Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Hardscrabble Open Design Journal, Page 1

TLDR: This is entry #1 in my design diary for (working title) Hardscrabble, a solo, tile-laying, dungeon crawl game. Please don't steal my ideas before they are even finished! :)

Let's start with Bananagrams. You've all seen it on the shelf at Target. Maybe you were interested because you liked word games (and it's a pretty decent one). Maybe you looked because you wanted a supply of letter tiles for craft projects or impromptu game counters. Maybe you immediately decided that the zippered banana-shaped pouch would make a cool dice bag. I was hooked for all three of these reasons.

As a designer, I quickly started seeing all kinds of potential in this super portable game, aside from the ones already mentioned. (To this day I carry a set of A-Z tiles in my dice bag to use as quick miniatures, for randomizing names, etc.) What I liked about them was the tactile nature of the plastic tiles. They are fun to manipulate and work into grids. The game itself, of course, plays with this idea and has you fashioning freeform crossword puzzles. But if you turn the tiles over so they are blank, or start looking at the letters as a kind of code instead of components of words, opportunities open up. Pretty quickly I began thinking about using these tiles as a kind of ad hoc map. I remember sending a picture of my hotel desk top to a friend with the tiles laid out in a 'dungeon' and a pawn sitting on one of the tiles as far back as 2016.

At the time, I was paying a lot of attention to the distribution of the letters, which turned out to not be a helpful starting point. (I'll explain why in a moment.) But if you are curious, it turns out the distribution of letters for B-grams is very similar to that of Scrabble. Scrabble has 100 tiles distributed as follows, and B-grams seems to just have the same rough distribution with more tiles (sans blanks).

Letter – Qty. of Scrabble tiles – Qty. of B-grams tiles
A – 9 – 13
B – 2 – 3
C – 2 – 3
D – 4 – 6
E – 12 – 18
F – 2 – 3
G – 3 – 4
H – 2 – 3
I – 9 – 12
J – 1 – 2
K – 1 – 2
L – 4 – 5
M – 2 – 3
N – 6 – 8
O – 8 – 11
P – 2 – 3
Q – 1 – 2
R – 6 – 9
S – 4 – 6
T – 6 – 9
U – 4 – 6
V – 2 – 3
W – 2 – 3
X – 1 – 2
Y – 2 – 3
Z – 1 – 2
BLANK – 2 – 0

Of course this is all based on English language letter frequency. But their value as word components doesn't interest me. While I like the manufacture of, and ease of acquiring B-grams tiles, I decided the 100 tile distribution of Scrabble was more satisfying. So I bought copies of the former and designed using the latter. The first step was to rearrange the letters from most common to least (e.g. E/12, A/9, I/9, O/8, R/6, etc.).

Then I boiled down dungeon components into an abstract symbology of 'straights,' 'bends,' 'Ts,' etc. representing hallways and rooms without regard to length and size. (Early experiments had me rolling dice to determine how many tiles long a hall was, or how many tiles were in each room.) I have PAGES of journals filled with these notes.

Eventually, 100 tiles was too much to wrestle with still. So I concentrated on filling out a table of basic shapes in a reasonable/minimalistic size and getting the distribution right. I ended up at a 6x6 table. I am a fan of the 'd66' roll and have been since I first saw it (I think in GW's Necromunda advancement roll tables). Basically you roll the d6 in sequence and treat them as the two digits of a number, so a 4 and then a 6 make 46, not 10 and not 64. You can roll the dice at the same time if they are different colors and you designate which one is the 'tens' die. This table allowed me to test the distribution before I marked up my pristine B-grams set with a Sharpie. It went something like this:

The d66 table I used appears left of the dice. The dungeons I generated with them are below the dice. And to the bottom right are some preliminary tile laying rules. The marked up tiles on the left are the result of a bit of noodling around. I think I ended up wasting 4 tiles as I adjusted the distribution one way and another. Red tiles, by the way, represent halls and rooms that automatically present some kind of encounter (wandering monsters, guarded treasure, traps, etc.).

One distinction worth making here is the randomly generated dungeons vs. the tile-laying dungeons. In the former, you can essentially recycle each piece so that playing it doesn't use it up. In the latter, you have a total of 36 tiles to play, period. It's possible that I will end up making this pool bigger (100), but right now I have found it very satisfying to use only 36 per level. Here are just a few of the MANY dungeons I generated in testing. Spiral tiles, BTW, were a secret doors experiment.

