Monday, August 29, 2022

Project Grayskull part 1 - in the raw

When I first went to Gary Con in 2018, I saw Reid San Filippo's fabulous GM screen fashioned from a Castle Grayskull playset. Once that idea gets in your head, there's no getting it out, so I did what all "geniuses" do – I stole it. (The idea, not his GM screen.)

Though I didn't know it at the time, Reid's project was still in the beginning stages; he has since added a lot to it. He also did a far better job of documenting his process than I have. But I'll try to make up for it with a detailed narrative for others who want to follow in his/our footsteps.

In case you don't know anything about it, Castle Grayskull was a central icon of the He-Man toy line and cartoon (c. 1982-83). The castle is a major source of power but neither He-Man nor his archenemy Skeletor live there. Which confuses me a little ... and here is where I admit I've never watched more than 10 minutes of the cartoon. 

I don't know if I would have ever acted on the idea until a friend of mine actually bought the castle and shipped it to me. (The shipping, as I understand it, was 2-3 times more costly than the castle!) 

Here it is in its virgin state. Well. Maybe not virgin, but rather lovingly used. All the shelves, stickers, figures, accessories, etc. were missing. In these photos I have scraped off a half-sticker that was left inside and washed the whole thing down to remove any major surface dirt. The sticker was surprisingly hard to remove, despite using Goo-Gone and a razor blade. I wasn't fully successful.

I want to take this slow, so even though I have already nearly finished this project I'm going to write about it on a once-a-week basis for a while. I hope you enjoy watching it be transformed.

The iconic front: case closed

The exterior: case open/drawbridge up

The interior: case open/drawbridge up. Note the brackets for shelves at the midline (both sides) and at tower level (on right).

The top: case closed. Note the awkward "holes" - you can also see them from the case closed front (above) and back (below) views.

The back: case closed. It cracks me up how the black paint was just "striped" on with no regard to the actual contour of the sculpt. I love the two shades of green though (lime and mint?). I kept/replicated those for my paint job (next post). I like to think of them as the ghosty-greens.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

HD is better than hp

TLDR: instead of tracking hp, make a box or circle for each HD a creature has and tick them off as the hits come in, rounding up or down to "5" per box.

Let's start with this - hit points (hp) is just a more granular way of representing hit dice (HD). In most old school games, creature HD come in d8s. An average roll on a d8 is 4.5. So 1 HD = 4.5 hp. 

Weapon damage varies from d4 to d10, usually. The ranges, averages look like this:

  • d4: 1-4, 2.5
  • d6: 1-6, 3.5
  • d8: 1-8, 4.5
  • d10: 1-10, 5.5
But just as aside, let's remember that initially all weapons did d6 damage, rather than variable dice damage, in D&D (1974, 3LB). In which case the average hit was around 4 hp, which is also the average point of the above range of averages. 

One might even say that the average hit (1:4) and the average HD (1:4.5) are about the same. That's not coincidence. Hit points are just Gygax's fancy way of amping up the meaning of hits and hit dice – of making them more granular. (Or is that less granular? I never get that right. What I mean to say is: more finely grained.)

Running encounters with hp is the norm that most of us have used countless times. If a creature has 7 HD (32 hp), we start with 32 and whittle it away as the hits come in. Let's say the damage done to a creature by a party over the course of a few rounds goes like this: 2, 9, 4, 6, 7, 1, 10! That's a total of 39, with the final shot getting in 7 points of "overkill" damage. That's all fine and good. Basic addition/subtraction math is pretty easy. 

But why all this granularity? Is it for some notion of "realism" or to make things less predictable? Does it actually make the game more fun? Consider the following way of tracking things as the GM.

Same monster, same fight. The monster's HD are marked as bubbles like:

Monster: HD 7 OOOOOOO

As the damage comes in the bubbles get marked off as follows:

  • 2 damage: no bubble is marked, but maybe a dot or tick mark is used to show a weak hit. 
  • 9: two bubbles gone! (10 tracked damage in bubble form /11 actual damage by weapons.)
  • 4: another bubble (totals now 15 tracked / 15 actual)
  • 6: one more (20/21)
  • 7: one more (25/28)
  • 1: none? one? This is the GM's call if their gut says they are running behind actual damage. Let's say none for argument's sake. (25/29)
  • 10!: two (35/39) - the monster is defeated!
Basically, this combat would have gone the same number of turns whether we were tracking HD bubbles or actual hp. Having used HD bubbles rather than hp a number of times, I believe this example rings rings true – the difference is negligible. Maybe sometimes it takes one more or one less hit than it would have if we were doing the math. 

What is the upside? I find it a lot more satisfying to tick off a bubble than to subtract one number from another and write down a new number. The tracking of wounds takes up a little less headspace than tracking hp does, and even the note-taking is slightly faster. Anything that makes me more fluid at the table is a big deal. An odd, but useful side effect is that I know exactly how much page space tracking wounds is going to take in my notes. With math I have to save margins or some other white space for recording hp and hits.

Here's a two-fight scenario I ran last Sunday from my journal. I could find you a prettier example, but I'm going to be "real" here and show you the most recent one. There's a lot going on here. Bubbles for spell-like abilities as well as HD, lots of chicken-scratches and shorthand concepts that only make sense to me, etc. But the point is I replaced at least 7 pages of an actual printed material with this two-page journal spread, and it made running the session far easier for me. 

