Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Let's Read Barbarian Prince - part 2 Main Menu

In part 1 of my Barbarian Prince review, I looked at the map and the overall presentation of information within the rulebooks. This time I want to look at what I'm calling the game's "main menu" - r203, the list of daily actions.

The first part of my review inspired a few people to give Barbarian Prince a try (or to speak up about how they'd enjoyed it in the past!) Throne of Salt has a really thorough (and almost successful) play through, along with his thoughts about how to improve the game. Dire Grizzly Bear has a more narrative write-up of his play through. Alex Schroeder and Rended Press also spoke up with their positive feelings about of the game.

From those four, and a few other people who comments on the OSR Discord, I learned that Save vs Total Party Kill has a copy of the Barbarian Prince hex map that's been partially keyed as a community project. The Boardgame Geek page for Barbarian Prince hosts a number of new layouts for various parts of the game rules. BGG also has a page for a game called Barbarian Vince that seems to be inspired by Barbarian Prince, and plays using a special set of cards, which are available to print and play.

(Regarding these files - as I understand Reaper Miniatures' distribution agreement for Dwarfstar Games, it's okay for anyone to post a digital copy of the games, as long as those copies are free, and a copy of the distribution agreement is displayed prominently. So that would seem to permit both sharing the original files and sharing new versions with more modern layouts, as long as all the terms of the agreement are honored.)

Barbarian Prince's "main menu", copyright Reaper Miniatures

If Barbarian Prince was a video game, this would be the main screen you'd return to at the start of each day. If someone released a reprinted, boxed-set version, this would be printed on a separate sheet of cardstock that you could set out next to the map to consult every turn. This is the player's summary of the game - everything you can do unless some special event grants you a special action.

Time in Barbarian Prince is measured in days. Every day, you can take one action of your choice, then deal with the necessities of survival, and then the day ends. Each action you take leads you to a separate "sub-menu" of different possible outcomes. Let's start by looking at the actions, and then at the rules for survival.

Traveling - Each day, you can attempt to travel one hex in any direction on the map. If you have a horse, you can travel 1-2 hexes, and if you have a winged horse, you can travel 1-3. (Note that you need enough horses for your entire party to benefit from riding, and enough winged horses to benefit from flying. Also note that even  if you attempt to travel 2 hexes in one day, events may force you to stop after only 1.)

Your goal in Barbarian Prince (which I'll talk more about next time) is to find money. In pursuit of that goal, you'll spend most turns traveling. When you travel, there are four possible outcomes. First you enter the new map hex without incident. Second, you get lost and remain in your current hex. Third, you enter the new hex and have an encounter. And finally, you could get lost and have an encounter! (Even if you have horses, you might get lost and remain in your original hex, or you might travel the first hex successfully but get lost before you make it to the second. And even if you have horses, if you have an encounter in the first hex, that will usually stop you from traveling to a second hex the same day.)

Your chance of getting lost depends on the terrain type of your starting hex. You roll 2d6, and try to roll low. You have only a 3% chance to get lost while flying, and you're still likely to find your way successfully when traveling through farmland (17%) or open countryside (28%). After that, things get tricky. You have a 42% chance of getting lost in a forest, hillside, or while crossing a river, and you're more likely to get lost than not in the mountains (58%), deserts (72%), and swamps (83%). When moving through those terrains, you'll probably spend several days lost and trying to find your way into the next hex. Traveling along a road or taking a raft on a river eliminates the chance of getting lost.

The chance for an encounter depends on the terrain of your destination hex. Even if you get lost, you still use the encounter table for the hex you tried to enter. No, this doesn't really make sense, and no, I don't know why the rules insist on it so strongly. If you're traveling on a road, crossing over or rafting down a river, or if you're flying, there are special encounter tables that override the underlying terrain. The chance of an encounter happening are more consistent across terrain types. They're most common when you move into farmland (42%), less so on the road or in forests, mountains, or open countryside (28%), and they're relatively rare when you're on a hillside, in a desert or swamp, when you're crossing or rafting a river, or when you're flying (17%).

In addition to the chance of an encounter, or what the game calls a "travel event", the terrain type also determines what type of encounter you might have. There's essentially a d66 table for each terrain type, although crossing a river and rafting on the river have different tables, and the rafting encounter table is set up as 2d6 instead. The rules for Barbarian Prince are divided into two books, one for rules and one for events, and the entire event booklet is filled with the possible outcomes of these encounters while traveling. (And the possible outcomes of outcomes - many events will send you forward to a new event that can't be encountered directly. For example, 8 of the 36 possible farmland encounters are to come across a farmstead. That event listing, e009, then asks you to roll 2d6 to determine which of seven possible farmsteads you've discovered. This is part of what I mean when I say this has the feel of the "sub-menu" system in an early 1980s era video game.)

