Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Gygax 75 Challenge: Week 2

TLDR: I go through the process of drawing a hex map.

This series is collected under the gygax75 label. This is the third article. My pal JJ is doing this exercise simultaneously and blogging about it at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus.

Week two went fast. JJ sent me a message about his progress towards the end of the week and I realized I had committed nothing to paper yet. However, I had been thinking about it for some time and, having set the world concept first, it all came out in an orderly flood (which is a total oxymoron, I realize).

I wrestled with the scale recommendation of 1 mile per hex. I knew I wanted to based my map on the fertile crescent cultures and specifically the cities between the Tigris & Euphrates in the late bronze/early iron ages – with the serial numbers filed completely off. So I printed off a map of the area that had a scale marker and identified a 100km/62m square of land to work with.

When in doubt, steal.

I then began sketching in my new and improved workzine (workbook + zine, which you can get at my Patreon). As I filled in terrain I would get bored with one type, so I became a little more inventive and the history of the place grew in my head somewhat. Which was a cool experience. Here is my first take on the map.

Sketching in my Gygax 75 Workzine

Scale is still an issue in this, but I turned it into a strength. I decided that the map was drawn by people of the time who would, naturally, place greater importance on the cities than on the surrounding wild. So the city hexes are scaled around 0.5 miles per hex. But the wilderness hexes are closer to 6 miles per. I wanted the dungeon (see the little cave openings and "Nazca lines" east of Ruk) to be a hard day's ride away.

What follows are the notes I added to explain places on the map.

Timuria, Land Between the Rivers


Timuria is the initial focus of play. Features appearing on the map are:

Ruk. A walled city of 70k inhabitants and likely home for new characters. The city is ruled by Sinaruk, a being descended from both divine and mortal parents. She is 9' tall and terrifyingly beautiful. The Krat river runs through the city and surrounding farmlands in gated canals. Livestock are herded in the grasslands beyond. Borderlands are patrolled by the centaurs – by treaty. Land owners serve as soldiers when called.

Garan. "The Old City" is also a dying city. Increased flooding and the encroaching desert has caused many to migrate north to Ruk. Those that are left are highly religious, by inclination or out of fear (or both). Nominally, the city is independent and ruled by a complicated hierarchy of priests, but it pays tribute to Ruk and is protected by her.

Zagash. The hated enemy of Ruk, the Zagash do little herding and less farming, preferring to raid for worked goods, food, and slaves when they can. They prey especially hard on the Centaurs that live in the steppes east of the Godswall.

The Godswall. A labyrinthine tangle of low, stony mountains. Sources of water are few outside of the rainy season and the peaks are home to feral harpies (and worse).

The High Stones. These rocky spires in the Noor: the Desert of Stars, are the eyries of strange, vampiric shapeshifters. (None name them for fear of drawing their attention.) The tops of the spires have been tunneled out into elaborate palaces. 

Uskad: The Bloodwash. A largely uninhabitable area due to seasonal flooding that covers the land in red clay and silt. Several old cities (and their relics) lie buried beneath the muck.

Myr. The only way into this valley is by following one of the many small tributaries of the Uskad. Travellers do not go there. Or, if they do, they do not return. Many say it is the home of strange “mud men.”

Next Steps


Well. First of all it's on to week 3 of the challenge in which I'll be detailing several levels of dungeon. (Or perhaps three different tombs, each further into the Godswall.) But as time permits I am going to convert the hand drawn map into a full color job that is part Hexographer and part digital drawing/painting. 

[Update. I did the map – and I did it in vibrant Jack Gaughan colors!]


