Sunday, June 30, 2019

Initiation dungeon!

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

Betty Boop: Bimbo's Initiation, 1931

This cartoon made me think about dungeons that are literal testing grounds, sadistic puzzles, or deadly alien environments. Watch and dream about deadly dungeons, and the strange logic behind them!

Art and innovation

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

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

Kay Nielsen
Virginia Sterrett

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

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

Where you find innovative art, you will likely find innovative text. Conversely, where you find innovative words, you will find the innovate art. The inverted statements are also true, that where you find the "same old art" – stylistically – you get a lot of the same old ideas, and the same old ideas beget the same old art. 

I have so much more to say about this, but it's all messy and sounds like a value-laden manifesto. The take-away is: take a good look at your RPG book shelf! You could almost arrange it on a continuum where the left end of the shelf is mainstream and the right end of the shelf is "weird" art. This would have the effect of also arranging the settings and maybe even the mechanics in the same order. 

What art is on your shelf? Are you programmed, or being programmed to think about fantasy in only mainstream ways? Challenge yourself! I could tell you where to look, but part of the joy is in the exploration. Different things are out there! Exciting things, innovative things, weird things. Things that will make you uncomfortable but which will help you grow and pull your imagination out of long-established ruts. Go find them and expand your thinking a little. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Moon powered monsters

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

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

A portion of the Bakemono Zukushi Scroll

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

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

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

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

Another parallel, in my mind, is the play of light and dark in The Lord of the Rings. Orcs went all weak-in-the-knees in sunlight, so there was a measure of safety while during the day – or at least while abroad under a sunny sky. At night you wanted to be behind fortified walls if you could. And, I believe it is Gandalf who says "look for my coming at first light" and Aragorn who calls down to the Uruk Hai "None knows what the new day shall bring him ... Get you gone, ere it turn to your evil." Of course that sense of safety was soon to be eroded by the blanket of dark clouds Sauron sent forth to shield his troops. Edit – given that spells are often not given a termination clause in older D&D, I have toyed with the idea that all spells break (or at least afford a saving throw to those affected) at dawn.

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

There's a lot of meat on this bone. And a lot of cool ideas for creatures embedded in that scroll ... not to mention some ready-made, copyright free illustrations!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Writing for Troika

TLDR: when writing new material for a system like Troika!, don't be fooled by system simplicity. Smaller systems are often more tightly crafted and therefore easier to "break." Also, I have taken some heat for this one – so don't take it too seriously; I don't mean to crap on your fun.

Troika! art by Andrew Walter

I recently ran a few sessions of Troika! by Daniel Sell. Having read it over a several times, made my own notes/cheat sheets, and even written some material for the game as well as having run it, I feel like I can make some comments on the system's core architecture. I wouldn't consider it to be a particularly deep system, or I wouldn't even attempt this kind of statement after only a few outings at the table!

That's the "what" of this article. The "why" is because Troika! is very "hackable" and I see people out there writing material for it, mainly new backgrounds or creatures, with what appears to be (in some cases) almost no understanding of the system. By that I mean, individuals are writing things in such a way that it runs counter to the basic construction of the system, is not intuitive within the context of the system, and ultimately may be destructive to the play environment of the game.

Edit – I kind of wish I had written this article from the viewpoint of "those who got it right!" instead of angling at those who made what I consider to be a mess. But it is what it is.

Here are the core tenets as I see them, in no particular order, each concluding with a statement about how I believe they should affect one's design-brain.

Based on 2d6
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the game uses only d6s to accomplish all of its goals. 

"There is only one die type used in Troika!, that being the d6" (40).

Most player actions are resolved with a roll of 2d6, usually under a skill or versus an opposing roll. In addition to that, all randomness in the game is based on six-sided dice. Creature reactions (miens), for instance, are expressed in a d6 table. And one rolls for a background using d66 (two d6s rolled in the manner one rolls two d10s to get d100, which is to say one die for tens and one for the singles).

