Friday, December 30, 2011

Magpie Ambition

I often pull open a text file and start writing some opinion piece about what things inspire me or how much I like this game or that game or some esoteric crap about evoking player agency in games or blah blah blah whatever. I read other blogs by people who apparently have all sorts of stuff to say about all sorts of gaming topics (not that that's a bad thing, I mean, I do like reading them) and while there's always that same sort of "Me too!" feeling that happens whenever I observe any creative endeavour—although the magpie-like approach undermines the appellation 'creative' to the endeavours—I suspect there's something besides ADD keeping me from finishing an editorial post. There just isn't enough weight to back my lame opinions. I haven't actually been gaming all that long, especially compared with some of the bloggers I follow. Hell, some of the people I game with regularly were knee-deep in orcish cesspits by the time I was born.

That might be the reason my inner editor keeps my cursor away from the 'Publish' button: To the fellow-gaming community, my ideas sound like rehashes drawing on the same cultural melange but twenty years out of step. I read about things like the early days of Pagan Publishing with a sort of Lewisian wistfulness, a nostalgia for things never seen, dreaming of some frat house of horror gaming belching out still-unrivalled supplements. These days it's all crashes and doom and bursting d20 bubbles. Looking back through rose-tinted telescopes, I can just barely glimpse a day when there were giants in the earth. What paltry mortal means have I to even peer up at those lost heights? What does my name in a few supplements and rulebooks compare? I've been playing for a mere decade! I have barely a year of weeks-GM'd to notch on my sword. Definitely not enough to have an opinion to set forth in the basalt rock that is the internet.

There's still the magpie collection of half-gestated bloggery, though, and it mocks me even as it congeals. Perhaps the foolish ambition of the young will push me toward completion of something, even if it's a monster-a-month feature. Or geomorphs. Everyone likes geomorphs, right?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Maps: Crappy Edition

Pursuant to a conversation on G+, here's an example of how I draw wilderness maps.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Full Disclosure

Concept art is pretty cool. Not only is it a window into some weird new world, it's a window into someone else's mind, their thinking process; how they see as revealed by what they're showing you.

The same ideas can be extended to any creative process. Draft scripts, novel outlines, compositional doodles—they're all neat little windows into the process, all the more revealing for the polish they lack.

In the world of RPGs, the same could go for rules or published adventures, but the real expression of the practice is in what goes with the GM and the players to the table. What you use as cheat-sheets to either kill a monster or kill with a monster. Since so many different arts and skills converge at that table, I'm willing to bet that every has, consciously or not, developed their own toolbox of information-coding. Whole statblocks or just HD? Page numbers? Doodles or descriptions? How to do you tell yourself what you need to know? I'm curious.

So here's my notes for the last thing I ran. Post your own!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dungeon Palettes

Random dungeon generator.

One. Find a map. Or an image of a place. Or a not-place which means or indexes a place.

Two. Go here.

Three. Drag an image into the image search. When the search results come up, search for 'visually similar.' Look for whatever is cool.

Four. Save image and assign it to a place on the map. If you need to write something down to figure out what it means, do so.

Using the previously saved image, repeat steps (skipping insufficiently distinct search results) until you have enough stuff to feel like the map is full.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Semantics and Sea-Manics

Skill systems

D&D's attributes and saves are already a skill system. What are classically referred to as skill systems are just a means of arranging a set of extra probability modifiers for increasingly specific situations. At some point, most RPGs seemed to have absorbed three different ways of arranging probability modifiers or die-roll contextualizers: attributes, which I suppose are the 'ground level' way of describing an object mechanically and which are thus assumed to be ubiquitous in descriptions of slayable game objects*; skills, which are often a standardized list of genre-specific qualities which will be assumed to come up each once in a campaign, but which all operate simply enough that all you need is a name and string of numbers to describe. Then there's advantages and disadvantages, a set of opposed sub-descriptors which, because they often get nonstandarized paragraphs describing them which are expected to be memorized by the player, can be written on the character sheet in one line.**

D&D has been, in fact, kind of weird for not adhering entirely to this model, although it has all of these different kinds of modifiers or contextualizers already: attributes, attack bonus and saving throws (skills) and class abilities (advantages/disadvantages). When it got other things called skills and feats too one can reasonably look at the resulting kludge and start questioning which parts got used and which parts didn't. It's no wonder that those players which started thinking about RPG rules through D&D often split into the rationally-organized-rules camp (Rolemaster, HERO, GURPS) which try to keep everything but explain it all in a standardized way, and the slick-minimal-rules camp (OTE, Fate, GUMSHOE) which either keep it down to something you can count on your fingers, or at least only retain one category of modifier/contextualizer, or just quit the whole thing and go play a videogame.