Strategic Review 103 Autumn 1975


Contents

  • An editorial by EGG sniping at Arnold Hendricks over a poor review of D&D
  • TSR News announces the Games Division and the Hobby Division
  • Announcement about the upcoming Empire of the Petal Throne by M. A. R. Barker
  • New monsters: the Yeti, Shambling Mound, Leprechaun, Shrieker, Ghost, Naga, Wind Walker, Piercer, and Lurker Above*
  • A ranking of most popular game genres by 42 members of the Strategists Club and ...
  • Announcement about Boot Hill*
  • A tongue-in-cheek bestiary featuring "Weregamers," "Umpyres," "Hippygriffs," and the like
  • The Battle of Ebro River, a scenario for 15mm Napoleonics
  • Wargaming World News
  • An article, The Art of Gunfighting, uncredited*
  • A truly dumb poem about unicorns
  • Mapping the Dungeons: a news column about various GMs and their games
  • The Deserted Cities of Mars, by Jim Ward*
  • Appearance of the TSR Hobbies lizard man logo

Items of Interest

The monsters added in each edition are of great interest to me. They represent player behavior in that one can suppose they are a direct response to needs of the dungeon/fantasy ecosystem. Another way to say it is that these monsters seem to be partly driven by general interest and partly driven by the need to challenge (punish?) players who are tearing through dungeons! Of course Yetis are carnivorous and "very fond of human flesh." And have a look at Shambling mounds! They have brains that are hidden behind "thick, fibrous, ... difficult to penetrate" layers that are immune to fire. Shamblers are difficult to hit, AC0, and when you do hit them your weapon does half damage. Lightning makes a Shambler grow! Cold does one-half or no damage. Crushing doesn't do much either, as a Shambler can flatten itself. Leprechauns exist to play tricks and be a general pain in the ass (polymorph non-living objects, make illusions, etc. at will). Shriekers are the alarm system of the dungeon, calling in Shamblers and Purple Worms when hit by torch or spell light. Piercers and Lurkers Above (Lurker Aboves?) are classic trap monsters – very hard to detect, often attacking with surprise.

The top genres for wargames as ranked by 42 of the 60+ members of The Strategists Club in 1975 was Fantasy, Ancients, ACW (American Civil War), and WWI. If you had asked 7 years earlier, I suspect you could replace Fantasy and Ancients with Napoleonic games. Also, I'm a bit surprised by the absence of WWII. Of course there were other genres that appeared in the ranks, SR only reported the top 4.

Western didn't make the list. Which seems to have been a disappointment to Gary Gygax and Brian Blume, as they were all set to release Boot Hill. So much so that they say: "We would not have gone ahead with BOOT HILL based on survey answers, but sometimes the publishers can know more than their market." (What a cocky thing to say! If you don't want to hear other answers, don't ask the questions, right?) I think Boot Hill is a cool game and a cool idea, but it has never been as popular as other TSR games/genres. I think what we have hear are two guys who grew up on cowboy movies not realizing that the market for "cowboys & indians" (I lower cased the latter on purpose as it's such a misnomer) had shrunk/was shrinking in the same way as the market for boxing and horse racing. IOW, a great game with a narrower, if hardcore following.

The article on The Art of Gunfighting was released under the heading Gallery of Gunfighters (essentially promising more western articles to come). It was a really interesting read for me. The author (uncredited but I'm guessing Gary) dives fairly deep into styles of holstering (or not) guns and the relative merits of each for speed of draw. The basic theme is to debunk a lot of romantic/Hollywood ideas about gunfighting.

Deserted Cities of Mars really speaks for itself. I love that we are getting more diversity of genre in the SR -- Western, Fantasy, Napoleonics, and Science Fiction (Science Fantasy actually) as well as D&D in this one. I dislike the amount of silly humor, but ... humor is often relative to its time and doesn't always date well. Anyway, the great thing about Deserted Cities is that the description of Martian cities not only helps draw out a picture of the world of Barsoom, but is backed by tables for generating the features of a typical Martian city.


Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Gygax 75 Challenge: Week 1

TLDR: I develop a setting pitch in a few bullet points, using my interpretation of the process Gygax suggested in an old wargaming newsletter.

You should probably read the introduction to the The Gygax 75 Challenge, first!

Also, follow my friend JJ at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus as he takes the challenge.

FYI, our system of choice for this is Delving Deeper.

Enough preamble. How did I get along with my first week? I think it went quite well. I finished in about 4 days of off-and-on thinking and writing. Actually, the thing that took the longest was developing a Pinterest board, which is kind of an ongoing project.

