a huge collection of secrets that can reward the characters with rare and unique gear and abilities. More importantly, the game is set up so that if the players wish to leave the planet, they will have to discover one of several particularly complex secrets at the end of a chain of revelations.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Chainmail Played Theatre of the Mind

 This past Monday I put my Hellions of Xen campaign group in the capable hands of Stephen Smith for a fascinating experiment:

Could we play Chainmail with Theatre of the Mind?

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Wreck


Q: How do you make God laugh?

So, after I had the audacity to post my plans to release a new game last week, my kids finally gave me the second of the two bugs that I had been nursing them through. And while it made my poor little guys cranky and uncomfortable, it flat-out tried to murder me. But, after a week of agonizing pain, I am back to creating.

And I have finally got a draft up of Wreck for your consideration.

Wreck is the game component of my Eternal Ocean & Wreck combination project. I have intentionally separated them in such a way that you could just use the setting with any system, but I wanted one readily available with all the material necessary to bring it to life as well. One that was based on a simple, fast open engine that I could easily adapt to my needs without reinventing the wheel.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Deep Dives: Eternal Ocean, Wreck, and Midnight Zone

 A little over a week ago, my son brought a nasty case of influenza into the house. No sooner had they recovered from it than some kind of norovirus followed suit. I have spent the last eleven days caring for two little kids who were perpetually in purge mode. It has left me little time for creative projects.

What time I have had has been pretty thematically inspired.

Octonauts C 2012 Silvergate Media, based on the Children's books by Meomi

Over those weeks I have been dosed heavily with cartoons. My oldest will voraciously consume anything related to deep-sea exploration, and so I have probably re-watched the entirety of Octonauts twice over. I've also consumed nearly two seasons of a cartoon I had not heard of before but thoroughly enjoyed entitled The Deep about a family of deep-sea explorers looking for the sunken ruins of Lemuria. It would make a hell of a campaign.

The Deep is C 2015 Technicolor SA based on the Graphic Novels by Tom Taylor

Friday, April 8, 2022

My Dream WotC 5e Book

The following is a thought experiment. I imagined what I would create if Wizards of the Coast let me design a book for them for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition that could showcase the best independent talents I have run across in the OSR, in the story game movement, and getting third party publishers from DMs Guild.

The book would focus on continuing the arc of the new setting that Wizards of the Coast is currently building towards with The Radiant Citadel A setting I predicted in December of 2020: that is to say, a cleaner, less bleak dimension hopping environment. Planescape, only bright and hopeful.


I'm not choosing all of my favorite designers. In some cases, I eliminated people because they have an open dislike for WotC, or, they are prone to controversy and would make the book a non-starter for the Wizards board of directors. And I eliminated people whose work is so dark or mature that it wouldn't quite fit the 5e frame without seriously distorting that person's creative vision.

My goal would be to bring to mainstream 5th edition the incredible energy variety of design styles, and amazing talent that is out there in indie TTRPG circles.

Part of the point of the work would be to help advertise not just WotC's products, but also draw attention to the incredible industry that has grown up around Dungeons & Dragons and its legacy. To help 5e players both have a 5e game with playing, and see the opportunities to expand their horizons at the same time. Which I doubt would really hurt the WotC bottom line.

So...

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Welcome to the Deathtrap Year 2 in Review

 Two years of W2tDT already?! Wow, the time has really flown! I am still enjoying this passion project of mine.

Big Projects

The Cyclopedia

I built a database of helpful OSR rules I call the Deathtrap Rules Cyclopedia that is updated very sporadically.

Crawling the Purple Isles

In the autumn of 2021, I started a project inspired by Tale of the Manticore: I am running a solo game of BECMI D&D with a few mods from The Dozen Dooms set in The Islands of the Purple-Haunted Putrescence. I've been blogging lurid, pulpy fiction based on it on another blog. I call it Crawling the Purple Isles.

This is a series that is definitely not safe for work. However, I use it to share tips and observations on solo gaming, campaign design, and DMing as I go.

Campaign Worlds

I have built three campaign worlds with detailed primer documents and discussed them as part of a series on world-building 

The Aldrune setting is designed for Medieval Romance and is set by default to use Castles & Crusades, although any AD&D or expanded OD&D system will work with practically no conversion.  I may yet try transitioning to Lion & Dragon one I finally get my hands on its corebook.