*Leading to complicated rules for when they lack a modifier there, cf. 3e.

**Then there's also secondarily-derived stats, which are often used more than any other given skill. These are generally involved in combat, because every system after D&D needs combat to be a huge bloated system which rewards player knowledge of mechanical choices. Even Vampire, for some damn reason.

More Annwn Stuff
From the scratchpad:

• The Boar, usually resting, has been angered by pictish raids and is on the warpath. the picts plan to use the boar as a distraction; the band must deal with the boar and the picts at the same time.

• The secret of a terrible magical power lies with the soul of a man or witch tortured in the folds of the dragon-worm. only by consulting them while the dragon sleeps will they learn what they need and escape with their lives.

• The Raven-Giant, the great one, a shapeshifting druid in the form of a raven, whose head now guards Whitehill, where he watches over the assemblage of stolen wise-men's heads in the barrows.

• The bog-mummies in the swamps around the Great Tor have been whispering to the bishop there for many years.

• Cerridwen, the Bent One, is an ancient hag who dwells in her moving hut in the Otherworld.

• Characters do not level up with XP, but accrue magic power through finding magic artefacts, receiving boons, defeating monsters and stealing their power, or defeating mighty enemies and taking their heads. If they lose any of these things, they also lose the associated character powers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Inspirare Septimana

Urban planning.

The Mug of Annwn

I just had a dream which involved a pretty neat game idea in an excellent format. While shopping in a dusty antique-store-cum-Goodwill I came across a mug from the 70s with a D&D clone printed on it. The game was fairly simple, about four columns of text, with enough space left over for a weird (unrelated?) woodcut-like picture of a menacing steam engine pointing pneumatic cannons at people on an Edwardian streetcar track. (Have at it, Freud.) The game seemed to be about some Romano-British era soldiers having gone through a gate (possibly the Ninth Gate) in search of allies in their war against barbarians and bandits in their land. Coming back (I guess) with their original twenty-plus force, two archers, and a 'Knight in a divers war' (or something like that) a Lewisian-Merlin-type figure known as Cael, Caeal or Caelus. I think that means someone gets to play a magic-user, but he's, like, A Big Deal, or is a resource the players can only draw upon via negotiation with the GM. What followed that was a pretty opaque set of stats and level modifiers (you got HP and things but I don't know what it said about using them) and then twenty or forty-odd adventure ideas, stuff about drowned churches in a lake and Loch Ness and stuff. It all had very English tone, like the original Dragon Warriors books.

Anyway, here's a rough outline. It might be fun to work up some character creation rules, maybe in True20 or a microlite version of something.

Characters are part of a loose warband of two-dozen fighters in 6th century Albion, trained in sword, shield, spear and bow, who follow the advice and auguries of a spiritual being or mystic Druid named Caelas.

The band is tasked with defending the realm from the strange forces that seep out of Annwn or Anaon, the Otherworld, a misty realm with many wonders beyond it. Among these forces are:
-The Hounds of Arawn, who hunt the Borderlands between worlds.
-The great serpent, with men's souls tortured in the folds of it's flesh.
-The Host-Bearer, a great beast with a hundred heads and a massive maw who spews goblins from it's neck and under it's tongue.
-The great frog-beast, with a hundred claws and a black groin.
-The great boar, who bears sticks and spears and claws in it's hide from the numerous people who have tried to kill it.
-Giants, who live in Roman ruins reclaimed by the mists.
-Beautiful and life-hungry maidens, the secret aristocracy of the barrow-realms.

Other mortals fight for control of Albion, too:
The Saxons and their brutal ways, conquering, enslaving and sacrificing to their hungry spirits.
The Gaulish Romans and their lost glories, sending sainted emissaries to bend local churches to Rome's will.
The Picts and their strange rites, raiding from the high northern lands, allies of the courts of Annwn
Even among the Britons, there are lone, elf-touched warriors who train in abandoned churches and ruins and treasure-hungry warlords of rival bands.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Constantcon Call of Cthulhu game

Not that anyone reads this, but I'm going to try starting a Call of Cthulhu game (probably BRP, but that's not 100%, and probably classic era, but that's not 100% either) via the Constantcon Protocol in the next week or so, likely on Tuesday or Wednesday. Because I'm crazy and I'm not running enough already.

If anyone is reading this, and wants to play, email me at the address in the profile.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Design Is French For "Of Sign"

For everyone who is worried about whether or not their DIY publishing looks like crap, or who is just interested in what you learn in a print design class, this site is for you. And the book, but this is 90% of the book right there.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wolves of the Sea Looked Lost and Confused

So the first playtest of UNTITLED VIKING HORROR SCENARIO ground to a halt somewhere in the midst of the fourth session. A cross-island trek turned into a desperate and unfocused speculation huddle, and when it became obvious that I was running out of in-game ways to frame their information I decided that maybe I should excuse the audience, turn up the house lights and get some feedback.