At this point I was comfortable that the tile laying worked, was fun (and oddly satisfying), and generated interesting enough structures for play. So I wrote up the rules for this part of the game and started working on a challenge of personal orientation. I had this design question in my mind about whether the player was oriented 'above' the map and could play a tile anywhere, or whether I wanted the point of player orientation to be 'on' the map (standing on a tile as a character in the maze), which would mean tiles could only be played where the player/character could 'look.'

The real problem seemed to be that orienting one's self on the map as character, while satisfying from a visceral standpoint, took away a lot of player choice/agency. When you have to play the next tile adjacent to the one on which you stand, often the tile played itself (no choice of side).

Watching a friend play through the maze with a pawn on the tiles helped me realize an elegant solution to the problem. To lay a tile you must be able to "see" into that square. So line of sight (forget doors and assume you can look anywhere there's a hall pointing away from you in a straight line) matters. If you want to lay a tile where you can't see, you must first move your pawn to a tile where you can see into that space. When you move, you take a risk. Count the tiles you move across (value = X, max 5). There is an X-in-6 chance (roll a d6) that you will suffer an encounter with a wandering monster.

I feel like this brings phase 1 to a close. I have my movement rules, tile distribution, and general concept down. Here is what I know in short form.

1. You get 36 tiles in a fixed distribution.
2. You start with the S-stairs down tile and draw one tile at a time from a bag as you play.
3. You can play a tile anywhere you can see. If you want to move first, do so, and roll for wandering monsters.
4. Play the tile. If there's no place it fits, play it face-down anywhere as a secret door. You can play future tiles on any open side of it; for mapping purposes it is a + intersection. Future tiles will reflect that.
5. Every red tile is an encounter. If you move onto it in the future, you must confront it. I'm not currently sure how that plays out and affects movement. I'm thinking I ditch the X-in-6 rule above and just have a way to mark red halls/rooms that have been 'beaten.' IOW, if you have to move to play a tile you might have to move through a previously played red one, which would force you to stop and take the challenge it presents. Once you beat it, you mark it. Probably flip it over and record the letter.
6. Rubble counters can be set aside and saved for later. You play them to close off 'open' sides of the level for scoring purposes. This was the initial rule. I'm thinking now you have to play them just like other tiles, which would force you to move.
7. The X counter is a special, extra-dangerous, boss encounter. For mapping purposes it is a + intersection. Future tiles will be drawn to represent that. Also the stairs tiles need a directionality.
8. Your score, after playing all the tiles is as follows:

  • 1 point for each face-up tile.
  • 2 points for each defeated red tile.
  • 5 points for a defeated X tile.
  • -1 point for each open side, as seen by a hallway pointing to an empty space or an exposed side of a secret door or X tile.
  • You need X points to enhance your character and go down to the next dungeon level.
You may or may not see just how much work has gone into this already. It's pretty hard to work out some of these problems in an elegant fashion. For instance, where "you" are on the map? What happens if you can't play a tile? Why would you challenge a red tile instead of going around it? What is the penalty for sloppy exploration (not finishing out areas/leaving open sides)? Why does score matter, beyond an abstract measure of how well you did? How do I represent large/complicated rooms vs. small/simple ones?

I'm excited about the next phase, which involves building a boardgame style character and conflict system and the first 'key.' I'll probably do the latter first. The red tiles will be marked on distinct letters so that you can make a key to the dungeon (each level actually). It will allow me to release future dungeon packs using the same rule and, indeed, for fans of the game (if any) to make dungeons for each other as well. This will make the game replayable over the long haul (once you beat all levels of the starter dungeon.)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

What Does That Look Like?

TLDR: "What does that look like?" is one of the most powerful questions in a GM's arsenal.  

What does that look like?
This prompt adds color and energy to a scene. It has the effect of helping players immerse and visualize the scene for better strategy or role-playing. And it can be used in several different ways.

The target for the question is usually the player whose character is taking action. But the question can also be asked of another player whose character is looking on. Or it could be asked of a player to the GM. Note that the question is "meta" and targets the players, but it is answered in regards to the fiction.

Asking this question of the GM may seem like an odd case. However, if the group primarily assigns world-building to the GM and a character is taking a world-specific action for the first time – such as summoning their god for aid – it might be natural for the player to ask the GM this question.