I wanted to assemble my world from images - to use a visual palette. I specifically set a focus for myself, choosing images from the covers of vintage paperbacks that I had not read! Mostly this meant drawing heavily on the work of Jack Gaughan and his peers. But I eventually started cheating to get some diversity. The board is  Uzerak: Where Gods Walk


Jack Gaughan art from the cover of Andre Norton's Garan the Eternal


I started with a visual palette; JJ began with a musical one – 1975 albums by Rush. In the end, however, he made a board too. (I have yet to make a playlist, but I probably should.) I think the more you can nail down the "feel" of your world the better. Nail it down without constricting it, that is. Maybe "focus" is a better word? It's easier to start focused in fantasy and branch out, adding ideas, than it is to do the opposite.

Here are the bullet points of the setting:

  • Gods of Chaos and Law vie over the servitude of mortals, luring them into bondage with immediate gains and promises. Those who draw on the power of the gods slowly lose their humanity. (MUs and Clerics who begin to manifest inhuman traits are looked upon with fear and reverence.) The gods are playing a long game for control of the cosmos.
  • Uzrak is a human-centric world. Though none of the “classic” fantasy nonhuman races (e.g. those from The Lord of the Rings) are found in Uzrak, the dalliance of gods with mortals has given rise to scion species such as the centaurs and harpies. Most humans harbor some level of mistrust and/or fear of the scion races. For this reason, and because scions are prone to feral impulses, they tend to live in the wilds. 
  • The proliferation of humans is met with jealousy and hatred among Uzrak’s strange, older races. Feudal, vampiric shapeshifters rule the deserts to the southwest from spires of stone. Trolkin from the frozen lands raid along the northern borders. Snake people infest the dense jungles to the southeast. And many other forgotten ancient cultures and cults stir in their cold lairs. None worship the gods of humans, nor would those gods have the worship of these failed/failing races.
  • People of consequence make a statement with their attire. Brilliant, ornamental robes and armor are the norm for heroes, magnates, and wise men. Badges of office and affiliation are common, expected, and displayed openly. Majestic beards are all but indispensable among the wise. You will be judged on your appearance!
  • Iron forging is still a new technology. Things made from iron are expensive and difficult to acquire. The secrets of forging are jealously guarded and often controlled by rulers. Owning iron armor/weapons is a sign of status; but will also make you a target. Those who draw power from the gods find that iron is an anathema to magic; it becomes extremely hot, cruelly burning whatever it touches and losing its temper.
  • City states each have their own code of law. Best know it before you pass through the gates. Ignorance is no excuse.
  • The Great Game. Raan, is a complicated chess-like board game played on a 10x10 board. It is an obsession among the cultural and intellectual elite. Sometimes Raan is used to determine the outcome of major decisions or events; some even believe that the gods give favored players inspiration or lead the profane into foolish moves.
  • The Mythic Underworld. The deepest places in the earth sometimes open up into the underworld, where things shift from mundane, logical, and concrete to exotic, surreal, and fluid.
Those are the main points, but I added two more that are more like notes to myself.
  • Inspiration drawn from the work of Jack Gaughan and "Fertile Crescent" civilizations c. 1200 BCE. Other sources include The First Chronicles of Amber, Dark Sun, Dune, Chariots of the Gods, Necroscope III: The Source, Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Prompts for players to drive setting home. What powers or causes do you serve? (Especially MUs & Clerics.) Describe your outfit and what it says about you.

These bullet points force a small amount of work on me. Namely to make the scion races and to come up with a mechanic for binding one's self to a patron and drawing on that power. Also to develop a bit of a bestiary for riding lizards and such. All pretty easy stuff in Oe D&D, actually. What worries me a little more is things like naming conventions and developing political factions. Was I supposed to have done all that at the start? Gygax isn't very specific on what all is entailed in this step.

Next week, a hex map!

WEEK 2

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Gygax 75 Challenge

TLDR: Gary Gygax wrote an article in 1975 about how to get a campaign started. It's not bad!

It was a Dragons Never Forget blog post that first drew my attention to an article on beginning a campaign that Gygax penned in the 1975 wargaming newsletter Europa

I was surprised by a number of things in this article. Not the least of which is how well Gygax wrote in his earlier days. He is generally clear and organized, doesn't over indulge in big words and obscure abbreviations, and writes with a helpful tone.