Since most of the map is ordinary terrain, a very large part of the game is traveling using the travel action. Random encounters while traveling are also the only encounters you'll have while moving across the map. Most hexcrawls in D&D are written up just like dungeons, with a division between the landmarks that are keyed to specific locations and the encounters that show up at random. Even the Judge's Guild rules for procedurally generated hexcrawls draw a distinction between "features" which are physical objects that remain permanently located in the hex, and "encounters" which are meetings with monsters or other explorers.

Barbarian Prince doesn't really make this distinction. There are castles, ruins, temples, and villages located in a few of its hexes - but while you can choose to interact with those sites, simply entering the same map hex as one doesn't trigger any kind of automatic event. You still default to the local table defined by the local terrain. And the "travel events" themselves are a mix of discovering locations and encountering people, with no obvious split like we see in D&D. One kind of cool thing is that it's possible to discover hidden ruins, hidden towns, and hidden temples while traveling, adding brand new locations to the map.

Resting - Your other main option in most hexes is to spend the day resting. There are two possible benefits to resting. First, each day that you rest, every character in your party gets to heal 1 wound. Your character, the eponymous barbarian prince, starts the game with 9 Endurance, meaning you can suffer up to 9 unhealed wounds before you die. The followers and allies who might join your adventuring party are universally weaker than that. (Pushed onto a new page, where you could easily miss it, is a note that poisoned wounds never heal from resting.) You can rest as many days in a row as you want, healing 1 wound each day, but various forms of time pressure that the game piles onto you turns the slow pace of healing into another source of tension.

The second benefit to resting is that you can send your entire adventuring party out hunting. On traveling days, only you, and perhaps a single guide, can go out on an evening hunt. I'll talk more about the rules for food later in this post, and more about the rules for hunting and starvation next time, but the important thing to know for now is that more hunters likely capture more food.

Each day you choose to rest, you still have to check for random encounters, just like if you were traveling. Having an encounter doesn't necessarily eliminate the benefit of resting, but notably, you can only heal wounds on a day when your party did not participate in combat. You can still organize a large scale hunt, though, even if you were in a fight earlier in the day. I'm a little curious to see this in play, because it seems like it would be weird to encounter a stationary location when you've spent the day resting. (For example, it'd be weird to keep running into different farmsteads with different owners on the same hex of farmland over the course of several days when you're ostensibly not moving around. I'm not sure there's a good way to implement it in this game, but something like Blog of Holding's generic encounter table would be nice here - roll d6 when you're camping and d12 when you're on the move.)

Searching for Treasure - This action isn't actually possible most of the time. You can't, for example, just enter a map hex by traveling one day and then search it for treasure the next. Your goal in Barbarian Prince is to accumulate a fortune in gold, but you do that by talking to the native inhabitants of this land where you're a foreigner, not by wandering around digging up the countryside with a shovel.

There are only two occasions when you're allowed to search. The first is when you yourself left behind a cache of gold and loot, which you might do because of encumbrance, which I'll talk about later. The other time you can search for treasure is when you've previously learned a secret that tells you there's definitely a treasure in this map hex. You learn those secrets by going into the various castles, towns, and temples on the map and gathering information. If there is a cache or buried treasure, you have a 4-in-6 chance to find it on the first try. If you roll a 5 you can't find the treasure but you can search again; on a 6 you can't find the treasure because someone else already took it.

When you find a cache, you just get back whatever you left behind before. When you find a treasure though, you get to roll 2d6, about half the results will send you directly to one of the entries in the treasure "sub-menu" within the events book, and about half will send you to a "sub-menu" of various tombs. Some of the tombs are haunted by some sort of undead guardian, and also offer a reward of gold or items after the guardian is defeated. Other tombs are the site of an immovable magic item like an altar or a magic gateway.

Exploring Ruins - Aside from the various settlements that show up on the map (castles, villages, and temples), the map also has ruins. Unlike when you're searching for treasure, there's no need to check first to see if you find anything. The other difference is in the result of the 2d6 roll. The "ruins" sub-menu is different from the "tombs" sub-menu, and in general, it's much more dangerous. The tombs might have a treasure, but they might also be empty, cursed, trapped, or guarded by a monster (and unlike in the tombs, there's no extra reward for getting past the monster). There's also a chance that the ruin contains a magic altar or gateway just like some of the tombs do.