Before or After the Roll
Maybe the most important distinction to be made is whether the question is raised before or after a die roll. Asking before is a request for the player to describe their action more fully. Asking after, is allowing them to describe the outcome.

First, Second, or Third Person
The player answering the question, "what does that look like?" gets to choose their viewpoint. Often they make this decision without any self-awareness of thought as to the effect of the choice.

In first person, the visualization is from the character's point of view – "I see X." There is no way for the GM to answer in first person. (Is there? That feels like a really bold statement. Perhaps I'm being hasty. Anyway...) Answering the question in second person can be like "everyone sees my guy do X" or (from the GM) "you see X." In third person, the player answers as if they are a cinematic director watching the action from off-stage.

The way the question is phrased can do a lot to help push one viewpoint. To encourage the more distanced view, extend the phrase to "What does that look like - on screen?" To get the more immediate, first person view you might ask "Tell me what your character sees."

All of this is pretty subtle and probably goes without comment 99% of the time at the table. But it's worth taking a moment to consider both the framing of the question and the mode in which you answer it. Changing it up can produce some exciting differences in the fiction.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Gygax 75 Challenge: Week 3

TLDR: I build out a temple/tomb for my evolving Uzrak setting.

This account is going to be a little messy, because my process was a little messy and I'm going to retell it as it happened.

False Start?

Coming off of week 2 I was pretty excited. Then someone posted pics of a temple carved from living rock in India, Kailasa. This is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for! Since I am using early cultures from the southern Asia as inspiration, and I could find floor plans of the temple, it seemed like a great starting point. To a degree it was, but it made for a messy false start.


I spent a lot of time breaking the floor plan down into something a little more comprehensible using the free version of Dungeonographer. (I don't know if I mentioned it last week, but I used free Hexographer, Mac Preview, and Affinity Photo to make the digital map at the end of the post.) I wanted to preserve the two-story main area columned hall idea of Kailasa, but enclose the ceiling in rock as well. I mapped and re-mapped the temple multiple times until I got what I wanted. Let's say it took 2-3 hours.

But what did I have? I had a floor plan with very little idea of what it "meant" or what to do with it. It had a dozen rooms or so all nestled in a colonnaded hall with four upper story rooms. Two stories without a story behind it. Not even and implied one.

Note, by story I don't mean something I expect the players to follow, I mean the story of the how and why of the dungeon itself. Who built it? What for? How was it used? How is it used now? Something for the players to discover, not something they "have to" discover to "level up."

The Bubble Map

A couple of days later I'm on the Discord channel with JJ (of Beyond the Gates of Cygnus, and traveling companion on this Gygax 75 journey). JJ tells me how well things are coming together for him working through the directions I provided. Duh. Follow my own directions! What a novel idea.

So I sat down and generated the number of rooms per level, exits, budgets for the themes and so on. Then I started drawing a bubble map in my journal using the temple as a starting point, but not worrying at all about its actual structure.

I call it a bubble map. You might call it a node map, or a mind map, or a point-to-point crawl map. It's all the same thing. You make some bubbles, write things in them, and connect them with lines – which also have things written next to them sometimes. Conceptually, each bubble is a room for me, though that term can be kind of loose. It might actually be a feature or challenge that occupies the room – so instead of writing "The Armory" I might write "Animated Weapons." But more often than not I leave that kind of detail in my head and jot down the main function of the room.

Anyway, here is how it progressed. First a super messy version where I was thinking as I drew and then a cleaner version, with a few labels still missing on level 3. The themes came as, or just before I tackled each level. The features usually came as, or just after I completed a level. Meaning they arose out of mapping and I either realized at the time that they were the singular coolest or most notable thing on the level or figured it out when I took a step back.

The point is I was working back and forth between the bubble map and the list "requirements" from my workbook steps. The back and forth was helpful and pushed me a little as well as letting me know when I had "enough."

Messy, Messy Bubbles 

Revised Bubble Map

More Work

Not sure how else to say it. This week was a bit of a grind! Fun, yes, but lots and lots to do. In fact, I don't feel like I'm finished. Could I run characters through it? Sure, with a bit of on-the-fly creativity. I certainly have enough to go for a week or three. 

The first level now has a simpler and more concrete map than the one I made with the false start, including basic room descriptions, placed monsters, wandering monsters, a puzzle, a few secrets, some treasure, etc. 