Rolling 2d6 gives you a curve whereas rolling d66 (or d6, or even d36) generates an even distribution. But since rolls other than 2d6 are used exclusively for random table stuff, not task or combat resolution, I think we can safely say that the success of actions in the game are more predictable than in a flat d20 style curve. It's easier to figure your odds of success in a d20 universe as every 'pip' represents a 5% swing, but it's easier to predict actual success or failure when a curve is in play. The 2d6 results of 6-8 occur 44.5% of the time! That's aside from the main point I want to make, however, which is...

Avoid creating material for Troika! that uses dice other than d6s. It just feels odd. The game was written in the spirit of using "common" dice. While it's easy to argue that all the polyhedral are common these days, there's something simple and elegant about sticking to the cubes.

Backgrounds over Setting
Troika! builds an implied setting using the 36 (d66) backgrounds included in the core book. We know there are "golden barges" that carry passengers between the "crystal spheres" primarily because there are references to them in the backgrounds for Cacogens, Lansquenets, and Thinking Engines. We encounter spell magic first in the Befouler of Ponds background, and in several dozen other backgrounds as well, before we get to the mechanics of spellcasting or the spell descriptions. Creatures, items, and spells are other places where setting is created, but they are usually foreshadowed in backgrounds. I.e. Gremlins are foreshadowed by the Gremlin Catcher, demons by the Demon Stalker, and guns by the Cacogen, Lansquenet, etc. Consider that the Chaos Champion has in his possessions list ritual scars and a nearly full dream journal! Those add ideas as to what a Chaos Champion is – how he lives, thinks, and acts. It's marvelous stuff.

Conversely, or perhaps consequently, there are no text-heavy passages of pure setting and every item that might be categorized as setting has direct rules implications. While a spell listing may or may not contain stats, it is something that directly affects the fictional world when brought into play. There are no instances that run contrary to the "Chekhov's Gun" principle. If a thing is represented, it is intended for use; there are no purely ornamental set decorations, which is a bit of a shock given how baroque Troika! feels.

Utilize backgrounds and tables to build the world; avoid writing pages of setting lore. Caveat: I'm talking about material you would write to publish or otherwise share with others. Your home campaign is a different story, literally, and it's where you will/should build out fiction through play.

Skill Specificity
Some have described the skill system in Troika! as a mess. I don't believe that is the case. It is true that there is no exhaustive taxonomy of skills, as one sees in most traditional RPGs – any that feature skills at least. The book encourages you to make up new skills as needed without a lot of guidance as to how, or how narrow they should be. However, even though the skill list not thorough, the skills that are given display a consistent level of specificity. There is no catch-all "fighting" skill, only skills like "hammer fighting," "wrestling," or "fist fighting."One can assume a character that has advanced skill in fighting with fusils, would not be especially trained in bows, even though both are missile weapons. Hence the need for a default Skill stat, which represents a kind of natural dexterity or deftness of mind, and advanced skills to represent training. Writing a new skill that is too broad; e.g. weapons or logic, erodes backgrounds (by trumping a more specific skill) and makes the game more boring (applies to too many situations).

Be mindful when you write skills. Make them sufficiently narrow/situational. Broad skill concepts are baked into the base Skill statistic. I have seen cogent arguments for dividing Skill into Mental and Physical, which seems cool to me but I wonder where it stops if you start dividing it. Pretty soon you would have six skills: STR, INT, WIS ... oh dear. I've also seen variants on Troika! that do away with base level Skill and only have specific/advanced skills.

Interaction Over Combat
Only three spells specify damage and many backgrounds lack an advanced skill in any form of fighting. 'Nuff said? If players want to fight, they will. The Assassin's Dagger spell can be used to send a poisoned blade after a target, but it can also be used to send a message scroll. Troika! is heavily focused on exploration and imagination, partly because it leaves so much white space that players can/must fill with their own inventions and partly because what is provided is often already weird.

Whenever possible, create material that is flexible – without a narrow focus on combat. Resist the urge to make combat more fussy/bloated than it already is.

Troika! is a different animal. You get that from the minute you pick up the book. While feeling very ornate with it's bizarre art, high-end production values, and exotic backgrounds, the underlying core is a lean, mean machine. The game's exotic flavor and simple mechanics are married like two sides of a coin. You can't write new mechanics without writing new flavor and vice versa. So be mindful when you create; hew closely to the established patterns unless/until you have a deep enough understanding of the game to break those patterns.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Is dungeon logic overrated?

