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.

d6-d8-d20

You got em. Those are your baseline pocket dice.

d6-d8-d12-d20

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. 

d6-d8-d10-d12-d20-d%

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." (Note. Another way is to roll the d20 and ignore the first digit, treating a 0 as a 10. I thought that would be easier, but somehow my brain works better with the high-low die because it's weird to roll a 10, ignore the 1, and then still treat the result as a 10.)

d4-d6-d8-d10-d12-d20-d%

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


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.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Lords of Mars Debrief

TLDR: the post in which I talk about making Lords of Mars, a hack of Tunnel Goons.

It has been a few days since I released Lords of Mars, my pastiche of John Carter of Mars novels filtered through the lens of Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons, with a sidecar of simple wargame instructions. You can get it at itch.io. 

Goals

The following were my design goals.

  • Capture the flavor of Barsoom without becoming entangled in any of the particulars of the story (characters, cities, etc.)
  • Produce a short, landscape, quarter page zine – the same format as Nate's Caverns of Urk
  • Reintroduce the "old school" influence of wargames by including light rules for quick aerial and land battles on a large scale.
  • Make it cool...

Make it cool?

Yes. Seriously. When I make stuff I want the language and the look to be something that gets people excited.

I'm a form follows function kind of guy, not the other way around. To me, that means I need to make the functions beautiful so that they can be formed into something beautiful. It's mostly about how you divide up material into consumable, useful bites and condense the language to get the most impact per word while remaining readable. If your game is all big blocks of text, your form will reflect that. If you have a strong outline and deliver punchy setting bullet points alongside well-articulated tables and focused instructions, the form will reflect that too!

I mostly succeeded. But I over-reached on the wargame section, trying to cram the rules into just a few pages. Those "bullet points" are kind of false. The divisions aren't as clear and clean as I would have liked and some (more) of it could have been formulated as a table or steps. Don't get me wrong; I'm happy with what I got done in such a short amount of time, but...

What's Next?

The game has room to grow!

And that's a good thing. My next step is to play it with these goals for improvement in mind:

  • Ensure the wargame rules fully work and are fun and quick to play.
  • Interface the aerial battles, land battles, and the narrative game in such a way that one easily flows into and synchronizes with the other.
  • Develop a longer list of items and specials.
  • Perhaps add a bit more setting (like 2-sentence descriptions of cities and monsters).
  • Probably reformat into a digest sized zine of 24-32 pages. 
  • Add some form of political warfare metagame? 
  • Create some adventure seeds and/or a generator

This is going to take some time. I'm not even sure when how I'm going to get playtesting in. Perhaps online. But I would love to be 100% sure the game has legs for the long haul. 

Watch this space.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Rob Kuntz & Arneson's True Genius

TLDR: this book is a hot mess, but buried in it is an interesting, if IMO flawed, perspective. 




Caveat

This is my reading of Rob Kuntz' book: Dave Arneson's True Genius. It was not an easy work to unlock. Any errors in representing it are mine. I am very critical of Rob Kuntz in this summation and review, even though I found some of his thoughts "interesting." I don't want anyone to interpret my dislike of this work, or its execution, as in any way devaluing Arneson's contribution to D&D. It has been established in very authoritative forums (like Peterson's Playing at the World) that Arneson contributed a number of critical, innovative, and formative ideas to role-playing in general and D&D in particular.

Who is Rob Kuntz?

Rob Kuntz, as a teenager, lived with Gary Gygax's family. He was there when Dave Arneson demoed Blackmoor to Gary in 1972 and was an early playtester, taking part in Gygax's Greyhawk campaign of the same year. He literally saw the birth, a good portion of the evolution of D&D. Rob also worked for TSR from its founding through 1977.

Part 1: Assertions About Gygax

In Arneson's True Genius, Rob Kuntz makes the following claims:

When Gygax used Arneson's ideas to design D&D, he did irreparable harm to Arneson's legacy and the entire potential future arc of the hobby by:
  • "Redacting" Arneson's ideas. Gygax built a marketable system of role-playing by taking what was already established – wargame rules – and adding to them some of Arneson's ideas that were groundbreaking but neutralized through systematization. Kuntz refers to this as "enchaining" D&D and reducing it to a "market +1" state. Meaning Gary used Arneson's ideas to make the next predictable market thing.
  • Setting the precedent for the industry. The fact of D&D's success created inertia that moved the entire hobby community in one direction and defined the role-playing industry. This financially-proven groove meant that other possible futures were left unexplored, e.g. one that extended from Arneson's way of playing the game. 
  • Discouraging others from creating. When Gygax created AD&D, he moved D&D from an open system – which encouraged players to invent – to a closed system – an "official" rules set that discouraged innovation and established TSR's intellectual property. This was directly contradictory to an Arneson's open and flexible system ideas.
  • Doing all of this in bad faith. Gygax (like Arneson) never played D&D by the rules he set forth. In selling the D&D rules to the world, Gygax actively suppressed the true style of play in which he and Arneson indulged themselves and their players.