Level two is ready to play, since it's kind of simple and involves mostly wandering monsters. Level three has a concept and central feature, as well as connections to the other two levels. In fact, all the levels are connected to each other directly (you can get down to 3 from 1, if you know how). Best of all, the dungeon has a little story that it tells to those who take the time to fully explore it. 

Level 1 & 1a

The Dungeon's Story

In the end, I want to put my work out there as a zine, and I'm compiling it as I go, which makes extra work. So I don't know how much of the story I want to tell. Let me shorthand it, which kills me, because it means leaving some of the coolest stuff out. Level 1 is a long-abandoned, unlit temple where the worshippers of a Lawful (but cruel) god once gathered. Everything faces the central structure and the upper stories have semi-open walls. In the center is the gilded statue of a many-eyed owl and around the perimeter stalks a "guardian." The first level also contains a sort of false tomb, a secret way down to level 3, and a more obvious way down to 2 – an ant tunnel rimmed with softly glowing fungus. The whole second level is their maze, with an underground lake, egg chamber, fungal garden etc. But something is wrong in the colony; rogue, mutated ants with a strangely human eye in the center of their broad heads are behaving erratically and hoarding amber-like stones. Down on level 3 is the "true tomb" where many skulls in niches and more of the amber stones can be found, along with a strange device that ... well ... let's leave it there.

I could easily spend three weeks (1 per level) on this step. But I'm going to move on and backfill as needed.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Lords of Mars Play-Testing

TLDR: We play tested the three phases of my mini-game Lords of Mars: character play, air battles, and big land battles in preparation for a full edition.

My Monday night crew play tested Lords of Mars (in a brew pup!) using a scenario designed to hit all three phases of the game: character play, air battles, and big land battles (in that order).

Green Martians by Juan Ochoa

The Scenario 

The player-characters were part of a diplomatic mission (and show of force) to Zodanga. A week ago the Zodangans suddenly requested that Helium send representatives to talk over mineral rights in the lands north of the Iss, after several years of intense conflict in the area. Despite the seeming urgency of the talks and the presence of the force from Helium, the Zodangans have been delaying any progress for days. One day, Hamu, the mouthpiece of the Jeddak of Zodanga, informs the Helium representatives that his master has a severe headache. Another day the excuse is some high festival in over which the Jeddak must preside. The crew of The Pride of Hastor (a battleship) and the marines aboard are getting restless; there have been a few drink-hall scuffles with palace guards and now they are confined to the ship.

In the middle of this mess, a robed figure runs into the ambassador's chambers – stumbling and foaming at the mouth (obviously poisoned). He gasps out "Treachery!! An army of green men approaches Namur while we dawdle in the land of these treacherous swine! Never trust a Zodangan! Aaaaaargh." (Collapses into a lifeless heap.) Guards come rushing down the hall shortly after saying they are hunting a spy.

The Scenes

The first scene is character driven. PCs must negotiate, sneak, fight, or find some other way to get to the ships and lift off. Hamu and the Zodangan guard will try to delay or even detain the PCs, at first with mealy-mouthed rationalizations and warnings that an early departure will endanger the talks. If the PCs escape within the hour they score 1 point. (Mark it with a die but don't explain it much, it will matter in the final scene.) The body of the spy may be at issue – do the PCs hide it or take it with them? The Zodangans won't resort to violence but may stage accidents (like attaching fueling lines to the Hastor's ray tanks and taking a long time to get them detached or having a group of guards chasing someone through the halls "run into" the PCs and "clumsily" entangle them.)

In the second scene, the PCs must run a blockade of Zodangan attack boats. The PCs have a battleship and three scouts vs. two Zodangan attack boats. The battleship carries a unit of elite marines that will be needed in the fight for Namur. (The PCs or the captain of the Pride of Hastor will know that Namur does not have enough troops and no air support for repelling a whole army of green men.) The PCs are extremely unlikely to lose the air battle here, though they may lose a scout. The goal of the Zodangans is, again, to detain or even cripple the battleship, but they are mostly open about it at this point and will fire on The Pride of Hastor if it doesn't turn back. Smart PCs may try to send a scout boat ahead to warn Namur and score 1 point.

In the third part of the scenario, an army of several thousand green men, riders and warriors under the leadership of a savage warlord, are closing in on the small city of Namur. Settled in the wastelands between Zur and Hastor, Namur is an important mining site, as it Helium's main supplier of the 8th ray (used to power airships). A few troops are stationed at Namur because of the site's strategic importance, but they are badly outnumbered until the PCs and their airboats/marines show up.