All of the tombs and ruins in Barbarian Prince are strictly one-room affairs. Each one is essentially just a single random encounter. It would be kind of cool if there was a possibility of exploring a larger complex, for the ruins especially. I can think of three possible reasons why it's not like that. The first is that writing enough ruin locations to make underground exploration possible would have required a lot of text, and this was a sacrifice to keep the game terse. The second potential reason is that the game wants to maintain a fairly strict equation of "one encounter = one day", and multi-room ruin complexes would violate that 1-to-1 correspondence. The final possibility is the stylistic choice to limit the "depth" of wilderness locations in order to reinforce the importance of returning to a settlement to gather more information. The best way to find treasure isn't to spend more time among the dead, it's to go someplace where people live and interact with them.

Seeking News & Rumors - Traveling and resting are the only actions you can take in absolutely every map hex, but there are several actions you can take in hexes that contain settlements. The first of these is seeking out news and rumors. There are a number of possibilities, most of them positive. You roll 2d6 and add a bonus if you spent some cash. Weirdly, although higher numbers are generally better than lower, not every result is better than the one below it, so you might regret spending money that pushes you into harms way.

You might find a discount on food an lodgings, you could happen upon a caravan or a friendly magician, you might have the chance to rob the local thieves' guild or join them on a heist, you might get along well with the locals or get in good with the nearest temple (both of which give you bonuses on actions there), or you might learn a genuine secret. The possible secrets are a way to sell drugs to the priests in the temples (another bonus!), blackmail information about the lords of the three castles of the region, or the location of a buried treasure.

The possible negative outcomes are getting robbed by those darn local thieves, and attracting the attention of the local police. The lowest outcome on the table is learning nothing. Racking up bonuses on your roll might ironically be the thing that gets you robbed or arrested. Despite that possibility, there's clearly a multi-day minigame here (and even moreso when seeking an audience) of trying to accumulate enough bonuses to get the best result before moving on.

Seeking an Audience - In an otherwise extremely economical ruleset, seeking an audience really stands out for its variety. There's one table for trying to meet the mayor of a village, one for trying to meet the head priest of a temple, and three tables for trying to meet the lord of a castle, one each for the three castles on the map. The best possible outcome on each of these tables is to succeed in actually getting your meeting.

Seeking an audience is kind of risky. The local leader might sic the cops on you. You're also pretty likely to have some bureaucratic intermediary interpose themselves between you and the leader, in which case you'll need to pay a bribe, or likely suffer the consequences. If you actually do get your audience, you'll have about a 50% chance of something good happening. The "something good" in question is probably money, and in large enough amounts to actually give you a chance at winning the game. But you're equally likely to be thrown out or have them release the metaphorical hounds against you. Having blackmail info helps, but doesn't guarantee success.

(Also, it's worth pointing out, Count Drogat is clearly just Dracula. Anyone making up their own custom encounters for a game like this could easily lean into that and make it more explicit. Maybe replace Baron Huldra with Frankenstein's Monster, maybe add the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the wandering encounters. Of course, that's only one possible way to adjust the flavor of the setting without really tinkering with the underlying rules.)

Hiring Followers - Like seeking rumors and seeking an audience, this is another 2d6 table. This one is somewhat skewed toward better results at low numbers, but unlike the other two, there aren't any really bad outcomes here. There is still one outcome where you don't get a hireling but do get a bonus (a -1 bonus, in this case) that makes your future rolls here better.

The results include hirelings with various Combat Ability and Endurance stats, available at prices that reflect their relative merit, a couple of horse dealers willing to sell you mounts, and a few chances to pick up hangers-on without needing to hire them. (The fact that you accumulate an adventuring party was definitely the biggest surprise about the game to me, and I'll talk about how it works another time.)

For whatever reason, you can hire followers in villages and at castles, but not at temples. Barbarian Prince kind of has a lot of exceptions like that, things that violate an otherwise general rule. They maybe make a little bit of narrative sense, but the cumulative effect is to make the rules more complex and harder to remember. I feel like ideally there would more general rules with fewer exceptions, and special or exceptional information would be confined to encounters and events.