My Impressions of the Book and the Above Claims

Dave Arneson's True Genius is frustrating to read because of its poor organization, vague ideas, and ridiculously stilted and ornate language. Some paragraphs are so convoluted that I had to guess at their meaning after several failed attempts to decode them into English. The entire book has only about 55 pages of actual (widely-spaced, large font) text, and they contain the same half dozen ideas repeated throughout. 

The argument that Gygax damaged Arneson's ideas, and his future potential, and hoodwinked us all by selling us a set of rules that falls short of the Platonic ideal of a role-playing game is academic, rhetorical, and immature. It boils down to crying over what might have been. This is especially silly when one realizes that Arneson had decades in which to present an alternative by a) fully describing his original play style and b) building on it. Arneson failed to do either of those things in any way that engaged or inspired a significant portion of the community.

In assuming that the move to a closed set of rules (with AD&D) was solely about denying the creativity of DMs, Kuntz misses that it enabled a more communal, common play experience and the production of adventure modules (some of which Kuntz helped write). Otherwise he makes a fair point about the shift in corporate attitude regarding extensive "home rules."

As for the accusation that Gary never played his own rules as written, I say "a designer designs." It's no wonder that both Gygax and Arneson sessions were more "R&D" than "QA."

Part 2: The Garden of Eden 

When he is not blaming Gygax for putting D&D on the wrong path from the outset, Kuntz is lauding Arneson's genius, ascribing to him amazing feats of intellect without actually describing most (any?) of them. In trying to imagine what we missed due to Gygax's nefarious activities, Kuntz suggests that any forward trajectory from Arneson's conceptual model would essentially end in a recreation of "the human brain." Any "throttling" of the system would damage its potential.

If we were to indeterminately throttle his [Arneson's] conceptual model into the future what we would note as an end result would be akin to a massive array of information having multi-functional processes interconnecting at all points. Eventually we would have the workings of the human brain (Kuntz, 41).

It sounds like Kuntz is talking about artificial intelligence or perhaps a Futurama-like visualization of Arneson's brain in a jar. It's a game of passive-aggressive keep-away in which Kuntz tells us we have done/are doing RPGs all wrong while simultaneously telling us it's virtually impossible to describe the right way – the Arnesonian way. "... what system(s) organization transpires in their [TSR/WotC D&D] place would be anyone's guess (Kuntz, 40). [Emphasis mine.]

To read him in a more charitable light, the best possible role-playing system would be one that exists only in the heads of every DM running a game and would be entirely unfixed – free to evolve and iterate as needed. Kuntz calls this the "Garden of Eden" state. Mechanics are fluid and the hivemind of players both allows for expansive movement by invention and contraction by a general consensus of best methods.

To me, this is the real meat of the book. The thing I was waiting for. Perhaps the best way to read Arneson's True Genius is to just start on page 40 and end on page 48.

My Thoughts on the Garden

This Garden of Eden argument reminds me a bit of Dawkin's Selfish Gene (1976) in which he invents the term meme (with a meaning quite different than it has in today's social media) and discusses the way songbirds communicate ideas through imitation and innovation without losing an innate quality of sameness. I kind of wish Kuntz could have made his argument (only) along those lines. Had he simply defended role-playing as an activity owned by everyone – and left off blaming Gygax for bottling spring water – he might really have been saying something important.

As it is, Kuntz' writing reads like an academic fever dream that would be "like, really deep, man" after the joint has been passed a few times around the circle. He is reluctant (unable?) to quantify anything about Arneson's genius and leaves it almost entirely to broad, unsupported, and ultimately meaningless declarations.

Sadly, I would have to say this book is an embarrassment and possibly does more harm to Arneson's legacy than good. And yet, if you can get past all of its flaws, there is at least one clever thought in Kuntz' rambling manifesto.

Aftermath

The final few pages of the book are a clumsy and strangely-argued attempt to debunk Arnesonian D&D as a derivation of Chainmail and/or Brauenstein. The conclusion is that those two texts were influences, but not ingredients, and I'm fine with that. The argument isn't worth reading.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Lords of Mars

TLDR: I made a new game.

I made a new game.





I'm almost too tired to talk about it right now, so I'm just going to let you have a look! It's a pastiche of John Carter of Mars based on Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons. More on the making of it, and its future, tomorrow.

Enjoy. Comments, typos, etc. welcome.

Get it here: https://rayotus.itch.io/lords-of-mars





Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Herbert Zamboni

TLDR: It's a monster, it's a puzzle, it's either one depending on how you approach it. Neat design.