The setting is has incredibly detailed religions and pantheons in order to create a world and captures the transition between Paganism and Christianity in Europe and the transition between the middle ages and the early modern period at the same time. I use it for my home game.

Xen is more of a surreal sword and sorcery setting with a lot of Science Fiction accents. I am currently running two parallel campaigns in it using strict time tracking and I'm considering trying to run using actual one-to-one time. I'm also currently recruiting for a third campaign run in parallel to the other two. Xen draws heavily on Barsoom, the Dying Earth and Final Fantasy.

Xen uses a lightly tweaked version of Swords & Wizardry, with elements from my Oversix System. It is focused on diagetical ("rulings over rules") play over heavy use of dice.

The Golden Heresy is a setting I started as a doodle here on the blog. It is a sword-and-planet setting where a legion of plane-hopping spies break into fantasy worlds and destroy the barriers of reality so that their master and his legions can invade with heavily-armed starcraft and slay the local gods to free the people from the lies of false deities. It is a setting built with hopping multiple worlds in mind.

Also designed with Swords & Wizardry in mind, The Golden Heresy draws heavily on D&D3.5e psionics, Planescape, and Gamma World.

Adventures

I have moved away from pamphlet adventures to longer format adventures.

In the Summer, I released Maze of the Screaming Heads: a metaphor for RPG Twitter, the PCs must navigate a maze of samey chambers where it is easy to get lost while insane undead heads shout, scream, and rave at each other, threatening to drive the characters violently insane. Escape requires facing a blob if toxic sludge, sifting truth from fiction in the heads' ravings, or making a deal with a demon price.

More recently, I participated in the OSR Supplement Jam on Itch.io, where I released The Queen of Decay for Low Fantasy Gaming using the custom ruleset for Stephen Smith's World of Wierth setting. Based on a discussion of the bizarre cover for The Princess Bride by Ted CoConis, it is a psychedelic adventure across a hallucinogenic swamp to save a princess for she is driven insane by a Necromancer that is forcing her to read the dreams of undead cultists.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

My Monster Book Dilemma

Of Xorn and Gorgons...

I have a monster problem. Namely, I really love monsters. It is a weakness of mine for role-playing games. I know I can make my own in a pinch, but sometimes the flavor text or concept of a monster gives me something cool to work with.

I will ignore almost any other source book of role-playing game puts out, but I simply cannot resist a good selection of monsters. Even when I gave way most of my D&D 3E and Pathfinder 1e material, I held on to the bestiaries.

Unfortunately, Pathfinder bestiaries and the 5th edition Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters don't help me much now that I've moved back to OSR games, I don't really have a good monster book in hardcopy.

Basic Fantasy RPG has a great monster selection. So does Swords & Wizardry. And Low-Fantasy Gaming, with a little conversion. But they are all sections of a larger book. And sometimes flipping through to find what I'm looking for can be a little time consuming. They also both have some issues. Swords & Wizardry does not present a morale rating for monsters, for example. Basic Fantasy RPG has almost (but not quite-, nor consistently+) doubled the XP value of the monsters that are in the book, as Basic Fantasy relies more on combat and less on treasure.

And while I hate to say it, well the rules cyclopedia is the most comprehensive versions of Dungeons & Dragons around, it's selection of monsters is lackluster.. I have always felt that that was one of the greatest weaknesses of the Cyclopedia.

But, I do need something. I keep planning for monsters that I don't have the books for. Last night I planned encounters with Gorgons and Xorn, and discovered to my dismay I had statistics for neither in a format compatible with the game I was playing. I covered by opening up a website where I knew someone had copied the entire AD&D2e Monster Compendium, and thankfully my players didn't wander off that way anyway.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Strange Ways

 I have kept myself very busy this week! Once I finished work on The Queen of Decay, I decided to create another project. Namely, I decided to grab all the classes with I have created over the past few years that added their own twist on the magic system for Dungeons & Dragons and gave them a serious overhaul, and bound them in a single PDF entitled Strange Ways.

 My created classes have been all over the map in terms of how they are presented. They have been done for different systems, written using different conventions, and often created to work only on the context of a given game. 

I decided to change that first. Each class has been rejiggered to work with TSR era systems and retroclones without any serious messing around. They use familiar tables and designs:

In some cases this alone required some heavy editing in some places, but worth it. So long as you are dealing with a system grounded in TSR Dungeons & Dragons this should be pretty easy to adapt.