Making Offerings - Spend money to pray at a temple, and only a temple. This is another minigame where you're hoping to build up some bonuses via several days of praying in order to achieve a good outcome. Good outcomes involve learning a secret (including the location of a treasure), having someone from the temple join your adventuring party, or having a god bestow an artifact on you that wins you the game if you can carry it to the correct part of the map. There are only a few bad outcomes, although those include being arrested for blasphemy, every day of prayer costs you more money. Again, it kind of makes sense that you can only spend money on offerings at temples, but it's still a little frustrating that no religious services are available in villages or castles.

Actually, I guess what I really think is that either all three types of locations should be more similar, or they should be more different. Making them more similar would be having the same basic actions available at each kind of site - though perhaps with different tables of possible outcomes depending on where you perform your task. Making them more different would mean that each kind of location had unique actions that can be performed only there. Right now, Barbarian Prince has an awkward mix of these two options, and I think it would be better if it committed one way or the other.

In the Firefly boardgame, some planets have markets, and some have patrons. Each market and each patron has a unique deck of cards associated with it, but they all work basically the same way. You go to the planet, look through the cards that have been dealt, and then take what you want. At a market, that means buying equipment or hiring a crew member. With a patron, that means accepting a job offer. But the variety comes from the contents of the cards in each deck; the actions "go shopping" or "look for work" are essentially universal. In Shadows of Brimstone, each day in town, you pick a particular location to visit. Each location has its own unique goods and services. You can buy weapons one place, receive medical care at another, get blessed at a third. There's little to no overlap, so the choice to go to the market versus the shrine is a meaningful one.

A final point of frustration about settlements comes from what happens when you rest there. When you travel, rest, or search for treasure in the wilderness, you have a chance of a random "travel event" each day. When you search ruins, seek information, seek an audience, hire followers, or make offerings, the "events" are whatever happens as the result of you rolling on the relevant tables. When you rest in a castle, temple, or village though, you'll have a chance of a "travel event", but it'll be determined by the terrain type the settlement is built on, not by the type of settlement, or even by the face that you're in a settlement instead of the wilderness. In a game where there are different encounter tables depending on whether you're rafting a river or just crossing it, this feels like a major omission. Having either a single "settlement" encounter table, or different ones for each of the three major types, would also help increase the unique feel of these places.

illustration by Cynthia Sims Millan, copyright Reaper Miniatures

So, every day, you take one action of your choice, then you deal with the necessities of survival. Survival in Barbarian Prince means food to eat and shelter to sleep in. If you don't have already have food by the end of your action, you are (fortunately) allowed to gather food before the end of the day. You could imagine an even more hardcore survival game where gathering food was an action unto itself, and took up entire days. Although I suppose if your hunting needs are severe enough that you need to rest in order to allow your entire adventuring party to join in the hunt, then Barbarian Prince already is that hard.

Gathering and Eating Food - Food in Barbarian Prince is awkwardly denominated into "units" instead of, you know, "rations" or "meals". Every character needs to eat one meal per day, or two in the desert. Horses need to eat two meals per day, or four in the desert, but they only need to eat meals at all if they're unable to forage. In farmland, open countryside, in forests, and on hillsides horses are self-feeding. Your animals also can't forage in a settlement, so you'll have to either provide food or pay for their feed.

If you're not already carrying enough food to eat your evening meal, you can go hunting. The hunting rules are terrible, and they're written confusingly. It's difficult to emphasize just how bad they are. You add your Combat Ability and half your Endurance (minus wounds, rounded down). Unhelpfully, this number is never given a name, but we can think of it as your Hunting Ability. Roll a couple dice so that you can subtract Hunting Ability minus 2d6, and that's how many meals you get. The way this is written in the original rules really makes it sound like subtract the other way, which would mean stronger characters hunt worse.

With a starting Combat Ability of 8 and starting Endurance 9, your character's starting Hunting Ability is 12, although obviously this will get reduced as you get wounded. If you have a guide, you can take them with you for a bonus, and if you rested, you can bring the entire adventuring party along, with extra bonuses if you have additional guides. Also if your 2d6 roll was a 12, you get injured on the hunt, take 1d6 wounds, and you might die.

If you go hunting in on farmland, there's a 2-in-6 chance that someone comes after you with torches and pitchforks, presumably because they're sick of foreigners showing up and bragging about the time they slew a Holstein Deer. Hunting in the same map hex as a settlement is impossible, so you'll either have to buy food (1 gold = 1 meal) or go hungry. Oh, and for some reason you can't buy food the first night you arrive in the settlement, only after you've started the day there. Just another charming exception hidden in the rules.

