Thursday, October 24, 2019

What Does That Look Like?

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Gygax 75 Challenge: Week 3

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

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

False Start?

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


Kailasa


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

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

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

The Bubble Map

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

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

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

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

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


Messy, Messy Bubbles 

Revised Bubble Map


More Work

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

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

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


Level 1 & 1a


The Dungeon's Story

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

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

WEEK 4

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Lords of Mars Play-Testing

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

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


Green Martians by Juan Ochoa

The Scenario 

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

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

The Scenes

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

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

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

The Big Battle

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

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

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


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


How the PCs Fared

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

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

Analysis 

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

Unit Costs

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



Click to embiggen, summary data below


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

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

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

Tweaks to Air Battles

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

Tweaks to Land Battles


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

What's Next?

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


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Three Dice to Rule Them All

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

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

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

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

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


The perfect pocket dice?


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

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."

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

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


Cities

  • Ruk. A walled city of 70k inhabitants and likely home for new characters. The city is ruled by Sinaruk, a being descended from both divine and mortal parents. She is 9' tall and terrifyingly beautiful. The Krat river runs through the city and surrounding farmlands in gated canals. Livestock are herded in the grasslands beyond. Borderlands are patrolled by the centaurs – by treaty. Land owners serve as soldiers when called.
  • Garan. "The Old City" is also a dying city. Increased flooding and the encroaching desert has caused many to migrate north to Ruk. Those that are left are highly religious, by inclination or out of fear (or both). Nominally, the city is independent and ruled by a complicated hierarchy of priests, but it pays tribute to Ruk and is protected by her. 
  • Zagash. The hated enemy of Ruk, the Zagash do little herding and less farming, preferring to raid for worked goods, food, and slaves when they can. They prey especially hard on the Centaurs that live in the steppes east of the Godswall.

Notable Terrain

  • The Godswall. A labyrinthine tangle of low, stony mountains. Sources of water are few outside of the rainy season and the peaks are home to feral harpies (and worse).
  • Uskad: The Bloodwash. A largely uninhabitable area due to seasonal flooding that covers the land in red clay and silt. Several old cities (and their relics) lie buried beneath the muck.

Places of Mystery

  • The Tombs. Nestled deep within the dry hills and crags of the southern Godswalls is a large number of tombs. Most have been raided in times past, but occasionally a new one, or a new space within an old one is found and looted. A day’s ride west of the tombs is, Adakk, a sort of semi-permanent camp town where goods looted from the tombs are stored and sold. Even the carved stones of the tombs have value as building materials for Ruk and Garan. 
  • The High Stones. These rocky spires in the Noor: the Desert of Stars, are the eyries of strange, vampiric shapeshifters. (None name them for fear of drawing their attention.) The tops of the spires have been tunneled out into elaborate palaces.  
  • Myr. The only way into this valley is by following one of the many small tributaries of the Uskad. Travellers do not go there. Or, if they do, they do not return. Many say it is the home of strange “mud men.” Next Steps

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

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

Timuria

WEEK 3

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 setting precepts
  • 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 forged iron are expensive and difficult to acquire. When you buy equipment, bronze is the default. The secrets of forging are jealously guarded and controlled by rulers. Owning steel armor/weapons is a sign of status; but will also make you a target. Those who draw power from the gods find that steel is an anathema to magic; steel that is in intimate contact with a source of magic becomes extremely hot (severely burning anything it touches) and loses 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.
  • Uzrak (and specifically Timuria, where the campaign begins) is a hot and humid world. Heavy clothes and armor are oppressive as well as cumbersome; few wear them. Mammals are relative newcomers; various forms of birds and reptiles are the norm. Thus mounts and pets are often some scaled/feathered equivalent to horses, dogs, and cats.
Sources of Inspiration 
  • The works of Jack Gaughan and other 60s and 70s fantasy book cover artists. See the resulting mood board at https://www.pinterest.com/rayotus/uzerak-where-gods-walk/.
  • Fertile Crescent civilizations c. 1200 BCE. 
  • The First Chronicles of Amber, Dark Sun, Dune, Chariots of the Gods, Necroscope III: The Source, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Philotomy’s Musings, Indian Temple Architecture. 
Questions for Characters
Prompts to help drive setting home; ask the characters, not the players!
  • What powers and/or causes do you serve? 
  • MUs & Clerics: what is the source of your powers? What kind of magic is your focus?
  • Describe your outfit; what does it say 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.