Friday, March 25, 2022

The Queen of Decay Completed

 Earlier this month, my main man Stephen Smith asked me if I would care to collaborate on something for the OSR Supplement Game Jam put on by Taylor Lane. He wanted to get some material for his campaign setting Wierth published. I am now over 70 sessions into his campaign and love it. I definitely wanted to help.

He mentioned my project The Queen of Decay as a possibility. I had let QoD sit idle for months as my focus has been on Deathtrap Lite, but an opportunity to get some attention on Wierth and a book to market when there was a chance at earning some attention to my modules. So I dove in and saw how much I could fill in before tapping Stephen for help.

As it turned out... I had a lot of ideas in me. During walks, my little guy's naps, and whenever else I could mutton into the phone (plus a couple of late nights), I was able to build the entire adventure in three days 

That includes 52 encounters, 2 Dungeons, 26 overland locations, and 10 detailed hexes. I am pretty amazed at what I managed to put together.

Yesterday I ran a playtest and did some editing based on what I learned, and today I put it up for the OSR Supplement Game Jam.

Get Queen of Decay Here

Monday, March 21, 2022

You Don't Build Your World Alone

One of the things that I feel is important to stress when building your world, is don't build too much of it. The Aldrune and Xen campaign setting documents I have shared are rapidly approaching excessive even if I am running Xen campaigns at the same time.

It is important to remember that World building is not the same as session prep. You aren't doing as much as you might think to prep the next adventure by constructing elaborately detailed worlds.

But more importantly, the more detail you throw into a world, the more your players are going to try and conform to it. And that is a missed opportunity.

If you focus on giving players a clear idea of the vibe you are looking for in the style of play you intend to create, they will take it and run with it in amazing and unexpected directions.

When I started my second Xen campaign, I was surprised at what my players came up with based on what I had told them.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Level 1 Should be Awesome

Choking down the fear and hurt, the young priestess gripped her mace tight and swung at the boy who had been her friend just a few hours before. One of the five would saved her life. She'd felt safe with the Bright blades, it would only be a few days since they saved her life, but they were family. Only now, they were tying up the princess of Dravanna, and she couldn't let them do it. She was ashamed they had tricked her. Now, even though it was agony, she could not let them take Lady Ruvelia.

⚔️

The young tomb raiders ducked and wove under the whipping nooses of the horrid, spidery monsters clinging to the orrery above them. The machine turned revealing secrets of the universe with every gyration. One false step, and would be all it took to get a noose around their neck, and those secrets of the universe would haul them to the ceiling and snap their necks. They were being paid handsomely to uncover the lost lore of teleportation magic. They weren't about to let these things stand in their way. Little did they know the wizard behind them was already sealing the door. They would make a great human sacrifice...

⚔️

The two tieflings looked over the imperial camp. Down there, they were wanted criminals, Dimo would be hung in an instant if they were caught. If the soldiers were disciplined Nysha might be lucky enough to join him... The barbarians on the glacier above might treat them even worse, if they didn't have something to offer. They held their breath together as they thought. Dimo heard the groan of the frozen waterfall next to the ancient stairwell. He put his hand against The Rock and felt the potential energy rumble through the stone. "Sister," he grinned, "I have an idea. But we will have to place the charges very carefully...." Within a few minutes the camp was crushed by a god's fist of ice and water.

⚔️

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Game Jams 101


I wasn't familiar with game jams until I got pretty deep not into OSR games and D.I.Y. Indie games, and it occurs to me that my readers might not be familiar with them, either, so I figured now might be a great time to mention them.

Game jams are very much a part of the culture of the online marketplace itch.io, which started as a place to share indie video games and software, but quickly developed a robust role-playing/ story- game culture.

This led to a lot of imports of Indy video game development conventions being absorbed by ITTRPG and storygame writers on Itch, such as the jam (my first exposure to the idea was during an AGS jam quite a few years ago.)

During a game jam, a call is put out for contributors using forums, Discord channels, or a Twitter hashtag. The group arranges to release a huge amount of content together at the same time which usually can be purchased as a bundle, and where everyone cross promotes everyone else's work.

Jams also provide great opportunities for coaching, accountability, and mentorship in a good group.

In some of these game jams, the contributors use the hashtag to find collaborators, allowing them to cover their weak points: "I'll write a piece for you if you do some art for me" agreements let everyone create a higher quality of content than they might have been able to do on their own.