This morning I played in an online game of Delving Deeper with Cody Mazza of the No Save for You podcast. (He and I talked about Delving Deeper recently in a two-part episode.) Cody was running Greg Gillespie's excellent megadungeon, Barrowmaze, so I don't know whether to credit him or Greg with this idea.

The party is following the tracks of a rival gang of explorers. (The Bogtown Bastards if you must know. Curse their rotten hides!) We came upon a room at the East end of a hall, with an exit to the North. In the middle of the room (and filling most of it) was a huge quivering mass of flesh and several dead bodies. We needed to get to the door on the other wall, but were understandably reluctant to try and pass this quivering mound. I suggested tossing in a body in the corner opposite the wall we wanted to get to. The mass grew legs, stood up, shambled over to the fresh corpse and then dropped down on it. While it was raised up, we saw faces of other dead people in its belly. Yikes!

I named it Herbert Zamboni – because we plan to come back with a monster charm spell and use it like a zamboni to clean out the hallways for us. Even this time around we used it to polish off dead bodies so that they wouldn't reanimate as zombies, which is something that seems to be happening in the Barrowmaze. After leaving the dungeon it occurred to me that it might actually BE the thing turning corpses into zombies. Like maybe it eats corpses and poops out zombies. We'll see.

Anyway, I liked the fact that this encounter was either a monster or a trap, depending on how you approached it. We could have tried to fight it or burn it, but instead we decided to trick it. (I only had 2 hit points, so you had better believe I wasn't going to try and fight this bugger.)

I drew a picture of Herbert later. At the last second I added some subtle/weird eyes. Or are they nipples? Or maybe both - eyples that lactate milky tears. Shrug.


Herbert Zamboni

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Strategic Review 102 Summer 1975

TLDR: I summarize the second issue of The Strategic Review, from summer 1975.



Contents:


  • Expanded to 8 pages 
  • An opening memorium to Don Kaye
  • Editorial from Brian Blume to assure everyone that TSR is not in it for the money 
  • Survey for the Strategists Club awards banquet 
  • Cavaliers and Roundheads rules additions
  • News from around the Wargaming World
  • Q&A about D&D rules
  • New Ranger class
  • Creature Feature: the Roper
  • A treatise on Medieval Pole Arms (as promised)
  • Additional unit organizations for Panzer Warfare
  • Ads for Origins I (Baltimore, MD), Gen Con VIII, a game by TSR called War of Wizards, and the Tactical Studies Rules catalog: Cavaliers and Roundheads, D&D, Greyhawk, Tricolor, Warriors of Mars, Star Probe, Chainmail, Tractics, Panzer Warfare, Boot Hill, Classic Warfare, dice and miniatures

Items of  Interest:


The loss of lifelong friend Don Kaye was a huge blow for Gary, just as the business is really taking off. Gary and Don needed capitol to start TSR and Brian Blume bought in for 2k, each partner owning a third of the company. Don was fairly reluctant to partner with Blume at first. Don died of a heart attack shortly before a surgery scheduled to correct it, and his third of the business went to his wife. She didn't want to have anything to do with it, so Brian persuaded his father to buy out Don's share, making the Blumes a 2/3 controlling interest in TSR. This would cause problems later.

One account I read said that Don worked on Boot Hill before he died, but credit on the 1st edition is reserved for Blume and Gygax.

The Wargaming World news is varied but mentions an early zine by Flying Buffalo and the ongoing shift in wargames to sword & sorcery and science fiction themes. 

The D&D Q&A is probably the most valuable and interesting part of this circular. It opens with an explanation that Chainmail is for large-scale battles (1:20) and that the "alternate system in D & D be used to resolve the important melees where principal figures are concerned." It then goes on to say: 

When fantastic combat is taking place there is normally only one exchange of attacks per round, and unless the rules state otherwise, a six-sided die is used to determine how many hit points damage is sustained when an attack succeeds. Weapon type is not considered, save where magical weapons are concerned. A super hero, for example, would attack eight times only if he were fighting normal men (or creatures basically that strength, i.e., kobolds, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and so on).
Considerations such as weapon-type, damage by weapon-type, and damage by monster attack tables appear in the first booklet to be added to the D & D series -- SUPPLEMENT I, GREYHAWK, which should be available about the time this publication is, or shortly thereafter.
Initiative is always checked. Surprise naturally allows first attack in many cases. Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round. Dice scores are adjusted for dexterity and so on.

After this is an example combat between a single hero and a bunch of orcs, who swarm the hero and try to grapple him! Two hit, but when they roll the grapple check the hero shrugs them off. There are lots of little interesting notes, like how many orcs can attack at a time and that the one who attack from behind get +2.