The Big Battle

Units are set up with a character-general on each side. If the PCs sent a scout boat ahead it is there as well and the encounter distance begins at 18". Otherwise the units start at 12" apart. Initiative is rolled and battle is joined.

Every PC turn they roll a d6. On a 6+ the PCs, the Hastor, and any remaining scout boats show up. If the PCs scored points earlier, they add those to the roll (i.e. +1 or +2). When the Hastor arrives it can enter the battle immediately, but if it ever wants to land the marines it must take a turn off doing anything else to do so.

Obviously the PCs goal is to not let the green men overrun Namur and to save as many red martians as possible. Even better is to capture the enemy warlord and establish a firm link between the Zodangans and the Warhoon tribe.

Playing with temp counters on a brew pup table, about 3' x 4'

How the PCs Fared

The players were very successful. Aonghais made a silver-tongued orator, and JJ a green Thark guard. We established that JJs character was a deep country scout who had, defying all expectations and code, rescued a red man and returned him to Helium. (That seems like a story for another day!) Hence his estrangement from the tribes and his inclusion in a diplomatic mission. Aonghais' character was clearly the diplomat!

In the first scene the PCs combined argumentation and a bit of force to get out and get their scenario point. In the second scene they blew up the Zodangan ships and got a scout off early to warn Namur, gaining a second point. In the final battle then, they got +2 to each roll to see when the characters/airships would show up. They arrived in the second or third round of combat, I forget which. They never landed the marines, instead choosing to use the awesome power of the battleship to blast away at the Warhoon. In the end, they captured the Warhoon chieftain. They lost one scout and about half of the Namur garrison. A small number of green men escaped back into the desert. 


It went well! The land game is solid and only needs one or two minor tweaks. The air battle is good but kinda fuzzy. We talked about it and I think I have the fix, so it was a productive evening. I also tested out a system for "costing" units to balance scenarios. Here are the detailed notes.

Unit Costs

I worked out unit costs on a spreadsheet ahead of time.

Click to embiggen, summary data below

Basically, I wanted the red men of Mars to have an advantage once the whole force was assembled, but to have a disadvantage at the outset. I think I might have given them too many ranged troops to start with. Next time I'd like to try a "cover" rule (see below) and shrink the number of ranged troops.

In any case, the Reds had a total of 20 units for 83 points, but 5 units and a full 40 points of that force, including their air support, starts in Zodanga, many miles (er, I mean Haads) away. The Greens have 15 units worth 74 points. Mainly the greens are tough and fast. The Reds have more range and variety, and ... eventually ... air support.

The balance worked pretty well, actually. I don't think I need to change the formula, especially since we added the necessity to spend a Pip to use ranged weapons (see below).

Tweaks to Air Battles

  • The air battles need a sequence and a range map. The sequence we worked out moved the air game a bit more in the direction of the land game, but still holds on to enough differences to make it feel special. 
  • The range map will show bands numbered 0 to 9. The enemy forces sit on 0 and friendlies start at the range band determined by starting encounter distance (d6+2). The map is an abstraction of 3-dimensional air space.
  • The sequence will be Initiative (once for the battle), Pips, Targeting, Spends. Initiative is a simple dice-off to see who goes first. Pips is a d6 roll, as in the land battle, for action points. It costs a pip to move a ship and a pip to fire with it. (Which necessitates a small change in the land game discussed below.) Once Pips are established but before they are spent, each ship indicates another ship that it is acting "against." This is the targeting phase. I'm guessing I will put little arrows on the airship counters to make this easier. (You would turn the counter to "target" an enemy ship, saying which one if it's unclear.)
  • Spending Pips. In the spend phase Pips are spent to move and/or fire with ships (until the Pips run out). Ships can only chase/flee or fire upon the ship they targeted previously. 
  • Ships that flee roll 2d6, add their speed, and subtract the speed of the fastest ship targeting them (if any). The result is how many range bands they move away from 0. 
  • Ships that chase roll 2d6, add their speed, and subtract the speed of the ship they targeted. If the result is positive, the range is decreased by that many bands. (Friendlies always move, so a chasing enemy "pulls" a friendly in closer, whereas a friendly chasing an enemy moves itself closer.) 
  • If chasing/fleeing ever seems wonky, remember you are working with three-dimensional space. The flat map may not be telling the whole story. Just go with it.
  • Firing is a 2d6 attack roll (+Attacks) vs. the targeting ship 2d6 (+Attacks) with the difference accounted for in hull damage to the loser. Ships that are fleeing roll 2d6 but do NOT add their attack value. Ships may end up firing multiple times if targeted more than once in the same player's turn, but each ship can only fire once via Pip spend. E.g. if it's "my" turn I can spend a Pip to fire ship Arcturus on ship Cadmus. Then I can spend another Pip to fire ship Belan on ship Cadmus. Ship Cadmus "fires back" twice. However, I could NOT spend a second Pip to fire Arcturus again in the same spend phase. 
  • Disabling Roll. This was added for the land battles but I think I like it for the air battles too. If a ship takes hull damage but is not destroyed, roll a d6. On a 1, the ship is disabled and must withdraw for repairs, land, or go down in smoke. (The last option might be if it wants to get one last shot in?) This rule might replace tracking damage to hulls. IOW, no damage tracking just like in land battles. You either get enough damage to take a ship out or your don't. And characters on-board with applicable specials can attempt to repair ships that are forced to withdraw.
  • Other bits. Airships can't stack. I can't remember if I said that in the rules. Characters with an applicable special add +1, per the rules. It may not be worth policing "applicable special" and just say Characters add +1. But there might need to be a max set on that. IOW, what if 5 characters are on the same ship, does it get +5!?  