Often, the jam focuses on a single game, subculture, or group. For example, I have mentioned to then Goon Jam from a couple of years ago where dozens of people got together to create variants on the Highland Paranormal Society's Tunnel Goons. In the summer before last a huge number of South American (mostly Brazilian) game writers got together and ran a event called the RPG Latan Jam. Whose original organizer, Tiogo Rolim tragically passed on from complications related to COVID-19 before it's completion.

The end result of most game jams are a huge number of small, pamphlet or zine sized products that help get a whole (sub-)community exposure.

They can be prone to cliquishness, turn into pyramid schemes, or promote groupthink at their worst, but the majority of game jams I have observed have just been an awesome way to build more of an audience and share the awesome.

Right now Taylor Lane is hosting an OSR Game Supplement Jam and I am giving serious thought to completing The Queen of Decay to contribute.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

On The Spectrum of Hobbies that Use TTRPGs, and Finding Yours

I don't think that there is one single tabletop role-playing game hobby. The more I look at the culture around these games the more I'm convinced that there are actually seven or eight hobbies that all use the same tools. Just as you can use paint to paint miniatures, paint houses, paint landscapes, or paint portraits.

A lot of the toxicity of online role-playing communities comes from the fact that people have very different expectations about the game and therefore what makes a good game, what makes a bad game, and what even, to some degree, makes a toxic or abusive game.

I think this is complicated by the fact that there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in having their hobby have ownership over "role playing games" as a whole. There is some money in this. And an opportunity to promote your ideological agenda, if that gets you off.

I find one of the most ridiculous things about the discourse around TTRPGs is that we treat it as a zero-sum game while squabbling over games that are, 90% of the time, anything but. You think that we would learn to reflect the medium of the game in the culture around it.

It seems reasonable to me that we need to develop some method of communicating which way we want to use our role-playing games, and what we want our group to entail.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Your Campaign Goals Dictate Your World Design Tools

While I was doing my first piece of writing on World Building a couple of weeks ago, it was happening real time in my head.

In my last article, I detailed how looking at the artwork of Yoshitaka Amano inspired me to create a world called Xen. In it's original inception, this was going to be a world designed for games played less than 2 hours at a time that drew on some of the weirder fusions of Science Fiction and Fantasy that appear in the best of Appendix-N lit. 

I wanted the strange sci-fi technology of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom, the complex and mystical politics of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, the psychedelic fantasy qualities of Abraham Merritt's Ship of Ishtar and The Face in the Abyss.  I wanted the strange and highly pervasive magic of Jack Vance's Dying Earth.

And for good measure, I thought it might be fun to add in some of the Gain mysticism and high concepts of peak Final Fantasy.

The more I created this world, the more I fell in love with it.

I had been building Aldrune with the idea that it might be a world I can spend quite a few campaigns in. Generally speaking, I make a new world every campaign or two because I always want to try new things. The only exception was a world called Astraea, which I ran five campaigns in back in the mid-naughties. Intentionally building a world that I feel like I could stay with for a while felt like it would be a great way to help grow my abilities as a Dungeon Master.

And here was Xen. A high-concept weird kluge designed for play in short bursts after the kids have been put in bed and my wife had finished your planning for the next day. I'd made it weird, because that way I could toss whatever oddball sword and planet trope I wanted to into it and it wouldn't feel too out of place.

It was as alien to the idea of the high chivalric fiction I wanted as I developed Aldrune as you could imagine. And it was something I wanted to play suddenly far more.

And so, I decided to develop Xen further and produce a document like Aldrune's. Something that has details about where the classes fit into the campaign world, what races are available, appropriate house rules, and enough lore to work.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The Power of a Single Image

It is amazing what one piece of Art can accomplish. The image below by Yoshitaka Amano is one of my  favorite pop art creations, although I had not seen it in many years.

It was created as a piece of concept art for Final Fantasy VI in 1995, and depicts the heroine of the game, Terra Brantford riding on a machine called Magitek Armor as she is about to spearhead an invasion of a remote coal-mining town.

"Terra Brantford at Narshe" by Yoshitaka Amano, ©1995 Squaresoft Inc.

I love Yoshitaka's style: it is an incredible fusion of Art Nouveau, Pop, and fantasy with signature flourishes all his own. I have taken pains to import a couple of his art books, which my son and I have wiled away quite a few hours appreciating.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

What Needs to Be in Your World Building Document?

