Thursday, July 11, 2019

Not a Political Post

This is about gaming. Just hear me out, please.

Consider this image from the now defunct Mad Magazine. It explains itself in terms of our political climate. (I'd say our "current" political climate, but this is from 1968. The more things change...)



So what is my point? Substitute gamer terms here. Choose any you like.

See the Super Gamer.
Hear him preach about how he loves his edition.
Hear him preach about how he hates "Story Gamers"
And "THACO" ... and "OSR creeps"
And "LARPers" ... and "FLG Owners"
... ... ...
He's someone who loves role-playing games,
While hating 93% of the people who play them.

Don't be the jerk who tries to prove your fun is better by hating on everyone else's.

In the words of the immortal Stan Lee. 'Nuff Said.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Choose Your Own Story, or Stop and Smell the Slimes!

TLDR: avoid linearity in your adventures, yes, but also learn how to make recursiveness not tedious.

I have a mild addiction to the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. They are an early example of what we refer to now as Interactive Fiction (IF) and share a lineage with the text-based adventure games of old: Colossal Cave and Zork, for instance. As such, they are role-playing games that evolved along a different path from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, it works like this. You begin a story and, after a few pages of text, are given a choice like "If you go decide you can't delay in finding your lost dog and go down the stairs into darkness turn to page 114. If you decide to go back for a light source and supplies first, hoping that Spot can take care of himself for a while, turn to 32." As you read you are offered choices and follow the branching story path until you reach a passage that culminates, for good or ill, in "The End."

[If you find the CYOA books fascinating, there is an interesting (and freely-available) role-playing game – or perhaps story-telling game, if you make such distinctions – called Cheat Your Own Adventure. It is based on the story-telling style of CYO and the experience of reading the books with a thumb-in-the-page to mark options you didn't take.]

As I read the CYOA books, I map them to keep track of storylines I have abandoned with my choices and want to follow up on later. I keep reading through to various ends until I know I have visited every passage in the book. Here are three books by Edward Packard that I have read in the last year or two, and what I learned from mapping them.

CYOA 12: UFO 54-40 (1982)
You are abducted by aliens while traveling on the Concorde. Will you get along with the aliens or will you be brain-wiped? Will you find human allies to help you escape? Will you reach the paradise planet, Ultima?

I mapped this one some time ago and used a method that later evolved into something more data-oriented and less visual, as you can see. If I were to re-map it like the others, it would look more like #18 than #45, which is to say less recursive.

Whether intentional or through a printing error, there is a thread of the story you can't reach without cheating in this one.

Lift on left is cut off, let me know if you have a use for the full data

CYOA 18: Underground Kingdom (1983)
You enter the hollow earth through a fissure that seems to be rapidly closing. At the core you discover a black sun, mysterious golden birds of high intelligence, and warring tribes of furry people.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choice

CYOA 45: You Are A Shark (1985)
You enter a temple where you find yourself trapped by a chimeric idol. A seated monk leads you through meditations in which you experience many lives as different animals. (Or maybe just one, depending on your choices.) The not-subtle subtext is that humans are jerks.

This is the most "recursive" CYOA I have read to date, with many ways to loop back through the story. I was surprise that, for me, the recursiveness did not make the story better. For one thing, there are fewer endings because different lines end up merging into the same track.  I suppose the upside of is that you can experience most of the book in a single read with the right choices – looping back naturally and choosing a different path each time. In some ways, I felt like I was robbed of the many-stories-in-one-book nature of earlier CYOAs.

Green = redirect to target (boxed), Red = ending, Gray = no choice
Same data, but visualized in tree form

How This Relates to Tabletop Role-Playing Games
It seems that over time Packard worked fewer endings into the books. UFO 54-40 has 30 endings. Underground Kingdom has 21. You are a Shark has only 14! This may have been a reaction to readers frustrated by very short story lines – in Underground Kingdom you can die in four pages, having only made two choices. And some of the endings are abrupt and disappointing. Very few take up more than half a page. The trade-off is that a lot of the story-lines, instead of ending, loop you back to an earlier point. 