The rules for going hungry are also a little bit terrible, but mostly they're just punishingly hard. If you go without a meal, your Carrying Capacity drops by half and your Combat ability drops by 1. As the rules note, you can't actually die of starvation, because it doesn't affect your Endurance, you just become useless due to hunger. Your Carrying Capacity starts at 10, so after four days without food, you can't carry anything at all. If you have any followers or allies, they're likely to desert your party if they go even a single day without food. Horses won't desert, but they actually will die if you let their Carrying Capacity drop to 0. (Horses start with a Carrying Capacity of 30, and a human character carrying nothing weighs 20. This means that after a single night without food, the horses are too weak for anyone to ride them. If a horse goes five days without food, it'll die. There are no rules for eating your horses.)

After going hungry, eating a meal the next day removes one day's worth of hunger effects. If your fortunes have changed dramatically enough, you can eat double rations to remove two day's worth of hunger effects at a time, though no more than that. If you have any food at all, you can't selectively withhold food from some party members and not others, yourself included. You can choose to have everyone go without, or you can use up all your remaining food to "share" - which means that no one goes hungry, but they do still have to check morale or run away. Personally, I find that rule really non-intuitive, and I would either reverse it (so that "sharing" food protects morale even though everyone goes hungry) or drop it entirely (so that if you have fewer rations than party members, either everyone goes without for a night and checks morale, or you can feed some at the cost of those who went without deserting automatically).

Camping or Lodging - Compared to the rules for food, the rules for having a place to sleep at night are blessedly simple. If you're in the wilderness, you and your adventuring party will make a camp and sleep there. This costs you nothing, and requires no special effort.

Staying in a castle, temple, or village will cost you. You pay by the "room" not by the character, so it's 1 gold per night for yourself and any priests, wizards, other fancy types, and 1 gold per night for rooms that up to 2 non-magical followers can share. (Plus 1 gold for each of your horses, in addition to the 2 gold per day per animal it costs to feed them.)

You aren't actually required to pay for lodging, and there are no ill-effects to sleeping outside, but if you do, you'll have to check the morale for each follower to see if they desert, and each animal to see if it's stolen. After the rather complex rules for what to do if there's some food but not enough for everyone, I'm surprised to see that the text is silent about what to do if there's some money for lodging, but not enough for everyone. I'm tempted to extrapolate from the rules for hunger to say that you can't choose to shelter some of your party but not others. (Since there's no other penalty for not sleeping indoors, there's no reason to imagine that you spend the last of your money packing everyone into whatever hotel rooms you can afford, knowing that some might still desert despite your efforts.) Again, if I were making my own rule, my inclination would be to say either everyone sleeps outside and everyone checks morale, or only some characters sleep outside, and the ones who are left out desert automatically. (In a sense, you could choose to gamble with everyone's happiness, or voluntarily release some members from your party in order to ensure the others stay.)

In the next part, I'll talk about who your character is, what you're doing when you're wandering around looking for money, how the game manages all the followers it wants you to accumulate, and the terrible, terrible combat system. That will probably conclude my read-through, but I'll also write-up at least one play-through as well. At the end, I'll share my thoughts on modifying the rules and/or content of Barbarian Prince to make your own solo adventure.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Player Art - The Evolution of Jimbo Chirrup

Over the course of my GLOG Wizard City game, Josh Burnett has done several sketches of his character, Jimbo Chirrup, the grasshopperfolk garden-wizard.

Here's Jimbo before our first session. Poor little guy. He has no idea what grad school is going to do to him. Yeah, I was young and naive like that once too.

This is Jimbo after his second year as a master's student. Crippled by magical mental illnesses, afflicted with a drinking problem, bandaged around the thorax to stop his cracked exoskeleton from leaking hemo-fluid. That's the grad school we all remember.

Now we're really talking. This here is COLLEGE college!

Here we see Jimbo at the end of his third year. He's pretty much abandoned all his former ideals and morals and leaned in to the whole evil wizard thing. He has a badass Hell Gun, a demon hat, a pet cat, a soul condemned to Hell, (wait, what was that last one?), and his own evil apprentice, (no, before that-) Birdie Boombatz, the sparrowling biomancer wizard, a member of the Sisters of the Cell, the Omicron Delta Theta sorority (-the soul thing?)

His people sent him off to ag school to study farming, and he came back with plans to set up a special kind of lottery to help the harvest...