How to do saves and morale for monsters is clarified. Experience for magic items discussed. And the fire-and-forget spell system is rehashed, noting that wizards can only cast a memorized spell once but can memorize the same spell multiple times.

The most important thing here is to see what parts of the rather fuzzy rules set confused people the most (or mattered to them the most).

The Roper and Ranger are cool additions. Oddly enough the illustration above the roper is a dragon and purple worm. Huh. I would think a roper would be pretty easy to draw – easier than a dragon anyway. Joe Fischer, a name you see a lot in early Dragon articles, wrote up the ranger. The emphasis is on traveling light and operating alone at low levels; they can only own what they carry, can't hire men at arms or servants, and can't work with more than one other ranger. They do, however, get tracking and some followers and spells at later levels. The followers table opens up the idea of unusual companions (e.g. lawful werebear, pegasus, hill giant, etc.).

The Pole Arm article is about as tedious as expected. Stats and special notes are given for 12 different pole arms. Several others are mentioned as variants.

In TSR news we find out that price of dice is rising!
Finally, be prepared for an increase in the price of multi-sided dice sets. The volume of business we do in dice is increasing, and what has been carried as an accommodation has reached the point where it is barely breaking even; then the manufacturer upped our price by some 35%. The cost will go to $2.50/set immediately.

According to an inflation calculator, that's about $12.10 in 2019. So it was fairly high; given that you can buy a basic set of dice for around $9 or less.

I wondered if War of Wizards was any good. The advertisement promised $5 pre-release rules sets for a game that would cost at least $7 on release. Heading off to Boardgamegeek, I found some pictures and discovered that it was written by M.A.R. Barker of Empire of the Petal Throne fame. Players over at the geek rated the game a measly 4.7. The games counters (cardboard chits) are horrendously bland, but everything else looks pretty good. The battle takes place on a 20-space track, and there are 71 different spells to choose from. There were two editions published back in the day, '77 ad '79. And Tita's House of Games published an edition in 1999. 



Friday, August 30, 2019

Strategic Review 101 Spring 1975

TLDR: I summarize the first issue of The Strategic Review, from spring 1975.



This TSR house engine began as a six-page, two-column circular with clean, sans-serif fonts. Printed before the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, it provides an interesting look at D&D in diapers.

Contents included:
  • News – primarily plans for future publications 
  • A "Creature Feature" in which the Mind Flayer made its first appearance
  • A summary of changes to the new printing of Tractics
  • A discussion of spears in Chainmail, which ends in a promise to really do pole-arms justice in the future (which had me snickering, knowing just how much space they got in AD&D)
  • Two and a half pages on "Solo Dungeon Adventures" 
This last article and largest feature of SR101 was penned by Gary Gygax, with thanks to George A. Lord and play testing credit to Rob Kuntz and Ernie Gygax. Most of the three pages consisted of random dungeon generation tables that would later appear in the AD&D DMG, roughly three years later.

Some of my own earliest solo explorations used these tables and I found them to be quite workable. I was using the DMG versions, but I may have to give these precursors a whirl.

One thing I have to say, I love the look of this zine. I wish that Dragon had adopted some of the same no-nonsense styling. But I realize I may be in the minority in that wish.

Look for more of these posts as I continue my forensics into early D&D. It's, quite frankly, fascinating to see the ideas come together.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Philippe Druillet Is a Genius

TLDR: Druillet's Lone Sloan is all about the drawings, and the drawings are INCREDIBLE.

This isn't really RPG related, and yet it seems like something I want to talk about in this space.





Let me talk about the story first. An interstellar rogue is approached by some red priests to rip off the emperor of a pleasure planet. It gets messy. Despite all the high action, the story is a bit plodding at times, but by the end it all kind of comes together in something pretty cool. And, honestly, it read like an RPG session!





The drawings have that kind of greebly-vastness that only certain artists can pull off. Every panel is packed with squiggly details that suggest as much as delineate, but are nonetheless exact in their own way. Not just noise in the same way that the best punk music or stoner rock isn't just noise.





The panel layouts are incredible. They have a kaleidoscopic symmetry that reminds me of the work of Joseph Stella.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Yokai Goons

TLDR: It's hard to pick a favorite Tunnel Goons hack, but this might be mine: a two-page ghost detective game set in the Meiji Restoration period of Japan (follows the Edo period). 

Yokai Hunter. In format this free game is two tri-folds: one for the player(s), referred to as the "Hunter," and one for the "Grand Master."

Front of the Hunter's Book: woodcut by hokusai, 1834.

Let's start with the latter, the GM tri-fold. It contains a summary of 10 different types of Yokai (supernatural creatures); 2d8 (15 total) missions; a summary of the historical period; further information on how to create Yokai, hunters, and NPCs; and cogent advice on running the game, with questions about the setting the group can/should explore.