This brings to mind some essays I read a while back on Jaquaying the Dungeon. The reference is to Jenell Jaquays, who wrote The Caverns of Thracia (1979) and other classic RPG modules under the name Paul Jaquays. 

Turning Jennell's name into a verb, the author, Justin Alexander, contends that dungeons should be looping, not linear. That's a gross over-simplification of what is spelled out over five essays, but it relates to the CYOA structures above. If we can think of non-looping, branching paths as linear – and I think we can – "Jaquaying" would mean to mix it up a bit by having multiple ways to progress through the story that aren't mutually exclusive. In You Are A Shark, you can take a "left-fork" that later returns you to the same fork, allowing you to go right (or left again). When it comes to dungeons, you can add the idea of multiple entrances (beginnings) as well as exits (endings), and I generally agree with Justin.

However – and I think you knew there was a "but" coming – re-treading the same old paths can be tedious. So how do we design dungeons that are "Jaquayed" without being boring?

Recursive, not Repetitive
First of all, we don't have to work too awfully hard at this. There is an inherent interest in "the road not taken." Players will naturally want to return to areas where they skipped over a door or turning, just to see what they missed. And humans have a kind of completist itch in any case; they want to know they have set foot in every available square foot of dungeon.

So really the tedium of going back through the same areas is about the signal to noise ratio. Think about your drive to work, there's nothing qualitatively positive about the repetitive part of it. You've seen those roads a million times. So how do you keep the drive fresh? Well, nature helps. An unusually lovely sunset, the change in seasons and conditions, the random appearance of interesting animals. All of those things can make "the same old drive" eventful. And there are things you do yourself to break up the drive, you play different music or an audiobook. You play games with license plates, doing math or trying to make words out of the random letters. You call an old friend or parent.

These same tricks work in the dungeon. The GM can change the conditions or introduce new creatures into old areas, of course. Instead of a pretty sunset or a flight of geese, the dungeon has become smokey with accumulated torch use and stings your eyes, or the sounds of the party has drawn a patrol of bugbears into the area, or killing the displacer beasts on the way in now means the kobolds can lay claim an area they long avoided. 

The GM can also throw up detours. Perhaps there is a new cave-in or hastily thrown up barricade. Maybe a shifting hallway trap or an illusion makes the characters believe they are in the same hallway when they really aren't. 

To complete the analogy, the party can play "road games" to pass the time, perhaps with some encouragement from the GM. Not fighting their way through the halls and rooms this time might give the party more time to explore on the way back/out. Maybe there were runes they didn't notice before which help fill in some of the dungeon's history, or they could use the time to search for secret doors (again). I generally use the "you get one attempt" rule unless the fiction changes. So here it is; the fiction changed – the characters are traveling through the hall way at a later time, or in the reverse direction, or after having cleared it out. The GM might even let them find the secret stuff automatically this time, or at least throw out really pointed hints and reduce all the difficulties by a step or two.

Stop and Smell the Slimes!
This advice might take a little effort to employ, but it's worthwhile. I'm as guilty as anyone about short-handing things that are repetitive in role-playing. After a while it's natural to not describe the same halls or the same attacks and just say things like "you go north for 40 feet" or "I attack the kobold." But it's a quick death for a game to indulge in this form of abbreviation. After all, you are playing the game to experience the excitement and the wonder of being a different person in a different world. Don't rush through it! Take a moment to stop and smell the roses: admire the dwarven stonecraft or collect a sample or two of various useful slimes and molds.

Unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure, you can change the "text" of the game as you go. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, the fun is in the journey, not the end.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A Quick Creature Design Primer for Troika!

TLDR: what it says on the tin, really. A quick breakdown of Troika! monster stats, guides for creating original monsters, and a linked spreadsheet containing all the core book creatures.