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Actual Play - GLOG Wizard City - Junior Year

Wizard Grad School 3rd Year Dungeon Exams

This is the final leg of my GLOG campaign in Goodberry Monthly's ever-increasing Wizard City campaign setting.

After the events of the Freshman Year and Sophomore Year dungeon delves, Jimbo, Deeringer, and Lunai had settled on robbing the vault on the 3rd level as their primary goal for their Junior Year adventure. Jimbo and Deeringer had also endeared themselves to the sorority sisters of Omicron Delta Theta, the so-called "Sisters of the Cell", so we decided to start this year off with a couple of recently-graduated 1st level sorority sisters completing a quest of their own before joining the others on their final delve.

The party had realized that in order to open the vault to steal the Eleventh-Hour Glass (so they could give it to Monica Doom, so she could trade it for her lost ability to change back from being a cat to being human, in exchange for her offer to help fence stolen textbooks for a higher price) they would need the combination to the vault's lock. Fortunately, Monica Doom knew that the Professor of Ethics and Contract Law over at the nearby rival Wizard Liberal Arts College of Soul Studies knew the combination and would be willing to trade it for a favor.

Sooooo, hoping to impress their new mentors, Birdie and Spellweaver set off across town to go back to college (but like, a different college) just after graduating from Gallax University.

This is what a spiderling wizard and a sparrowling wizard team-up looks like, right?
image by Super Team Family

Birdie Boombatz, a sparrowling and 1st level biomancer wizard, played by Josh
Spellweaver, a spiderling and 1st level stalactomancer wizard, played by Peter

Session 9: Summer Break Summer School

Birdie and Spellweaver went to meet Monica Doom's contact in the Wealth & Hellness Office. Dr ZL Beebub the Infernal Professor of Ethics and Contract Law, was willing to trade them the combination to the vault deep under Gallax Hall in exchange for services rendered - specifically he wanted the pair to spoil his rival professor's demonstration of her new invention and humiliate her in front of their peers.

Dr Beebub explained that his rival, Dr BB Rosemary, the Liturgical Professor of Exorcism and Insorcism, would doubtless be rehearsing in the Chapel before giving her big presentation later that day in the Lecture Hall. He insisted on getting the agreement in writing, with the pair's souls held as collateral until the job was completed. (In retrospect, this would have been a great opportunity to sing "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from The Little Mermaid. Oh well.)

Wealth & Hellness was full of cheerful, if creepy, motivational posters: "Pay Your Debts - Or Else", "Broken Promises Cause Broken Knees", etc. Birdie was so impressed by how evil the place seemed that she signed an admissions contract to begin taking classes in the fall. Dr Beebub pointed out the door closest to the Chapel, and the pair set off on their mission.

They entered the Heart House, a great high-ceilinged chamber, with an enormous heart suspended from the ceiling, slowly beating and dripping bloody meat juice onto the floor. As a trained stalactomancer, Spellweaver eagerly crouched down to slurp some of the fluids off the floor, "Wow this is totally grody," and learning the mysterious secrets of electricity in the process! "Ew, that's like, really gross," opined Birdie, as she collected several vials of the same liquid to mix into her homemade polymorph potions.

They next entered the Chapel, carefully opening and closing the doors in time to the heartbeat. They saw Dr Rosemary standing behind the altar, facing away from them, animatedly rehearsing her lecture. It sounded like she had a machine that could remove the soul from one body and transfer it to another. Spellweaver and Birdie decided they could sabotage the machine. For good measure, they used their scrunchies to tie up the Chapel door-handles to try to delay Dr Rosemary from leaving.

The sisters retraced their steps back through the Heart House and Wealth & Hellness, and planned to approach the lecture hall by cutting through the Library. The shelves were stacked to the ceiling and seemed to loom and sway as they passed through. "Ugh, this place is really cramped!" An indignant librarian quickly honed in on the pair's whispers, so they rushed out the other side, arriving in the Bell Tower. They saw a rickety and railing-less staircase leading all the way to the top ... along with dozens of ghosts flying around the belfry. "I wonder whose office is up there? I guess we'll never know!"

Birdie and Spellweave next arrived in the Tutorial Laboratories, where they saw doors to three study rooms. Picking one, they found two badass wizard weapons, the Soul Gun and the Hell Gun, sitting out on a work bench. They also heard an ominous skittering sound coming through the air vents toward them, and so quickly retreated from the study rooms with their newfound weapons.