The Hunter tri-fold contains a character sheet; d20 table of names, ages, and occupations; an equipment list; and the core rules. I have already talked about Tunnel Goons in previous posts. Yokai Hunter differs quite a bit from the original game, taking Nate Treme's invention and making the system into something with the right bells and whistles for a period ghost hunting thing. Here are some of the highlights.


  • Sentence-based character concept: "I'm a [trait][occupation] who [something from your past] and seeks [a goal]. E.g. "I'm Hachiro a nervous smuggler who is hunted by a former patron and seeks anonymity." (Hunters where ritual masks when they hunt so I imagine my character "hiding" in this role, drawing on his family's knowledge of ghost hunting. His dad wanted him to go into the family business, as it were, but Hachiro turned to smuggling to get rich quick – and because ghosts scare the bejeebus out of him.)
  • Path-based stats: Courage, Self-Control, and Wisdom. These are somewhat self-explanatory, but they are used in interesting ways. The system describes them as follows: when you roll dice "the GM will indicate which path you should follow: Courage (for actions that involve impetuosity or anger), Self-control (for actions in which it is necessary to remain calm and control one's impulses), or Wisdom (for actions that require certain knowledge or prudent and thoughtful behavior)."
  • Special Equipment. When you acquire an item you test Wisdom and, if you pass, the item grants a +1 bonus, situationally. This is a really interesting way to codify magic items into a system in an unexpected and fun way.
  • Resolution gradation. Not sure what else to call this. The author Chema Gonz├ílez (aka Punkpadour) has essentially worked PbtA resolution categories into Tunnel Goons. 10+ you succeed. 9 = you succeed, but suffer a consequence. 8 or less you fail and the situation escalates.
  • Advantage/disadvantage. And Chema throws in this mechanic, which has become really popular in designs since the introduction of D&D 5e. The hunter rolls an extra d6 and discards one – highest if disadvantaged, lowest if advantaged.
  • Cursed die. And Chema adds a cursed die that starts at a d8. Basically you roll it "when you want to bet your very soul" in an action. You can't roll it while advantaged. The die, however, works like advantage – you drop the lowest one in your pool which contains 2d6 and the cursed die. If the result of the cursed die (whether you succeed or fail) is higher than your current Curse Resistance you attract bad luck and lose a point from your Curse Resistance tracker. I'm not going to get any further into this mechanic. You can read it for yourself, but you basically have a pool that shrinks as you become more cursed and is replenished only through ritual cleansing at a holy site (at a cost). And the cursed die changes sizes based on your points. It's cool.

So, what's not to like. Well, I do have a small reservation about two things: 1) having both + and advantage mechanics in the same system and 2) having difficulties that exceed 10 when 10 is a success. (What does it mean if you get an 11, but the difficulty is a 12? Did you get a mixed success, as in a 9?) But beyond that – and I don't really know if any of this is a problem without playing the game – there is nothing to not like. Which is to say, everything about this game just sings to me. It looks fantastic. 

BTW, the art, font-choices, and design sensibility are all wonderful as well. The character sheet is really attractive and makes the curse mechanic much easier to grok. 


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Solo Play: Eternal Caverns of Urk Part 1

TLDR: a solo play account.

The mad prophets have sentenced me to walk the Eternal Caverns of Urk until I receive a vision from the First God. I fear I will not return, and if I do I may be no longer sane.

[This is a solo play narrative, making use of Nate Treme's Eternal Caverns of Urk zine. My character is Kesh the Domite. HP 10, Brute 0, Skulker 1, Erudite 2. Items: mirror, flask, cloak uneven gray. I tried to stay in first person, but probably messed up some.]

Beneath a merciless noon sun I stare into the dark, cool void of the cavern's mouth. The rock in this region is chalky, formed into great boulders and plates of rainbow hues. Black moss coats the entrance. I remind myself that I have been commanded to enter, but my feet are unwilling for the moment. I check the meager "gifts" I was given when parting from the prophets, the only things I was allowed to bring: a flask of clear liquid (water?), a small mirror, and the strange cloak of striated gray that they insisted I wear despite the heat.

I step inside. The air is cold and mildewy. I will soon be grateful for the cloak I think. And the use of the water seems obvious enough, unless they have given me poison, or more likely some form of dream nectar. What of the mirror? Of what possible use could that be?

I walk for some hours, leaving the light behind me. Moving in total blackness by the touch of my fingers on the wall I begin to think I can see floating lights. At first I am convinced they are random flailing of my optic nerves, but they resolve into softly glowing eyeballs the size of beer barrels.