This is yet another part of my world-building series, which started with What is World-Building? and I am going to reference three worlds that I have shared here.

I have prepared (most of) a campaign reference document for each, all of which are radically different from one another. And they are so different because I'm looking to create different experiences with different groups with different expectations and needs. 

For the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about three stages of campaign development for each:

  • Player Data: after you know what kind of experience you want to offer, the next step is to figure out what you need to tell your players about the world to get them making characters, giving you ideas to work with, and building excitement.
  • DM Data: Once you have your players making characters, asking questions, and possibly "front-loading" campaign material for you, you need to figure out what else you as the GM need to know to run the first couple of adventures.

Ultimately, some of your most important world building has to happen after the second adventure, but that is a topic for later.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Mechanically Faithful Clones of Dungeons and Dragons

In the name of keeping on creating content while Cthulhu is trying to hatch out of my face (COVID sucks), I wanted to follow up last week's piece on some popular D&D Clones that Modify Dungeons & Dragons to a different genre or for a tailored experience with a roundup of clones that more or less accurately reproduce old editions of D&D.

After all, sometimes, you just want to play the original games without modern hacks. Or you want to hack it yourself.

This is likely not a perfect list of faithful retro-clones; only the ones I have personally had a chance to read and make some notes on.

Almost all of these are re-written, reorganized, and in order to avoid copyright infringement, have deliberately altered some numerical values or table structures.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

COVID-Coping Roundup

 

Mercy (Overwatch) Fanart
Courtesy of PNGEgg

So, COVID-19 has kicked my ass hard, and prevented me from getting much done. I am too muzzy-headed to DM an RPG, let alone write anything useful about it in a timely fashion.

On the nights when I've been supposed to be running games I've been playing Overwatch* and Conan Exiles instead, just to be able to spend time with my friends.

That said, I never stray far from my two favorite hobbies, and I have kept up on media that helps me scratch my D&D itch. I thought I might share my favorites: 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

What Is World Building?

The other day I saw someone on Twitter ask the question "What is World Building?" And, as I was already working on some articles on the topic, it was a question worth stopping and thinking about. 

I was going to enter into this assuming that people had a fairly good idea of what it is and what it's for, but sometimes you can reveal a lot by asking these fundamental questions.

And as I went to slowly talk a little more in the following months about the Free Kriegspiel movement, it's even more important to start with the basics.

So here's how I'm going to describe, to the best of my ability, World Building and what it is for.

World Building is Context for Play

In any role playing game or any war game that is not attempting to simulate a real world historical battle, the first thing the game needs is context. The players need to know why they are engaging with the scenario.

On D&D Clones and their Virtues

Game time in the Deathtrap

Before I get down to my article on world building, I wanted to share quickly some thoughts I had while chatting on Twitter.


YoDanno asked if there were people who were still playing vanilla D&D from the original manuals in the OSR Twitter crowd. Aside from pointing him to a group I know playing not B/X D&D and AD&D RAW, I pointed out that a lot of retro clones were just the old rules verbatim, and he could find the groups he was looking for by searching for them. I also decided to throw in my two cents about some of the cooler retro clones out there and how they differed from the base rules.


Personally, I do play a great deal of BECMI right out of my original Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, although years of use have roughed the book up a bit, and I am loath to just leave it sitting around where my toddler can get at it. Sometimes I mod it with options from The Dozen Dooms.


There are days where vanilla, or a lightly hacked version of vanilla D&D are all that you need. For example, I am still playing a solo game set on Venger Satanis's The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence that, apart from a custom character, class some rules specific to the islands' magical energy, and a simplified experience system, are being played straight out of the 'Cyclopedia.


Unfortunately, my solo play has gotten so complex that I have been unable to put it all down in a written format. I need to do something like a narrative podcast if I want to keep sharing my Crawling the Purple Isles.


So, if I'm still playing out of my Cyclopedia, why am I collecting retroclones? My shelf has copies of Basic Fantasy RPG 3e, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry, Lowlife 2090, and low fantasy gaming. My Google drive includes downloaded copies of The Black Hack, The Mecha Hack, The Wasted Hack, Castles & Crusades, Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Stars Without Number, Star Adventurer, Machinations of the Space Princess, Dark Dungeons, For Gold and Glory, and Shadowdark.