Art by Shoji Ohtomo

Designing from Scratch

Let's keep this simple. Just pick numbers based on comparative creatures and consider the typical stat ranges as follows:

SKILL
Skill ranges from 3-16, but about two-thirds have a Skill of 7, 8, or 9. Just remember you are working with a curve. There's a big difference between those three numbers! The "drop off" on either end of that middle range is severe.
  • Low Skill 3-6: Gremlins, Pisceans, Goblins, Living Dead 
  • Moderate Skill 7-9: Knights of the Road, Orcs, Harpys, Lizard-Folk, Man-Beasts, Thinking Engine, Ogre
  • High Skill 10-16: Tower Wizard, Manticore, Dragon
STAMINA
Stamina ranges from 3-46, spread pretty evenly. Remember that creatures that use spells don't spend Stamina on them, so you don't need to adjust for that. This is just a measure of toughness. Base your score on how long you want them to stay up in a fight.
  • Weak 3-6: Gremlins, Pisceans, Sympathy Serpent
  • Average 7-14: Feathered Folk, Knights of the Road, Lizard-Folk, Orcs, Man-Beasts, Living Dead, Trolls, Harpys, Tower Wizards, Parchment Witches, Thinking Engines
  • Tough 14*-21: Cyclops, Salamanders, Ogres, Manticores, Dolms, Alzabos
  • Titanic 22+: Dragon, Ekodat, Loathsome Wurm
* 14 is a kind of slip-point between really tough humanoids and loutish or "puny" giants. And if you prefer, you could use 3+ 1d6, 2d6, 3d6, or 4d6 as rough "hit dice" guides for creature size.

INITIATIVE
Initiative ranges from 1-8, but only 4 creatures out of 36 exceed an Initiative of 3. Creatures with multiple, area, or follow up attacks need an extra point or two to get those in. 
  • Slow 1: Goblins, Living Dead, Trolls
  • Average 2: Pisceans, Feathered Folk, Knights of the Road, Orcs, Lizard-Folk, Man-Beasts, Tigers, Parchment Witches, Thinking Engines
  • Fast 3: Gremlins, Harpys, Tower Wizards, Cyclops, Salamanders, Ogres*
  • Supernatural 4-8: Alzabo, Manticore, Loathsome Wurm, Dragon
ARMOUR
Armour ranges from 0-4.
  • None 0: fifteen creatures from Living Dead to Tower Wizards
  • Light 1: nine creatures from Goblins to Thinking Engines and Ogres
  • Heavy/Tough 2: six creatures from Trolls to Cyclops
  • X-Heavy/X-Tough 3: five creatures including Salamanders and Manticores
  • "Impervious" 4: the dragon
DAMAGE
Damage as weapon or creature size/type. Seriously, I can't make this easier than just thinking about the creature's "weapons" and looking at the damage tables for a comparable. 

MEIN
Pick any six labels. They don't need to represent any kind of sequence and there are 158 unique ones among 36 monsters, so I think it's safe to say you can be creative. Common ones are Aggressive, Confused, Curious, Fearful, Hungry, Playful, Spiteful, Tired, and Watchful. Some of my personal favorites are: Absent-Minded, Beatific, Blooming, Doubting, Hagridden, Inveigling (and Fake Inveigling), Mewling, Plagued by Thought, Rancorous, Rowdy, Smug, and Unstable. 

SPECIALS
Specials aren't always directly combat-oriented. While the Manticore and the Dragon have special combat attacks, lots of other creatures have specials like the Cyclops' foresight, the Parchment Witches spell variety, or the Pisceans' penchant for eating the party's supplies. 

The Data

In case you are wondering where these numbers came from, I put the Troika! creatures into a spreadsheet (also in available in comma-delimted form). Enjoy.

Converting from Advanced Fighting Fantasy

Troika! is based on Fighting Fantasy. The monster manuals for the RPG based on FF (AFF) is called Out of the Pit and Beyond the Pit. The presentation of each is slightly different: 

Troika! Goblin
Skill: 5
Stamina: 6
Initiative: 1
Armour: 1
Damage as Weapon 
Mein
1 Curious
2 Dismissive
3 Preoccupied
4 Gossipy
5 Overly Friendly
6 Paranoid
Advanced Fighting Fantasy Goblin
Skill: 5
Stamina: 5
Habitat: Hills, Plains, Wilderness, Caves, Dungeons, Marshes
Number Encountered: 1-6
Type: Humanoid
Reaction: Hostile
Intelligence: Average 
The stats are The obvious differences are that Troika! includes Initiative, assigns a number to Armour, and teases out the reactions with a Mien table. AFF, on the other hand, supplies a Habitat, Number Encountered, and Intelligence rating.