At first I am too terrified to move, but they keep their distance. Watching. One of them bounces and gyrates in a crazy motion, never breaking its steady gaze upon me. I walk forward, but this seems to displease them and they bar my way. Another takes up the crazy looping antics of its peer, but with a sinuous grace in place of the frenetic hopping of the former. When it stops I start to walk forward again, but quickly see them draw together. So I imitate their ritualistic dancing with some moves of my own. Katas I learned from my youth. Concentrating on my breathing and execution to calm my fears, I go through the 39 stations of the most complicated routine I know.

[This is the first roll I made other than generating random stuff. Turns out these giant eyes were into dance battles. I got by with a 10, including a +1 from Skulker.]

The eyes glisten around me. Then they all weave and bob excitedly, looking at each other as much as me. And for a miracle they arrange themselves in a broken line ahead of me, softly lighting my way.

And I go forward.

The cavern is wide here. Filled with strange yellow fungi of many hard-edged facets. Their geometry seems something more than random and I contemplate them for some time. The air here has grown warm and humid. And glowing drops of water fall form the ceiling in a florescent rain. Parched, and unwilling to drink from my flask, trusting this unnatural water over the unknown liquid in the gifted flask, I point my face toward the cavern ceiling and drink.

My heart freezes as I see a flabby mantis clinging to the ceiling. Inverted over me and frozen in with it's thorny forelimbs reaching toward me. Had I not looked up ... I shudder to think.

I tuck and roll forward into the yellow "trees" as the mantis springs forward and down. [Roll+Skulker, Success - barely] He misses, but quickly recovers and scuttles across the ceiling, hunting me. The cuboid blooms of the trees are between us, giving me cover. The mantis stops, seemingly befuddled, and stares in my direction with that strange pinched face. Suddenly there is a small voice ...

In my head! "Come out little one. Show yourself to me. I am no threat to one such as you. We will be friends."





It's a soothing voice, but something tells me not to trust it. [Roll+Erudite, Success - barely]. I know better than to come out, but I find myself unable to move. I call out loudly. "Help!"

For some minutes the voice keeps trying to coax me from my spot. I bite my cheeks and pinch myself to keep it from soothing me into feeding myself to this psychic monster. After an interminable time, I hear soft, thumping footsteps. Then a loud crack and the mantis drops, almost on top of me, stone dead.

"I say. Come out of there young fellow. You can't go messing around with these Prizing Mantises you know. Dangerous stuff. Luckily I was returning from my hunt and heard your call. Come with me and we'll get you a stiff drink. I expect you could use one!"

I hear the fruity, mellow voice of this rescuer long before I see him. It's a rather nice voice and I stand up, revealing my location. "Thank the prophets that ... Oh, hi there."

I went a bit speechless at this point. Before me is an 8' tall fellow covered in pink fur. He is extremely round and a bit bear-ish, but with two, short horns curving over his fuzzy dome. Despite his fearsome size, he somehow seems a bit comical to me, standing there in a fussily-stitched vest of green and holding the smoking barrel of some metal staff, but something tells me not to laugh. Bad manners I think – but it's more than that. I sense a vague danger. "Thank you for the rescue. And yes, I could use something to drink. How far is it to your home?"

He informs me that he and his people are camped just a few caverns further in. And that they would be welcome of some outside news. So I walk along with him, skipping to keep up at times. His gate is awkward but covers a lot of ground. As we walk, he prattles on endlessly about the flora and fauna of the caverns. As if educating me.

In fact he is telling me things I had no way of knowing ere now, but somehow it rubs me the wrong way. Like he is some pompous professor trying to fill my head with useless facts that he will test me on later. I try to listen, but I spend more time sizing him up than absorbing his words.

When we reach our destination, I am shocked at the level of comfort represented by something so hastily called a camp. Slender lightweight rods support little gaily colored cabins of silk. There is a small fire, hardly needed for warmth here, but the flames are licking at pot of something that smells incredible! A spicy stew of some kind that promises to be both hearty and energizing.

[Took a break here for tonight. I think I'm in trouble as these fellows are into taxidermy.]

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Solo Play: Tunnel Goons & Dungeon Builder

TLDR: a 5-minute solo play account.

A 5-minute solo play on a work break using James Hron's Dungeon Builder, which is tricky to use but a very cool format. For rules I used Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons.

Dungeon Builder

I've described Tunnel Goons in a previous entry. Dungeon Builder is an idea generator. You have a two-level map with dungeon rooms. In each rooms is a series of three single-digit numbers, e.g. 211 or 332. Sometimes you see 2--. In the pamphlet is a number of tables with three columns of words each. The numbers in the rooms reference which table to roll on and the position of the number says which column. So 211 means roll for a word in the first column of table 2, then roll on table 1 for a word in the second column and one from the third column of the same table. 2-- means roll once and read all three words straight across, using table 2. Clever, huh?