TLDR: logic in adventuring spaces is good, but only up to a point. Gaps in logic may make for a higher verisimilitude. Also, this one is a bit of a ramble.

How to Host a Dungeon session drawing by Tony Dowler

I recently asked the following question on multiple social media platforms.

Do you care about logic in your dungeons?

The overwhelming answer was, "Yes," though a number of responders indicated that they wish they could stop caring and be more like their younger selves, who apparently didn't care. For most, the preference boiled down to some form of desire for verisimilitude; dungeons that feel "real." Individuals who want logical dungeons say that spaces should feel like they have purpose and make sense on some level ... or in the case of dungeons, all the levels. ;) Things living in a dungeon need places to execute basic functions: sleeping, eating, and eliminating waste, at the very least.

A few respondents pointed out that the logic of a space helps player characters predict what's ahead. This seems like an important point to me. It helps players feel competent and feel like their characters are competent. If the dungeon is so chaotic it can't be figured out, at least in part, players will stop trying to use their heads.

Despite agreeing with some of this, and having a sympathy/understanding for all of it, I want to present a few arguments against space-logic that is too transparent – or even transparent at all. I'm using the word "space" because the word "dungeon" is, after all, kind of a universal stand-in for the place in which characters adventure in an adventuring RPG. It could be a literal dungeon, or a city, or a huge desert, a chain of islands, or mountain range. But most of what I have to say applies to spaces created or altered by intelligent species.

Time and Worldview
In many cases the spaces in question are occupied by creatures that are not the builders. There may have even been multiple inhabitants in the space since the builders. With each new wave of occupancy, there is no guarantee that usage of the space is consistent. Humans aren't even consistent in the usage of houses they purchase from other humans, turning bedrooms into home offices, dropping walls to "open things up," and converting attics and porches into bonus rooms. Imagine how much more likely discontinuity is when the hand-off involves a different culture and/or species with different physical needs. Evolving technologies play a role too. Did houses built in the 1700s have toilets? The further back one reaches the harder it is to accurately assess the purpose of a space. Modern archaeologists struggle to understand, with any certainty, how neolithic sites like Gobekli Tepe or Stonehenge were actually used. And even the best theories are hard to prove conclusively, thus some mystery remains.

What is "logical" or "intuitive" for one species and culture is often radically different from what is logical and intuitive for another. Why would goblins need or want ceilings taller than 5 or 6'? Kuo-toa might use pools fed by hot-springs for spawning where Dwarves use them for quenching metal and Elves for baths. A religious culture might set aside a large space to honor their god while a hive culture would need a large space in which to huddle for safety or sleep, or perhaps a throne-room for their hive queen. A dragon would assuredly use the largest space for its' all-important hoard. If there is logic to be discovered, characters would need to figure out things on multiple levels - why the builders created things the way they did and how the current inhabitants might use the space.

Illogical by Nature
Some spaces strive to be non-intuitive. A mad wizard's deathtrap dungeon, a modern "funhouse," a massive tomb made to befuddle grave robbers! Generally, if player characters know the motive behind such a space, the players will be more at peace with the lack of logic.

Often, the most satisfying (and "realistic") compositions mix the new with the known. Humans crave some variation and a bit of mystery. A subject of study that is utterly predictable becomes tedious and boring. Conversely, humans crave the familiar. A subject of study that "makes no sense" can be unsettling or boring in a different way – as the examiner gives up trying to figure it out at all. Therefore most spaces should contain some mix of the familiar/predictable and the unfamiliar/bizarre. There is a time and a place for spaces that skew hard toward one of the poles, but oddly enough the result of such extreme spaces – whether it is the unknowable interior of an alien spaceship or the utterly known interior of a small town tavern – the result is the same; they quickly fade into the background. This is why every store in a major chain is set up in a similar way. 

If you want your spaces to engage players, give them a few "logical" handles, and make them work for the rest. And to be fair, you don't have to fully understand the space as the GM either. The players will come up with the answers (or not); just use the ones that seem the coolest.