Finally they reached the Lecture Hall, only to be challenged by the small crowd of undergrads already filling the first several rows. "Hey, what are you two grad students doing in here? We're getting extra credit for attending this lecture. Don't do anything that would jeopardize our extra credit!" Thinking quickly, Birdie used a spell to disguise herself as Dr Rosemary, while Spellweaver used her newly (and deliciously!) acquired knowledge of electricity to tamper with the experimental device. "Like, I'm totally Dr Rosemary or whatever. What are you kids even doing here? There's like, no extra credit for this talk. Tell all your friends, okay? You get no credit for being here! I want you to learn to be like, intrinsically motivated, or some junk." The undergrads were aghast and when the sisters shut the door, they heard the students immediately erupt in a debate about how to continue.

Feeling confident that they'd held up their end of the bargain, Birdie and Spellweaver tried to head back to Wealth & Hellness without being seen by the real Dr Rosemay ... or facing whatever that skittering sound was again. They passed through the cafeteria, which was in an uproar over the issue of extra credit, and both heroines were pelted with food as they tried to rush through the crossfire. Spellweaver was hit with an exploding pie that blew off one of her legs! Birdie got struck by a "meat" loaf that hit like a brick.

By the time they reached Wealth & Hellness, Dr Beebub was already laughing to himself. He'd gotten the latest gossip from his staff. Only a handful of students attended, which flustered the poor woman, and made her look bad in front of her colleagues. Worse, when she called for a volunteer to help demonstrate her soul-swapping device, the machine didn't even steal the student's soul - instead it turned Dr Rosemary herself into a mindless zombie body. This certainly wouldn't look good on her tenure application! Pleased with the results, Dr Beebub gave Birdie and Spellweaver the combination to the vault, and the pair left with their new guns, knowledge of electricity, and giant-infused polymorph potions.

The Soul Gun and Hell Gun, seen here being wielded
by their original owners, Captain Soul and Hellwave

I ran the Winter Break using the "Stirring Up the Pot" table from the Wizard City Hex Crawl, and then having each character roll on the What Happened This Semester? table. Also, I believe I either had Josh make a saving throw or a Wisdom check to try to remove his last remaining mental mutation.

Jimbo Chirrup, a grasshopperfolk and 3rd level garden wizard and
Birdie Boombatz, a sparrowling and 1st level biomancer wizardplayed by Josh

Deeringer, a deerling and 3rd level drowned wizard and
Spellweaver, a spiderling and 1st level stalactomancer wizardplayed by Peter

Lunai Lovegood, a lunai and 3rd level orthodox wizardplayed by me

Session 10: Winter Holiday and Spring Break

Jimbo, Birdie, Deeringer, Spellweaver, and Lunai went out on the town the very first night of the winter holiday, hoping to celebrate the end of their fall classes. Unfortunately, Lunai immediately noticed a problem. "Something's wrong with the moon," she said, "I'm from there, and it's not supposed to look like that!"

Indeed it was not! The Dead Jane gang had finally put in motion their long-held plan to summon the Zombie Moon! Corpses rose from their graves! Various townsfolk failed their saving throws and were converted to the living dead! But what started as a zombie apocalypse quickly turned into a gang war, when the Wizard Police, rather than solving the problem themselves, outsourced the zombie killing to the rival Black Dragon gang. "Eh whatever, these'll be public service homicides for a change."

The grad school chums spent the break holed up inside the Wandering Monster bar. In fact, virtually everyone who wasn't a gang member of zombie spent the break holed up wherever they could find a locking door. They enjoyed a sumptuous Winter Solstice feast of the last of the bar nuts and a handful of pretzels, split five ways. Lunai also managed to purchase a discarded zombie arm at a steep discount, giving her just the prosthetic she needed after losing her original arm to a carnivorous hat the previous year. Spellweaver considered buying a zombie arm of her own, to replace the one she lost over the summer, but decided she could do better.

Over spring break, a rogue graduate committee managed to ambush Deeringer and force him into an empty conference room for a coerced but impromptu masters thesis defense. Fortunately, as one of the last surviving citizens of doomed Atlantis, Deeringer had spent his whole life preparing for this moment. He pulled out a rolled up poster, with hundreds of instructional images connected by a maze of diagonal red lines, and lectured the professors for 10 hours on his magnum opus, "The Ocean Is Coming: And You're Going to Hell", until they finally relented and awarded him a degree. Jimbo was astonished: "you don't even go to this school!"