He also provides some interesting and generally sound advice. (Caveat: it's for building a campaign around an old school dungeon crawl. If you aren't into that, you won't be into this.) The article breaks down into two halves. The first half contains the five steps he outlines for generating a minimalistic stage on which players will invent a story. The second half is a grab bag of advice in which he details playing other races, including a gold dragon character.

The Five Steps


  • Establish a setting concept. "Step 1 is something you do in your head." Embrace as many sources of inspiration as you like, but keep your sources hidden to preserve the mystery. Setting  some limits on the scope can be very interesting as long as the players' imaginations still have a relatively free-reign.
  • Develop the surrounding area. Gygax suggests a large sheet of paper with a scale of 1 mile/hex. Include some interesting terrain, locations, and places to explore, camp, adventure, and set up a base or even a stronghold.
  • Create 1-3 levels of a dungeon. Choose a distinctive theme and/or key feature for each level. Map it, noting transition points to lower levels. Plan where key monsters and treasures will be found.
  • Detail a sizable, nearby town. "Here your players will find lodging, buy equipment, hire mercenaries, seek magical and clerical aid, drink, gamble, and wench." (Hmm.) Add strange towers, a thieve's quarter, temples to horrible deities, etc. for flavor. 
  • Build the larger cosmos (concurrent with play). Gygax says this step will likely come after play begins. "Most referees work on their campaigns continuously:" adding, changing, and expanding. 

I made a PocketMod for you to carry around in your journal if you want to follow the advice to see how it works out. (You'll need the folding instructions.) Once folded it will fit in the smallest Moleskine notebook (3.5" x 5.5").

The PocketMod is designed around one week per step – no more, no less! My friend JJ [Beyond the Gates of Cygnus] and I are currently trying it out, so I'll be posting the results here as we go. Stay tuned.


It's Gary's world. We are all just livin' in it.


Launching the Expedition


This part of the article is two longish paragraphs. The first is about generating characters and basing and outfitting an expedition. The second paragraph is the interesting one. Here he talks about the selection of character types. He gives the advice that characters with average stats might do well to consider one of the non-human types: dwarf, elf, or halfling. (Presumably their extra abilities offset the level cap, which wouldn't matter much to a character with low/average stats anyway. Hmmm.) 

Then he says something really interesting: "What do you do if a player opts to become a Golden Dragon? Agree, of course." He goes on to suggest some of the problems with a GD character: only able to adventure with lawful types and scares off hirelings. And he suggests a very slow level progression (every four years or several 100k gold pieces add to its hoard).  We've probably all seen the advice in original D&D (1974) about allowing players to play other species, but it's a one-off line and I've never been sure how seriously to take it, until now.

Pretty fascinating stuff. 

The article is only three pages long. It is not paragraphed well and is in tight, slightly fuzzy scanned typewriter. But it's well worth your time if you want to see some very early advice on "how to" do D&D. 


Do yourself a favor and continue reading into the reader responses to the D&D craze. They are interesting as well!

WEEK 1

Friday, September 20, 2019

Maps: Visual Walk-Throughs

TLDR: how I made a quickly-doodled map more interesting using a visual walk-through technique.

I doodled this map in my journal about a month ago. I had to plan for a game on the flight home from a week of working in another state. Long story short, I didn't end up needing this prep that night, but I liked where the idea was going and decided to develop it as a short module in zine format.





As per my usual habit, I started working on the zine by setting the format, fonts, etc. I like doing that for short zines because you can write, layout, plan art, etc. all at the same time. Also each page or spread of pages gives me a target length for one "leg" (encounter, level, whatever) of the adventure, keeping in mind "control panel" layout philosophy. 

Next I began developing areas, personalities, encounters, etc. I had taken a photo similar to the one above and pasted it into the zine as a place holder. When I work, I often switch between writing and art (a day or two at a time) to keep up momentum on the same project but also introduce some variety. 

Anyway, after drawing the cover (which I have posted on other social media), I decided to redraw the map on my iPad and it came out looking like this:




It got a bit off-square due to an accidental stretch during image manipulation, which was the beginning of the impetus to draw it yet again. But in looking at it, I realized it had a much bigger problem than the fact that it was skewed. 