And that doesn't even go into the Dungeons & Dragons-derived products like Index Card RPG, Dungeon Bright, Mausritter, Into the Odd, Cairn, and Knave that to take up even more gigabytes of my collection.


So, why do I bother having all of them?

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Aldrune Campaign Setting

Hex Map: Cantilin region of the Northlands, Aldrune
Map by Brian C. Rideout, made with Worldographer
.

(Sorry about the long delay... Both my kids were sick with COVID this week and needed some serious TLC.)

 I wanted to share another, more elaborate Campaign Setting with you here as a prelude to several articles on world-building.

I created Aldrune around Christmas and fleshed it out last month after reading Castle & Crusades, replaying Majesty: the Fantasy Kingdom Sim, and binging on issues of Yum/DM's incredible D12 Monthly magazine all at once.

The lightning bolt of inspiration had me scribbling madly through lazy family holiday gatherings, and spending every free minute of the first weeks of the new year muttering into my phone or hunting for Art.

Aldrune is written as my home campaign world, at least for a few campaigns. There are virtually no mechanics for it yet, although I intend to add some. The document as-is, is 100% "fluff". But there is a rich and complex tone set for it. It has gods, religions, major reasons, history, cosmology, and places for every OSR race and class. It's intended audience are close friends and family that I would invite into home to play.

The setting itself is high fantasy with a focus on Chivalry, Heroism, Honor, and Piety as themes. It is a mishmash of Arthurian legend, Norse Mythology, Tolkien, and Narnia mixed with a hearty dose of AD&D2e aesthetics, Buddhist and Gnostic spirituality, and a splash of Final Fantasy.

Who I wrote it for, and what I wanted for the game made for a very different take on how and why I designed it compared to the Gorzeh Wastelands, Golden Heresy, or my Aerith setting for Deathtrap Lite. I encourage you to have a look, and will happily answer questions or comments.

Adrune Campaign Setting

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The importance of Encumbrance, And How to Make it Easy in Your Game

I want to talk about one of the most contentious mechanical issues in table-top RPGs: Encumbrance.

I know a few readers are just going to shrug and skip this one. There are plenty of tables that see encumbrance as such a pain in the ass that they  simply ignore it. Hell, when the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest was running it took them months to notice that they forgot to include an encumbrance mechanic. The developers admitted in the development blog that don't use it themselves.

And for every GM that just throws encumbrance out, there is a few more who ensure that a Howard's Handy Haversack or Bag of Holding shows up in an early treasure hoard, then "forgets" the item's limitations. They usually follow it up with a Murlynd's Spoon, Field Rations Box, Portable Oasis, or Wand of Goodberry. And maybe Decanter of Endless Water or Alchemy Jug for good measure. Or if you are mean like me, an Omelet of the Planes.

But here's the thing: Encumbrance can make your game better.

When your players have to manage resources, it introduces constraints into the game that the players must adapt to. Needing to choose their gear carefully, because they need to carry it all. It creates limits to how long they can spend in the dungeon by limiting the torches an oil that they can carry. Not to mention the rations,

This in turn gives them reason to engage hirelings and animals. This requires them to spend the gold they are bringing out of the dungeon, which makes treasure seem meaningful.

It also makes exploration more interesting, as the PCs have to limit their range, plan for diversions, take into account terrain. They will have a reason to push themselves during a mission, and find ways to make it pay because It represents an investment of time and planning. Developing a company to ensure supply trains might even be in the cards.

When the strategy, logistics, and planning pay off, it can be incredibly satisfying. 

Why We Ignore It

Here's the thing: the way almost every edition of Dungeons & Dragons traditionally handles encumbrance is dull and fiddly. It feels like accounting. I will cover the common methods of tracking from D&D (and other mainstream TTRPGs) and then compare with some if the more innovative tools in the indie and OSR scenes you might want to consider as a replacement. 

Friday, February 4, 2022

The Golden Heresy Sword & Planet Campaign Document

Cover to Warlord of Mars #2
Art by Joe Jusko
2014 Dynamite Entertainment

Late in 2020 I started it a world-building project as part of this blog called The Golden Heresy. Inspired by a mix of Stargate SG-1, the music of Gloryhammer, the movie Wizards, and a cocktail of Jack Vance and Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was a campaign in which at least the starting party would begin as a set of interdimensional saboteurs in the service of a wizard who was trying to murder the gods.