Dive 1

My Goons character is Kravdraa (aardvark backwards): HP 10, Brute 0, Skulker 1, Erudite 2. Carrying: dagger, pizza, midnight blue robe

Underlined stuff was generated randomly.

Kravdraa enters The Grisly Halls of Hell. Snooping around he found a loose stone and pried it free. Upon doing so, however, a poison viper jumped out and bit him (DC 5, rolled a 2, 2 damage, HP 08). Behind the stone was a spellbook.

Taking the left hand door from there, Kravdraa found himself in a courtyard with a strange tree. It's sappy red bark (bloodbark) made Kravdraa uneasy, but just as he decided not to go further into the room, the tree reached for him with it's suddenly animate, leafless branches (vampire, unstable)! Kravdraa scurried this way and that but was trapped. (DC 12, rolled a 4, HP now 0).

The tree hugged K to its bark and slowly drank his blood over several days like a delicious milkshake and converted him into a sapling slave.

Dive 2

Oops. Maybe I had better add some reaction rolls. Take two.

Tabmow: HP 10, Brute 1, Skulker 1, Erudite 1. Carrying: mace, leather jack, torch.

Revisits the Grisly Halls of Hell! (I didn't re-roll the name.) In the first room is a sneaky outlaw with a bow was hiding. Tabmow failed to see him, but the outlaw turned out to be friendly. (Reaction roll.) He was scared of this place and decided to team up with Tabmow.

They go right, down a short hall and enter a room in which a unicorn is being overshadowed by a spooky illusion! Tabmow suspects it is an illusion and tries to scatter it with his will but fails. The spooky illusion reaches for the outlaw and the outlaw's heart freezes in his chest, instantly killing him. This makes Tabmow mad and a fight ensues in which Tabmow drives off the illusion but takes damage (HP now 8).

Tabmow sets the unicorn free and heads toward the entrance with the beautiful beast following (reaction 8), but by a different door. This was unfortunate as they ran into a nightmarish "hollow" wizard. The wizard was contemplating reality and didn't become immediately aggressive, but he did tell them to "Turn back!" -- and they did, because this guy looked tough. (He was.)

Going back the way they came however, they were blocked by a set of precious undead teeth – floating fangs of pure gold – chattering madly at them as they danced around the room just out of reach! Tabmow and the unicorn charged the choppers and made short work of them to escape.

Findings

Tunnel Goons is quick and fun, but very swingy when it comes to combat. Probably needs more hit points or something. It's very easy to die in 2 failed rolls. I guess, when you think about it, your character is a DC 7, because when you roll 2d6 you would do/take damage 50% of the time against another DC 7, right? You'd be evenly matched. So rating "easy" as an 8 might be a stretch. That's probably average difficulty because you will usually have at least a +1 at your disposal. Easy should be more like 5 or 6.  To Nate's credit, it's hard to set difficulty standards because you don't know how liberal people will be with adding +s from their inventory. If the average bonus is something like +3, then his DCs would be spot on.

Dungeon Builder is a cool start to something better, but a bit rough in its current form. I felt like the columns of text were missing some sort of underlying structure (like adjective, threat-noun, twist) that would have made the results a bit more meaningful and easier to interpret.

Shroom Goons

TLDR: Shroom Goons is a free and awesome game with cool art. Play tiny shroom people and fight smorks!

"Trama is the loosely woven hyphal tissue in basidiomycetous fungi forming the central substance of the lamellae or other projections of the hymenophore."

Oookay. :) It is also one of the three stats in Shroom Goons, an awesome little hack of Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons. At first I wasn't crazy to see that the concise package of Goons had been expanded to over 2,000 words, but they all count. The page of setting material is outstanding as is the mutations. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Characters & Canges to the System

In form, you are a 3-6" tall sentient fungus.

Mechanically, it is standard Goons with renamed stats, Siblings, cool items, and Traits. Siblings are other mushrooms from your original patch with whom you share a psychic bond. When (ok, if) you die, you carry on in the body of a sibling.

The items work the same as in original Goons but the wild inventiveness of them is to be admired. You may be carrying a Teaspoon Shovel, or d6 Beer Can Tabs, or even an Insect Wing Glider or a few pages from a Car Repair Guide.

But what really makes you special is your Trait – which is a kind of mutant power. There are 24 of them and you get one randomly: Devil Fingers, Witch-Butter Body, Mindtrap Spores, Mimicry ... it's your superpower.


Art by Karl Stjernberg?! I'm sold.


The World

I'm just going to reproduce the first two paragraphs of the setting as written. Because ... it's just so cool and fun.