It was too linear. 

I specifically asked my eyes to trace possible routes through the dungeon and found myself reversing a lot. No good. So next I kept the same room ideas, but sketched them out as a point-to-point set up. (Top half of image below.) Connecting some of the rooms that weren't connected before gave me the idea of developing it more vertically.




I already had in mind a long climb up to the observatory (top left) and a slow slope down to the river (top right to bottom right). But this time I decided to elevate the entire wizard's suite (bottom right cluster of rooms) to the level of the observatory and give him drop-down points into the other levels. (Why would a wizard use stairs when he can levitate!?) This elevation also makes it harder for characters to access his rooms. 

The map ended up like this. (It's rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the drawing above). More compact, more circuitous, more leveled, and generally more interesting.




The grungy dark layer is the lower level, mostly caverns. Players probably enter through the grandiose stairs down (middle of right side), and that whole grayish area is the main level. The unshaded area is the wizard's level and the circles are his drop-in points. They are just holes, but concealed below by minor illusions to look like the rest of the ceiling. 

The point of all this is that the map got WAY better when I decided to a) check for linearity and b) do it with a mental walk-through exercise, using my eyes to trace routes in, through, and out. 

(BTW, there is one obvious way in/out, and two less obvious methods of ingress/egress.)

I'll let you imagine most of what is going on here as it will be in my next zine, which should be done in just a few weeks. In the meantime, this visual walk-through technique can prove handy whether you are drawing your own maps or learning someone else's map, in preparation for characters to run through it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Minimalism in RPGs part 1: Dice

TLDR: You don't need any more dice. Love the ones you're with!

I have a lot to say on the topic of minimalism in RPGs and why I think it is an optimal zen-state for gaming. So I'm going to break it all up into short (ha!) posts. I have two things for today.

Inspiration

The first is this cool little video from a DM showing off her minimalistic kit. She's zeroed in on the stuff that matters to her and her play style, and that's incredibly cool. It's an interesting watch.

My Minimalist Dungeon Master Kit

I will share more of these as/if I find them.

The Ups and Downs of Buying (More) Dice

The woman in the video, in my opinion, gets it exactly right. Three sets of polyhedrals is all you need. Of course it depends on the game you play the most, but let me just say...

You don't need any more dice. 

You know it and I know it. You buy more dice because they are attractive and, most of the time, relatively cheap. They are a great impulse buy. You tell yourself that you want to match the dice characteristics to the game or to the character you are playing, and maybe you actually follow through on that. You tell yourself you are buying extras for players who may not bring their own. You tell yourself lots of things ... but let's not fool ourselves. After you buy about three sets of polyhedrals, more dice is gratuitous and all that stuff you tell yourself is consumer rationalization.

Is that bad? Well. It's wasteful. There are probably better places to spend your money. Let me ask you this, do you spend a lot of time with your dice – picking out just the right set, sorting them, "punishing" them, etc? If so, then I think you are in a zone where more dice really do matter to you. (There's still a sane upper limit, mind you!) If you have dozens of sets sitting around in drawers, have ever accidentally bought the same set twice, or occasionally think about "paring down" the collection, then you are probably just spending to spend. 

Some Things to Think About

Well-made dice get better with age. You memorize their characteristics and can find them/sort them out quickly. Some even take on a kind of patina (but mostly these are older plastics). Your dice gain that indefinable psychological quality of "stuff" where your stuff is worth more than everyone else's stuff, for no better reason than because they are yours. Ever have a favorite old pair of sneakers? Or a car that, even though it starts acting up, you can't bear to trade in for another? If you don't feel that way about your dice it's because you change them out too often. Of course cheap dice that don't feel good in the hand or roll non-randomly .... those are shit and you should get rid of them. Buy quality dice to begin with and then hold onto them! The exception? Dice given by friends or kept since the early days are awesome, even if they are quirky or poorly made.