To convert an AFF monster to Troika! you will minimally need to assign an Initiative number, Armour rating, and Damage Track (or list it as "as Weapon"). You can obviously work with the ranges above. The rest is icing. And you shouldn't need to adjust the scores where the two systems' stat categories align.

Solo Gaming Part 1: Why Not/Why?

TLDR: I try to shatter some assumptions about solo RPG play and discuss reasons for trying it.

Prejudices and misunderstandings abound when it comes to solo gaming, and it would try my patience to address all of them here. Snap judgments like "I guess it's okay to just try out the rules" or "Sure, but it's not like really role-playing" are, as of this moment, gently but firmly set aside. I want to begin from a place of no assumptions.
It seems strange to me and totally incongruous with the notion of using one's imagination NOT to enjoy playing alone. – Stephen Gilbert
Why are the majority of wargames played by more than one person in the first place? – Stuart Asquith
These quotes are from blog posts on the hobby of solo wargaming, but I think they are legitimate and disarming questions from which to approach solo RPG play. They invert the assumptions that solo play is something you only do when you can't find other players or that it is inherently weaker, qualitatively, due to the lack of other players.

When playing RPGs what do others bring to the table? More, and more diverse imagination, sure. Also a kind of surprise factor – ideas that originate from outside of our own experiences. Other players help us increase bandwidth so that there can be more things going on and more characters acting simultaneously, with a low cognitive load on each individual player. Other plays allow us to immerse in a single role and to not try to imagine what other characters, villains, or monsters are doing, or how the world itself reacts to our probings. Other players make RPG play a social event.

That seems like a lot!

But it would be wrong to think that you can't take on a character role (or roles) on your own or achieve some of the same diversity and surprise with other tools – dice and tables, primarily. Before you dismiss this idea, think of gamers you have played with before. Can you not imagine what they would do, in character, given certain situations? I won't say that replacing other players is easy, but a sufficiently complex "model" in our heads or in some table-driven programmatic form can give us very similar results. After all, Game Masters do this all the time – jumping from one NPC to another with sometimes radically different backgrounds and agendas. Additionally, playing alone removes most time constraints, making bandwidth less of an issue. And a degree of social interaction, of a different kind, can be had by sharing your play narratives with others.


You can worry when your characters start talking back. :)


All this amounts to a "why not?" argument, but let's switch to the "why" of solo RPG play.

To deal with a lack of players.
We might suffer from a lack of other willing participants. Of course, the online world has made this less of a problem. With a decent Internet connection and a little exploration to find the right groups on social media platforms, you can find other gamers willing to play with you. However, getting an online game started usually requires you to be reasonably flexible in arranging times and chosen systems. Your "why" could be that you have lots of available free time at odd or unpredictable hours and that you want to play a specific system or setting that doesn't capture the interest of others.

To learn or practice.
Solo play is an ideal way to learn rules, test modules, practice voices, etc. There are tools out there for working either end of the scenario – tools that simulate parties of adventurers so that you can practice running a game or scenario, as well as tools that emulate the game master so that you can try those same systems or modules out in character.

To entertain.
We can't overlook the argument that it's just plain fun. Maybe you already have a gaming group, but you want to play more than you do currently. Maybe you are looking for something to do when you suffer from insomnia or when you are stuck in a hotel while traveling for work or as a quiet-time respite from all the computer, tablet, and phone screens you stare at the rest of the day. Don't be embarrassed to embrace solo play. Why is telling yourself stories somehow pathetic but passively absorbing stories through the television an acceptable pastime?


I seriously doubt this list is exhaustive. Feel free to add your own reasons "why" or your "why not" reasons – the things that keep you from solo play – in the comments below.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Ephemera for June 2019

TLDR: further thoughts and links related to June's posts.