I started out with the concept of a powerful Chaotic magician commanding a navy of interdimensional ships sending saboteurs to a post-apocalyptic world called Rustidium in order to infiltrate a world protected by angels and gods of Law, and then work undercover to sabotage a magical artifact keeping the forces of Chaos from descending upon the world and destroying its gods.

There was a pretty good chance that the characters might get lost or lose their method of inter-dimensional travel before they found the portal on Rustidium, at which point the campaign would have turned into a survival adventure across a radioactive wasteland to find a science outpost of their armada. If they found the portal, then it would become a traditional medieval fantasy with a twist has the player characters are out to destroy the world.

I figured that eventually, if the latter happened, the party would eventually have turnover enough that instead of being agents of Chaos trying to destroy the world, they would become natives to the world trying to repel the invasion they have learned about from the their dead allies.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Game Review: Swords & Wizardry (Complete)

Cover for Swords & Wizardry Complete
Rulebook; Art by Erol Otus;
©2008-2012 Frog God Games
Author
: Matthew J. Finch
Publisher: Frog God Games
Marketplace: Frog God Games, Amazon, Drive thru RPG
Engine: OD&D

Swords & Wizardry might be described as a selective retro clone of the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons rules. I say selective, because the original 1974 rules are not a cohesive game. Instead, there are toolkit for playing what we now call a role-playing game. As it was the first, the original Dungeons & Dragons called itself a medieval fantasy war game, and was rooted quite deeply in the Frei Kriegspiel movement that was emerging at the time. I plan on discussing FKS and how it has transformed both war gaming and led to the emergence of role-playing games later this month.

At its core, OD&D was a tool kit to enable a style of play rather than a cohesive ruleset. It included multiple combat systems, for example, but assumes that the players have enough wargaming experience that it doesn't include tools such as initiative. Over the course of its various expansions, OD&D offered quite an array of subsystems, that sometimes are contradictory, posed alternatives to earlier published rules, or that seriously changed the context of previous rules.

Swords & Wizardry takes all the various source material prior to 1978 and compiles it into a single cohesive rule system. Where it has significant gaps, such as initiative, it includes its own alternatives based on later editions of Dungeons & Dragons or popular wargames of the time.

What you end up with is an extremely light system that even to an 80s kid who grew up on Mentzer's BD&D, it looks stripped down. This is quite intentional: OD&D, being heavily influenced by nascent FKS games like Braunstein, wasn't interested in being a complete system of rules. It was interested in having enough rules to enable the style of play desired, that is to say pulp Sword & Sorcery mixed with a little Tolkinian fiction, and left the rest to the referees logical in narrative rulings.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Building Character

Lieres, Around Session 28
Image made using Hero Forge
in accordance with their EULA
Let me tell you about my character, Lieres.

No, wait! Where are you going?!

Yeah, nobody wants to hear anyone go on about their Dungeons & Dragons character unless they have some cool artwork to share. If they want to listen toy you tell a story about D&D at all, it is hopefully a short anecdote about some exciting experience that you had. Or maybe  if you learned something important about D&D as a hobby that others can learn from... but you had better tell it damned well if that is where you are going.

And that is how Lieres came up last time on the blog, (and I hope I told it well,) as a story about dealing with character death in Dungeons & Dragons. Last time I mentioned him, he had fumbled horribly while being attacked by horrid mutated rats, drove a shortsword through his own leg, and was bleeding put and burned from the lamp he had dropped. I liked Lieres... he grew on me in spite of being a statistically pathetic character whom I'd originally played as if he'd had a death wish. And I was going to be sad that he died, but I had also learned to enjoy seeing my characters die in D&D. And his was shaping up to be a hilariously ignominious death.

But here's he thing. The sleazy little varmint pulled through. The other players in my group at the time, Hayven and Thomas went through heroic efforts to save him... including crawling around in dark, creating stretchers of broken  equipment, and building elevators for him using iron spikes, rope, lamp oil, and wire. It was some elite level play, with the players actually explaining the design, using magic potions with great effect, and making some pretty intelligent logical deductions about the dungeon layout. They managed to find a path to a familiar point in the dungeon and pull him out alive.

Since then I have played Lieres in over 30 sessions, and alternated with other characters. The campaign has run fifteen months as of the writing of this article, spanning 65 sessions of which I have played in 61. And there is a lot of things that I have learned by playing him, for such a long time that I have missed in my years as a "Forever DM."