The best dice are easy to read, durable, feel good in the hand, and inexpensive. Speaking of quality... There is a kind of sweet spot in the current dice market. Dice that come in bulk sets on Amazon and cost $4 or less per set are usually terrible – inconsistent in size, poor rollers, poorly inked. On the other end of the spectrum are dice that cost more than $20, collector sets made of rare materials or with funky symbols or unique to a particular brand of game. A good set of polys should be around $5 to $15. My personal favorites are the Chessex basic opaque dice. But I'm "boring." 

Side note. In 1975 TSR announced in The Strategic Review #2 that the price of dice were going up by 35% to $2.50 a set! In 2019 dollars that's just a bit over $12.  

If your game needs special dice or tons of dice, you've been "had." Games that force you to buy all kinds of dice, especially dice with special symbols on them, are operating in that cycle of artificiality that drives consumerism. This is how financial leaders in most industries operate; they lock you into a closed system. If all of your dice (miniatures, maps, etc.) are keyed to a particular game, then you are probably also locked into buying from just a few suppliers, maybe only one. Which in turn allows those suppliers to set market price for their goods. Avoid these games. The "hit" from them will be short-lived and in all likelihood one day you'll look back and realize that all that money you spent has no lasting value. For every $50 Magic the Gathering card you have in your closet, there is a pound of Dragon Dice (or something similar and probably even less valuable).

Minimalist Dice Kits and Selection Techniques

For the typical RPG gamer, you need one set of polyhedrals with some extras in specific sizes. It's better if you can easily differentiate between them, so that you can quickly find your d20's, for instance, without accidentally grabbing a d12 or two first. The woman in the above video (sorry, I couldn't find her name) had three sets of polyhedrals in three clearly distinguishable but complementary colors. Good choice. My personal carry-around kit is:

2d20 Color A 
3d6 Color B
6d6 (minis) also Color B
1d10 & 1d% Color C
2d12s, 2d8s, 3d4s Color D 

If you don't care about color differentiation, I highly recommend the expanded sets from Roll 4 Initiative. They contain 15 dice (3d4, 4d6, 2d8, d10, d%, d12, 3d20) tailored to D&D play. Not sure why they put in a third d20 over a second d12, but whatever. These guys make great dice that are slightly larger (25%) than typical polys. They are attractive, easy to read, and don't feel at all bulky in the hand or the bag. 

My own rule for picking out dice is that they should have either a common ink color or a common plastic color (within a range). This is my kind of "Garanimals" approach. (If you don't know about those, they are clothes for toddlers with animals on the tags. Like animals "match" – or at least they used to be that way. Helpful for kids who are learning to match clothes or who are color-blind.) 

Here is a great set a friend of mine, Guillaume Jentey, posted the other day. He keeps only purple dice. Notice how they are all different and yet they look great together? Also, in choosing "only purple" he has effectively limited his consumerism!



Take-Aways

I hope the take away here is that you should be more aware of your dice buying practices. Avoid rationalization. "Love the ones you're with." (Do-do, do do, do do, do-do...) Make some rules for your purchases that give your personal collection a coherent look and help you curb your spending.

Until next time, travel light!



Friday, September 13, 2019

The 10' Square is Better – for Mapping

TLDR: [Read the title.]

The new norm for RPG maps is the 5' square. This is reasonable in terms of fighting, in fact this little meme is going around the net right now, illustrating a person in a 5' square, and I approve.





I also understand why most battle mats are printed as 1" squares = 5'. One human-sized miniature per square, obviously. I am going to make the argument, however, that when you are drawing maps, a 1" = 10' ratio is more optimal. My reasons are simple:

1) You can fit a lot more map onto a single sheet of graph paper. Which means a person looking at the map can get a bigger scope in one take as well.

2) A four person party can fight within that square in two ranks of two. So if you are using the map in play with tokens or abstract minis, you can just track the party's location with one pawn.

3) If, for use at the table, you blow up the map to 2" squares that represent 10' each, it's super easy for people to draw the extra lines in with their imagination - e.g. position their characters in a corner/quadrant of each space.

That's all I wanted to say. 10' squares. I love 'em. When I'm drawing in my 5x8" dotted notebook with 3/8" between dots, it allows me to draw a whole "level" of dungeon. It also somehow frees me up to not draw all the "furniture," as that would be impractical. I only note the big stuff, if anything: fountains, tables, etc.