Tweaks to Land Battles

  • Not a whole lot do do here!
  • Initial range. Land battles need a similar rule to air battles about determining initial range. It probably should be 9 (surprise!), 12, or 18"
  • Terrain events. I want to add the option of a d6 table for interesting terrain events. E.g. maybe on a 6 the ground shakes and all units that move lose 3" of movement on that turn. But this would really be a bit of scenario flavor more than a strict rules add. In fact, I've already modeled this above with the Hastor arrives roll. 
  • Champion battles. If two stacks that are engaged each have a character in them, the champions can fight separately (independently) of the stack. First the units roll against each other (still adding +1 for the characters.) If characters on both sides are still in the action, each side chooses a champion and they fight with a 2d6 + adds roll. I could see this playing out multiple ways. The most obvious would be to add the Tough stat, weapons, armor, and specials. But I could also see one champion fighting (using Tough) while the other tries to talk him into changing his ways or allegiances (using Clever). The GM would have to rule on whether this is an effective tactic and what the stakes are for when one character is defeated.
  • Pips for firing are now required. It costs 1 Pip to fire, in addition to any Pips spent to activate the stack. Activation costs are as written previously. So a stack of 2 tokens with ranged weapons would cost 2 Pips to move and attack in melee or 3 Pips to move and fire or 1 Pip to sit tight and fire. A melee attack is included within the move activation, but you can't fire without spending the additional Pip and if you fire you don't get the "free" melee attack. Hopefully that's not too confusing. I suppose it begs the question, if a unit doesn't move but is engaged in melee, does it cost 1 Pip to do the melee attack or do I have to spend Pips equal to the tokens in the stack? Honestly, I think it's the latter. Melee is a lot more exhausting and takes more time than laying down fire.
  • Air ships in land battles. They hover over the battlefield with line of sight to everything (and vice versa). Air ships cannot fire on troops engaged in battle with other units unless they don't care who they hit! (In which case, randomize which side gets blasted and that side takes all the damage. GM, don't allow any meta-gaming here – an airship wouldn't fire on its own troops, would it?) 
  • Airship movement. Like any other unit, it costs 1 Pip to move an airship and 1 Pip to fire with it. Airships can enter the battlefield at any point. Once on the battlefield they can either move at their speed x3", land, or fly high for the spent Pip. If they fly high they are removed from the battlefield until a Pip is spent to re-enter the battlefield (at any point). A ship can fire and then fly high, or re-enter and fire (2 Pips cost). But a ship can't both fly high and re-enter the battlefield on the same turn. Ships roll 2d6 and add their attack value, but do not count themselves as ground units do. (Or maybe they do, and I need to adjust the attack values to 0-4 instead of 1-5, so that it's 1+AV.)
  • Other bits. Add a ruler on the book cover! (Thanks JJ!) Also I need to spell out a general rule for units - each unit can only move once and attack once per spend phase. Exception, when a unit moves and joins with another unit, it can then move with that unit. Ramming? Probably a ship that does this rolls an attack vs. the target ship or unit and then does double damage if it wins. Either way it explodes.