Shroomfolk hail from the enchanted wetlands of The Fluorescent Neverglades. Surreal, brightly colored swamps and marshlands that by the light of the Nevermoon looks like the world you see in blacklight posters. The Shrooms tend to build settlements on raised glades and in the mossy trees overlooking their spawning patches. Shroom folk are a relatively pastoral lot -- building small farms of cultivated compost and herding bugs, tame rodents, and other fungus-based animals (such as “Shroom Steeds”). 
Of course the Neverglades have many inhabitants -- froglorps, banthers, rocodiles, and the dreaded Smorks. Smorks are a species of small, bluish pig- faced imps. They are chaotic, often clumsy, and always dreadful despite their jolly demeanors. They sing cheerful murder songs while raiding the Shroom villages. You can always spot their leader by the blood-red caps they adorn.

Fucking Smorks. Amiright?!


Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Higher Struggle

TLDR: a cool, free game that could be used as a campaign sub-system to model the struggle between factions and powers.

One of the things that always impresses me when I read The Lord of the Rings is the time Tolkien spends setting up the higher struggle between powers. Sometimes we see it in the form of councils and plans, other times we see it in the form of a conflict of wills. Galadriel or Aragorn contesting with the Eye of Sauron, for instance. This battle above and beyond the literal battlefield is fascinating. It informs the latter as well, allowing us to see in every clash of arms the larger forces at work.

What am I rambling on about?

Well, it's the desire for that layer in our RPG games. Often GMs achieve it with recurring villains and reveal it through rumors and one-on-one interactions with NPCs. But is there a better way to model it?

I have seen political struggle represented in sub-systems before, or at least models that approach it. There is a nice social combat model in Diaspora, for instance. But I'm not sure I've ever seen anything as useful or simple as this little design by Mark Hunt.


Get the game here!


Scandalous Goons is a hack of Tunnel Goons, which I mentioned in a previous post. The rules of the game are basically the same, but instead of classes Mark supplies the stats of Reputation, Rumor, and Connections. And in place of inventory items we have assets like Military Honors, Spy, Blackmail Information, and Married Well. The third change is really about trading out health for a bank of Influence points.

Two things make this little game an ideal "bolt on" to about any campaign.
  1. It's very easy to adapt to your particular scenario. Change or add stats. Come up with new/different assets. Allow different factions to start with more or less Influence. An hour's work would probably be more than enough to totally customize Scandalous Goons to be completely in step with your group's campaign.
  2. It's easy to implement without interacting or interfering with the mechanics of whatever RPG you are playing.
Oh, did I mention it's also free?! 

I can't wait to take this game and use it to model the politicians, gang lords, and guild masters of a fantasy town. Or to play out some huge space opera game where star lords and planetary tyrants develop assets like warp drive levels, planetary defenses, cloaking devices, trade goods, super soldiers, etc. 

Thanks, Mark!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Simple Skills System (Revised)

TLDR: an idea for implementing simple skills in pre-2e D&D. 

Each character details their background in 50 words or less, using full sentences. This background can be revised between adventures to incorporate an extra sentence per level gained.

When a character attempts something that would require unusual skill, and the GM agrees that it is possible, even if it’s very unlikely, he sets a difficulty at 4, 5, or 6 and indicates the most-closely related ability.

The player then rolls dice as follows, trying to meet or beat the difficulty on at least one die.

  • 1d6 if unskilled
  • 2d6 if skilled (character background suggests a related skill) OR the related ability has a positive bonus
  • 3d6 if skilled AND the related ability has a positive bonus

The odds to work out to be:

  • 1d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 50%, Dif. 5 = 33%, Dif. 6 = 17%
  • 2d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 75%, Dif. 5 = 56%, Dif. 6 = 31%
  • 3d6 ≥ Dif. 4 = 88%, Dif. 5 = 70%, Dif. 6 = 42%

If all the dice show a 1, the failure is a “botch” and is worse than a normal failure, if that’s possible. “Extra” successes usually add minor positive benefits.

Example

A player wants his character to run at full speed across a tightrope between high buildings to escape pursuers. . 

The GM says, "that will be a difficulty 5 DEX test." Note that the GM wouldn't necessarily have to call out the difficulty; that's probably a matter of style. The GM should not consider the character's skill at all when setting difficulty. Rather the difficulty should be solely based on the situation. Is there strong wind and rain? Is the character carrying a lot of stuff? How hard would it be for a normal person to do this given the situation?

The character has a positive DEX bonus and, according to his background, was once a circus performer, so he rolls 3d6. If the highest die in that pool is a 5 or 6, the character succeeds. If two or three successes show, perhaps he gets across at high speed and can get out of sight before the pursuers catch up. Or he has plenty of time to cut the rope and not get shot at by crossbows.  

If the highest die is less than 5, he fails. The GM might allow him to catch the rope or a ledge on the way down, but the character will be in dire straights.

If all three dice show a 1, the character plummets to the ground with no chance at grabbing the rope. If he survives, the pursuers probably had people tracking him on the ground as well.