Glen Robinson shared this wonderful old cartoon in response to Dungeon Logic. Here we have a dungeon designed for "initiation" and lots of cool (and lethal) ideas. It's also fairly trippy.

Betty Boop: Bimbo's Initiation, 1931


On Art and Innovation

TLDR: same old art = same old ideas; challenge yourself. 

I was recently re-discovered the art of Kay Rasmus Nielsen and Virginia Frances Sterrett. In their work you can see the illustrative qualities of Arthur Rakham mixed with the design sense and Art Deco stylings of Erté!


Kay Nielsen
Virginia Sterrett


Take a moment (or a few dozen) to absorb the art styles I'm talking about here with some quick Google image searches, it will feed your soul.


Looking at these artists started me thinking about the range of styles, or relative lack of range, in modern fantasy art. You don't see works like this very often! Why not? This next paragraph is the result of a good deal of rumination and, frankly, the result of writing more than 4,000 words and then erasing them.

Where you find innovate art, you will find the innovative words they inspired. Where you find innovative words, you will find the innovate art they inspired. Conversely, the "same old art" – speaking stylistically – will give rise to the same old ideas, and the same old ideas to the same old art. 

I have so much more to say about this, but it's all messy and sounds like a value-laden manifesto. The take-away is this. Look at your RPG book shelf. Consider the art you find there. Are you programmed, or being programmed to think about fantasy in only certain ways? Challenge yourself! I could tell you where to look, but part of the joy is in the exploration. Different things are out there! Exciting things, innovative things, weird things. Things that will make you uncomfortable but which will help you grow and pull your imagination out of long-established ruts.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Scrolling for Moon-Powered Monsters?

TLDR: imagining spirit-monsters that are bound by circadian rhythms.

The Bakemono Zukushi Scroll
Check out this Edo-period Japanese Monster Manual ... er, I mean painted scroll featuring shape-changing Bakemono. The artist and date is unknown, though it is thought to hail from the 18th or 19th century.

A portion of the Bakemono Zukushi Scroll

One of the great things that comes out in the discussion of this scroll is the way whole classes of monsters are distinguished by the time of day in which they are active.

The founding father of minzokugaku (Japanese folklore studies), Yanagita Kuno (1875–1962), drew a distinction between yurei (ghosts) and bakemono: the former haunt people and are associated with the depth of night, whereas the latter haunt places and are seen by the dim light of dusk or dawn.
It reminds me of the three spirits that visited Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' Christmas Carol, each one appearing only when the other had disappeared. Of course they represented a sort of chronology (past, present, future) and they could only appear on Christmas night. But the association for me is that gateways to the spirit world may operate a bit like a time-lock vault that is regulated by the calendar, the moon, or the day/night cycle.

Circadian rhythms would be a really interesting twist to put on creatures in your RPG adventures. The characters might be in an otherwise safe place, and then twilight comes, or the witching hour, and things get dicey (literally). This idea also works as a pacing mechanic. In the "off-hours" characters could run around in relative safety, trying to find some formula or weapon to use against the creature(s), but the clock is ticking and they must assemble the right things and perhaps even be at the right location to drive off or destroy the monster(s).

Perhaps a villain who is invincible except at sunrise and sunset. Or malformed spirit creatures that can only break through to the material world when someone harbors violent thoughts at midnight.

Another parallel, in my mind, is the play of light and dark in The Lord of the Rings. Orcs went all weak-in-the-knees in sunlight, so there was a measure of safety while during the day – or at least while abroad under a sunny sky. At night you wanted to be behind fortified walls if you could. And, I believe it is Gandalf who says "look for my coming at first light" and Aragorn who calls down to the Uruk Hai "None knows what the new day shall bring him ... Get you gone, ere it turn to your evil." Of course that sense of safety was soon to be eroded by the blanket of dark clouds Sauron sent forth to shield his troops.

There's a lesson to be had there. Once the characters figure out that the evil sorcerer comes at twilight, because that is when his powers are strongest, how can you surprise them? How could you artificially induce twilight? An eclipse, perhaps?

There's a lot of meat on this bone. And a lot of cool ideas for creatures embedded in that scroll, as well as ready-made, copyright free illustrations!