The other argument I might add for using HD bubbles is that they give me a little room to pace the fight better without fudging, but that argument gets a little nuanced and may not hold up. I say it isn't like dice fudging, but it is a bit like squinting to get the overall effect rather than trying to see detail. 

Any way, this is my current method. Your mileage may vary, but I can't see the downside of tracking HD bubbles instead of hp numbers. 

I suppose this also begs the question, do I do the reverse? Ask players to track their HP as Levels/Wounds and deliver hits from creatures in increments (i.e. a hit of 14 damage means I say "mark off three wounds")? No, I don't do that. Players have a lot less to track and their hp means infinitely more to them than monster hp does to me. The same goes for their weapon damage. I let them roll damage and take damage in hp. In my notes the damage they deal gets converted on the fly to a relative amount of HD bubbles.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Fantasy world-building perspectives

TLDR: See the highlighted portion.

High fantasy is a problematic term. I was discussing Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series with someone who has read the series many times. I am not an expert; I haven't read ANY of the books, yet. [Edit: I have since read the first book and have thoughts at the end.]

The discussion began with whether it was okay to read on an e-ink Kindle, and specifically whether I would need to flip back and forth to the maps, genealogy trees, etc. in the book. In fact, it kind of started with whether one should just dive in and read without worrying about cataloguing the proper nouns or whether one should take notes. I kind of settled on note-taking. It seems that reading Erikson is the kind of activity where investment pays off, so I'm going to give it a go, despite the fact that I tend not to like high fantasy from the 80s forward. I find it too often riddled with non-essential proper nouns and history. 

And that is all context for the following Discord discussion in which I said something that seems kind of important to me. (I often don't know what I really think until I hear myself say it.) The other conversationalist will be simply "JK" for anonymity. 

JK: Yeah - it’s kinda nuts how developed the world is but as I mentioned in my message it’s deffo not ‘high fantasy’

It’s maybe ‘Epic Low Fantasy’ lol

Ray Otus: "High" is a problematic term for sure. I'd say there is fantasy that is concerned with world building from the top down (global, thorough, past and present, methodic) and there is fantasy concerned with world building from the bottom up (inside out, incidental, on-the-fly, always in context). For me that distinction accounts for a lot of high vs low -- moreso than grittiness of tone or how polarized the morality of the world is.

Any time you "need" a map to read the fiction, you are dealing with top-down fantasy. Most of the old sword-and-sorcery stuff ends up having maps (e.g. Newhon) but you never really need it to read the fiction and it wasn't there from the start. Just something that came later.

JK: Totally agree!

Ray Otus: I tend to gravitate toward characters and stories over world-building, so I like the bottom up approach better for my own reading. That doesn't make it a better approach. Many people like the top-down approach more.

But I like Tolkien too, so ... lol. I'm not exclusive.

JK: I really like the way you define that distinction & Erikson’s stuff is deffo bottom up - there is a very large cast of characters & he often focuses on how the ‘meta’-forces (the Gods, the Empire etc) effect the  the ‘regular Joe’s’  & (arguably) the main focus is a low level military unit who were probably his main party in gaming terms. I’ve never read Glen Cook’s Black Company novels but many have drawn those out as an influence & he’s said as much himself

(I also love Tolkien despite being a ‘low’ guy in theory!)

Ray Otus: Cook is definitely bottom up. It's interesting you say Erikson is that way. I would have guessed top-down, but as someone who hasn't even read the first sentence I'll buy what you are selling. Hmm. This will be an interesting read for me I think.

I guess from one perspective you might call Tolkien bottom up as you don't need a map, not really, to read The Hobbit or even The Lord of the Rings. Many people talk like Tolkien had it all worked out before he published any of it, but the 1937 edition of The Hobbit would argue otherwise. I think it worked hand-in-hand: the world-building and the fiction. 

JK: Cool - let me know how you go - one final caveat - a lot of people don’t like the first book (!) but push through & enjoy it from then on (!!) I personally don’t understand that as I really enjoyed the first one from pretty much the first page but I’d be remiss to not mention this common criticism!

He even talks in the intro to the copy I have about being told to rewrite it (but in characteristic fashion refusing lol).

Ray Otus: I sort of expect a hurdle. A lot of great fiction (TV series included) take a while to get attached to, but then they start yielding richness after richness.

People who bounce off of Erikson are probably not interested in being caught up in a project. And that's ok! I'm often that person. 

[Edit. I enjoyed the first book. It has a sprawling scope and cast of characters that feels epic. However, it has a low tone and it really does build from the bottom up. There are bug people, for instance, but you don't know that until you encounter some. And even then, you don't know much about them until you meet them a few times. Similarly, the map, while cool, is not needed for the first book. The places are just places and the things between them are only real when they relate to the fictional time they take and the descriptions of journeying / the things that happen in between cities on the journey. Epic Low Fantasy is a pretty apt description of it. In fact, it's so reserved in the information it gives you about the world that it often feels like too little for understanding rather than too much. I think Erikson likes that mode. As a reader it can feel a little unfriendly.]