What's Next?

Well. I'm going to make some counter art to include in the game, and begin redoing the text as a digest-sized zine. The small rulebook is cool, but it's too limiting and hard to read (font size) in dim light. I'll implement the above tweaks too, but after that it may sit a while as I finish the Gygax 75 challenge. (Just two more weeks to go!)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Three Dice to Rule Them All

TLDR: I discuss how to get all the polyhedral rolls from three dice.

I have been a proponent of keeping dice in your pocket (and practicing what I preach) for some months. Ever since I read this, in fact. Yes, I have a dice rolling app on my iPhone (Mach Dice), but it's not the same.

Keeping dice in your pocket, however, begs the question: how many dice and which ones?

Before I go any farther, let me recognize that this is a really silly post. 

And now that I have that out of the way... Typically I would suggest you keep a d20 and 2d6, but that's primarily because of the kinds of pocket games I like to play. Recently someone asked me which dice I would carry if I needed to replicate all the polyhedrons. There are actually several answers to this question, and you can go as low as two dice, but I settled on three: the d6, the d8, and the d20.

The perfect pocket dice?

Let's build the "dice chain" a step at a time.


You got em. Those are your baseline pocket dice.


You can get a d12 using a simple high-low method. Roll the d6 and d20 together. Read the d6 and add 6 if the d20 is high (11-20). This is more intuitive than it sounds. Try it!

Note. I am going to suggest a very similar sort of procedure for a lot of these, which is to add or subtract a big number (often the highest value of the die) to/from itself based on the result of another die. I don't know why this is intuitive, but it is how my brain works at least. 


For a d10, just roll the d20. If it rolls high (11-20), subtract 10. To get a d100 aka a d%, do that twice and the first roll is the "tens column."


To get a d4 you roll the d8 and subtract 4 if the result is a 5 or more (so that 5 to 8 becomes 1 to 4).

Why not d6-d8-d10 or d12-d20?

As I mentioned above, there are other combos you can use to replicate all the dice. I chose the three I did for a couple of reasons: shape and utility.

All three dice have a distinctively different shape, one you can tell at a glance. In fact, I think of them as square (d6), diamond (d8), and circle (d20). If you squint at them, that's what you see. On the other hand, a d12 and d20 often look very similar at a glance. As do a d8 and d10.

I personally dislike the d4, primarily because it is small and hard to pick up, but also because it can be a little awkward to read. That die was never in the running in any case!

I chose the d6 over the d12 and the d20 over the d10 because those seem to be the most common dice used by games. In fact, original D&D only uses those dice.

But what about those funky dice? Can I get those too?

d2 roll any die and use low (1) or high (2).

d3 is most commonly rolled with a d6 anyway. You can use the 1-2=1, 3-4=2, or 5-6=3 method if you like, but I like just saying that on a 4+ you subtract 3.

d5 roll the d6 and reroll if you get a 6.

d7 roll the d8 and reroll if you get an 8.

d14 this is the most awkward one. I would probably roll a d6 for low-high and a d8, rerolling any 8s. If the 6 is high, add 7 to the d8 result.

d16 as per the d14, roll the d6 for high low, but this time just read the d8 and add 8 if the d6 is high.

d24 roll a d6 and a d8. To the result of the d6, add 6 if the d8 reads 3-4, add 12 if the d8 reads 5-6, and add 18 if the d8 reads 7-8.

d30 roll a d20 and a d6. Ignore the first digit on the d20 (gives you a 0-9, but of course you read the 0 as a 10). The d6 tells you to add 0 (1-2), 10 (3-4), or 20 (5-6).

I think we are all dumber now. Thanks for sticking this one out! :D

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

The fertile river valleys of Timuria are the initial focus of play. Features appearing on the map (following pages) 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.

Notable Terrain

  • 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).
  • 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.

Places of Mystery

  • The Tombs. Nestled deep within the dry hills and crags of the southern Godswalls is a large number of tombs. Most have been raided in times past, but occasionally a new one, or a new space within an old one is found and looted. A day’s ride west of the tombs is, Adakk, a sort of semi-permanent camp town where goods looted from the tombs are stored and sold. Even the carved stones of the tombs have value as building materials for Ruk and Garan. 
  • 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.  
  • 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


  • 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.