Friday, January 28, 2022

The Dice Will F$ck You

Image Courtesy of PngAAA
I just put my finger on something that's been bothering me about the culture of modern games like Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition that I couldn't quite articulate before. And that is how they differ from older editions in their relationship to the dice.

In AD&D or BECMI the dice are your enemy; you don't want to roll them! The dice will fuck you. You can't rely on success by rolling dice.

More importantly, you don't need to.

A good TSR-Era DM or GM for almost any role-playing game made before 1993, didn't rely on dice if you gave detailed narration of your actions

Examples:

You use an oil lamp to blow smoke across a wall to look for places where it is drawn in or anomalously pushed away from the wall: The DM wouldn't roll a "find secret doors" check, because obviously, you'd find the seams of the door.

You hand your 10' pole to an Unseen Servant and instruct it to press down on every flagstone in a hall. No need to "Find Traps" to find a tripwire or pressure plate: it will be sprung while the PCs at a safe distance.

You suspect there is another level below you, so you empty a waterskin on the floor, then put your ear to it and listen for dripping. No need for a stonecunning or architecture roll.

It applies to combat, too. If you blocked a door with a Tenser's floating disk then antagonized an enemy into a charge, they were going to run into the disk and lose a move. No deception roll required, no saving throw given. The dis is immobile, invisible, and at gut level, after all.

All of these are examples of tricks I or some of the grognards in my groups have used in the last year. Some are not particularly original, but all are useful and effective if the GM's world works on predictable natural laws.

The best players are the ones who never let the dice fall if they can avoid it, they use terrain, objects, surprise, magic, and traps creatively to get bonuses if rolling was going to happen at all.

Moves like these are what Matt Finch describes as "Player Skill" in his Old School Primer. And the choice of the GM to use logic to determine the outcomes of narrated actions rather than resorting to game mechanics.

Once you add more mechanics , especially skills and feats or class features to enhance them, the party starts thinking in terms of getting the best rolls on the dice.

If I blackmail a noble with evidence of his infidelity, I don't need an Intimidation check, Logically I'd have his balls in a vice, and he will have to react in a way consistent with his character. If uncertain, the GM might use a tool like Morale to determine whether he meets my demands or tries to kill me.

With an Intimidation stat on my sheet, however, there's a good chance I'll be asked to roll it. Or, because it's there, I'll be preparing to roll it & trying to figure out how to boost the roll. Even if rolling to determine whether I am convincing making my demands or not doesn't really make sense.

Dice Dependence

The modern game encourages thinking with the dice and rolling them often. Even if this increases the chance of failure. This is not necessarily the case of course... It's psychological. A good DM can still leave rolling for moments of absolute uncertainty, but once you have a sheet full of stats, skills, feats, and enhancements, there is a tendency to want to apply them by the GM, who has spent a lot of effort learn the rules. And players tend to build characters to have the best possible chance to succeed on specific rolls, and will have expectations that they will be allowed to use them.

And this is self sabotage, both for a GM who wants his players to enjoy the game to it's fullest. And for players who want to see their characters succeed. Dice should only be resorted to when you are out of clever ideas, and only when you have stacked advantages in your favor.

Because the dice will fuck you. They are there to add danger. It's why combat is so dicey in most TTRPGs: to add as much risk as possible. The wise player rolls as little as possible.

But dice are everywhere. D20 memes & apparel, dice towers, dice collecting, the exaggerated response to dice in videos about the game.

We are encouraged to be addicted to the excitement of the dice, even when it changes the nature of the game. And dice are addictive. We receive random operant conditioning every time we use them.

Taken to it's extreme, this trend takes player skill out of the equation. Players play in vagueries, expecting to be told when to roll, or asking to do so. They only become specific in combat, which the enter into frequently, and rely on brute force and aggressive tactics rather than subterfuge and strategy.

Ultimately, too much dice focus creates a table culture where players are not rewarded for skill and creative problem solving. It short circuits narrative integrity and logic in favor of working with the numbers on the character sheet.

Maybe that's why I gravitate to rules light OSR and minimalistic games. The fewer the numbers, the less you think about rolling. And why I still use a d20 that I was given on my 12th birthday.

If I had one piece of advice to give newer players to the game, and especially newer GMs, it would  be to mistrust the Dice. Learn how to play so that they are rolled rarely, and preferably when you have stacked advantages.

The dice may be fun, but they are not your friend.