Now, the biggest and most immediate part of the problem was that I turned what should've been the one sane GMC into a PC. It looked like a good choice at the time; the number of players in attendance fluctuated from two to four people during the playtest, sometimes even mid-session. The shuffle probably wasn't helping their collective memory either. So I needed to introduce a new PC quickly, and handing them a just-met NPC seemed the quickest way to do it. In retrospect, this was the only GMC capable of explaining the scenario setting's immediate past.

The second issue, which the post-game kibbitz brought up, was that the fictive context wasn't clear enough. The keystones of the genre weren't in place. They were reading events as forebodings of hypothetical doom, rather than actual doom happening all around them. The scenario is supposed to be a survival horror episode; the players had ended up in an Arkham Horror mindset. Instead of trying to escape as soon as possible, they were looking for solutions that involved returning to a previous equilibrium.

Third, some handouts to accompany the complicated descriptions might have been useful, especially the maps that were present in-game. Good Latin translations of the map text for verisimilitude might be tough, but I guess Google Translate can work in a pinch… it's not like any of my players know it.

On the good side, they reacted positively to the action sequences, especially the big, crazy dramatic opening. "Oh shit, we're going to die," is exactly what I wanted to hear. Even the random crazy mutant random encounters seemed to rile them up and freak them out.

So it blew up, but I feel pretty good about it, since I now know exactly what I have to fix.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fashionable Nostalgia

Doing layout for a book chock-full of repetitive statblocks all month has made me all the more appreciative of the guys who did the layout for Chaosium books in the 80s.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Old News

If the music industry consisted entirely of sheet music and build-your-own-instrument kits, it would look a lot like the pen and paper RPG industry.

Tiny People

While I've found some pretty cool papercraft miniatures online, they all seem to be fairly cartoony, bright, heavy-lined images. That's not really how I painted minis back when I did, and the lack of options bugs me now. I wonder if there'd be anyone interested in a grungier-looking set of paper minis, if I made some?

The exception seems to be Dave Graffam's medieval papercraft buildings, which all have a more subtle set of colour choices. Once I get some extra cash I might pick up a couple.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Future Art of the Future, Part IV

This month's Page XX over at Pelgrane Press has another piece I did for Ashen Stars, their upcoming space-opera freebooter detective game. Take a look!

Saturday, April 16, 2011


GINNUNGAGAP, or Ginn-Heilagr, is a yawning void that exists along what was once the terminator of a tidally-locked planet. This realm was home to primordial beings of immense learning and skill. It is said that they understood the fundamental nature of the cosmos, and in this were akin to Gods. Here, in the twilight ring between eternal fire and eternal ice, they built a heaven for their immortal bodies. They crafted hardy servitors to travel into the inhospitable realms on the sunward and spaceward sides of their world. Age after age came and passed, and they had lived so long and in such power and among so much encircling beauty that they forgot their own histories and names, believing they were always as they were and that they would be so forever.

Perhaps the forces of Chaos envied their joy, or ennui drove one of their number to rebellon or madness, perhaps jealousy or some rivalry drove them to summon uncontrollable powers, or some immutable Law decreeded that change must come to the unchanging. To the pitiful survivors, the cause is unknown and probably irrelevant. Their world ended when the planet was shattered in two; the land at the planet's habitable twilight dropped away, made into dust, or simply vanished. A whole disc was simply ripped out of the planet, which is now two hemispheres separated by a vast airy space, charged with swirling energy of Chaos and black aurorae of uncontrolled magical emanations.

Descendants of the servitors who weathered this apocalyptic moment eke out a living on the edges of this gap, on the chunks of material floating within, or on rugged vehicles they construct or salvage which traverses the interior void. They are few and far between; most of the planet has been given over to the horrific beings of Chaos, who scuttle and linger in the darkness of Ginnungagap. Some, though, have taken forms to inhabit the harsh twin half-worlds on either side of the void.

One of these half-worlds worlds is Muspellheim, the fire realm, bathed in fierce light and radiation by the three suns. The flat deserts are almost deserted of all but the seething wind-things, which are tasked by the multitude (and multiform) demon warlords of the rift valleys and jagged mountain caves with carrying messages and watching the borders of the realm.

The other is Niflheim, the rime-place, a black expanse shrouded in the swirling icy mists made by scouring winds blowing from Muspellheim. Unlike the ever-changing fire realm, Niflheim is in the grip of one single being, a multi-aspected, face-stealing demoness named Hel. The creatures which serve her claim that in her ice-spined castle, at the uttermost pole of Niflheim, she holds uncountable souls in crystalline stasis, and that all living are destined to become her prisoners upon death.

The inhabitants of Niflheim, Muspellheim and the Ginnungagap raid each other for prisoners, food, or what treasures remain from of the Gods' great lost civilisation.

This is just an idea I had this morning, along the lines of 'If the New Gods came after Thor, Odin, et cetera, what was the world before Asgard like?' And so, Ginnungagap by way of Jack Kirby. A later post will have some locations.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Inspirare Septimana and Incoming Playtest

Shimizu Corporation is busy building larval megadungeons.

In other news, I'm planning and wheeling out DUNGSHOE 2.0 tomorrow for a short test run campaign, set in a sword-and-planet style campaign called Panjandrum.

Some of the basic ideas surrounding Panjandrum been kicking around in my head since university, like this guy. I'm tossing together the Marses of Brackett, Lewis and Wells (and LXG, Vol II Ish 1), Dune, especially the extra-weird bits of Dune Messiah (the Tleilaxu were always my favourite) and all this cool concept art and stuff from thirty years of Star Wars. It's kind of all mooshed in there with some reskinned D&D stuff and hipster paleontology and orbiting a Warm Jupiter for cool night skies.

The result of that is that I have to stat up telepathic Greys and Tusken Raiders as PC species for tomorrow.

Regarding the game mechanics, after playing around with more regular stat-like modifiers, I'm sticking with the point-spend approach I'm used to with GUMSHOE. For tracking hit points, I'm switching to a True20 or Skullduggery-like 'additive damage' approach, since 'going negative' in just two stats always seemed awkward to explain, especially as I'm trying to encourage people to spend points more.

The skills are going to be the same type of thing as version 1.0, since they're tiny enough that I can make them up on the fly, or change them midgame without a total rethink. I'm thinking that, in addition to the 'brew potions' and 'make/disarm traps' knowledge skills, I'm going to add some that cover the three investigative ability categories (or rearrangements thereof) to try and keep interrogating the game environment cheap for characters. There's always that one guy in the party that wants to be the one who knows everything about stuff, too. Or at least wants it written on their character sheet.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Quick and Dirty Name Generator

The Onomastikon is a great resource, but sometimes I get tired of wrestling with it's geocities-era layout. To fill the gap, here's a quick and dirty fantasy name generator. There's no limit to how long the name may be, but shorter names (maybe three to four letters, or two syllables) is a suggested upper limit. You and your players are going to have to remember them, after all. For the same reason, it's best to start with different beginning letters, and vary the vowel sequence too (so one 'ah-oh' and one 'eh', not two 'ah-ah's, hanging out together).

To start, roll a d6. Even numbers get you a vowel to start, odd ones get you a consonant.

Roll a d6.
4i / y

Roll a d6 twice.

1b / p
2c / k / q
3d / t
5g / j

5s / z
6th / x / w

Finally, if you're trying to tie the names together, you can add a suffix. These suffixes can either call back to real-world cultures the fantasy world is trying to evoke, or simply establish a sense of cultural unity through repetition. Here's some sample suffix lists to get you started.

Marble-Columns and Toga Empire:
-o / io
-alus or arus

Grungy Olde Dark Ages-ish
-ick / wick / rick
-win / in / wen
-war / ward
-erd / herd / hard
-red / rid / fred
-alf / elf / ulf
-orn / urn / ern
-ston / stan
-gar / car
-un / und
-ald / alt / art / eald

Silks, Spices and Stories Exotic Middle East-ish
-ij / iz
-it / id
-gha / kha

Feather-Plumes and Jungle Pyramid Empire-ish
-tli / ztli
-atl / otl
-cha / ach / acha / chel / che
-zin / tzin
-oc / yoc / loc

Friday, April 1, 2011

Beware The Idle On March

Actual work impedes on spec work, yet again, and so I miss another year of the One-Page Dungeon contest. It's interesting to note other people had some similar ideas as the one I was working on, though. Chance aside, I think we're just working through ideas for distinctive dungeon-like environments at a predictable pace. One-Page Sinster Cthulhu Cults or One-Page Disjointed Panchronal Multiverses can't be far behind. Maybe next year.

I might clean up some of the rough ideas I sketched out and post them anyway. People can always use more geomorphs, right?

In other news, I'm actualy posting comments on things, which probably means I need to get the hell away from this computer.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Future Art of the Future Part III

There's a preview of some art I'm doing for Robin D Laws' new GUMSHOE-in-space game, Ashen Stars, over at Pelgrane

Take a look.

Free Hexmap Templates

Hey, with the #hexplore stuff going on I figured I should clean up and post some hexmap templates I've had sitting around for a while: H...