Spellweaver was impressed with her mentor. Without her really meaning for it to happen, the student loan officer who'd been pursuing Deeringer ended up falling in love with her. "It must be my irresistible pheromones. We like, use them for subduing inferior mammals, and stuff." She tried to convince the poor kid to cut off his arm and give it to her as a courtship present, but his affections didn't extend quite that far. "Yet!"

Jimbo's visits to Student Health finally paid off, and the counselors there cured him of the drinking problem he'd gotten after wandering into one of the Department of Torture laboratories. "From now on, I'm straight edge," he said, drawing Xs on the back of his hands. With a clearer head, he was also able think back on his many trips between the University campus and the Wandering Monster bar ... and realize that there was a hidden alleyway connecting them. If only he had any use for that information!

Over the winter and spring, Jimbo made several attempts to figure out the workings of the Soul Gun and Hell Gun. When fired, the Soul Gun let out a beam of angelic blue light, and the Hell Gun burst forth with a swath of sulfurous hellfire. Jimbo tried out the Hell Gun against an advancing zombie during the winter, but the fire didn't seem to burn the lifeless creature. Later he took both guns out to the University garden to try firing them at tin cans set up on fence posts. Visually they were incredibly dramatic, but the unliving cans (and fence posts) suffered no obvious effects from the weapons. "I guess I'll have to test them on something living..." he finally acceded.

Birdie was able to find a special of The Walking Eye student newspaper. Her issue was all about the Black Dragons gang, and has advice for selling futures of zombie body parts. "Ohmygod, I'm like, a total entrepreneur!"
A new challenger grad student has appeared!
At this point, Josh's friend and writing-partner Leighton joined our group, adding one final member to the party:

Chordy teh Forg, a toadling and 3rd level geometer wizard, played by Leighton

At 3rd level, all the GLOG wizards in the party got to choose one spell and give it a positive spell mutation. I think Jimbo chose Magic Missile and got a more powerful version, and I honestly don't remember what happened with Deeringer. Chordy decided to mutate Control Iron and was required to give it "new flavor", turning it into Control Stone, which proved to be enormously useful down in the dungeon. 

Sessions 11-13: Third Year Final Exams

Before venturing into the dungeons for the last time, the group went over their plan. They had the combination to the vaults. They had a fake "hall pass" that had worked once before. They bought some rope to descend down the belltower, which they thought was too rickety to climb down before. They had a couple of badass hell weapons, even if they weren't totally sure how they worked. Was there anything else? "Uh, YE-ah," said Birdie, "we need, like, a human sacrifice!" Spellweaver agreed. "You know how, like, in undergrad, we would like, hire a really nerdy guy to our homework for us? We need that, but like, for the dungeon!"

Jimbo thought he knew just the guy for the job. He went into the student bookstore on a Saturday morning, when everyone else was still asleep from partying the night before, and sidled up to the only other person awake on campus - the poor chump stuck working the morning cashier shift. Jimbo stood near the checkout lane, his hands folded behind his back nonchalantly, staring up at the ceiling as though inspecting the tiles. 

"Psst, Chordy," he whispered.
"Is someone talking to me?!" the toadling cashier enthused.
"It's me Jimbo," said Jimbo. "Listen, you know all those textbooks my friends and I sold you?"
"Of course!" announced Chordy, "the bookstore is always happy to buy back legally acquired used textbooks!"
"Uh, yeah, 'legal' ", Jimbo agreed. "Anyway, Chordy, my friends and I are going someplace where there'll probably be a lot more textbooks, and we could use someone with your expertise to-"
"Wait!" cut in Chordy, "Friends?! Are you saying we're friends?!"
"Well, no, that's not exactly what I..." Jimbo paused to consider his option. "You know what? Yeah, sure, friends."
"Friends!" exclaimed an enraptured Chordy, who took off his bookstore apron, and followed Jimbo to the dungeon entrance.

The group passed through the now-familiar entrance to the dungeons under Gallax Hall. A quick peek into Dr Sitch's office revealed the professor staring forlornly at a photo of Arivaderchi Zeucchini, a single tear in the old man's eye. They headed straight for the belltower, wasting no time on detours or distractions. The custodians' sign warning of a "Grabby Floor" were still up, so the friends took a familiar path around it, passing by various statues to arrive at the boarded-up wall leading into the top of the belltower. They began hacking away at the wall with their weapons, only to be confronted by an angry custodian. "What the hell are you kids doing to that wall?!" the frustrated worker screamed at them. Jimbo cast a spell to calm the man's emotions. "With the overtime pay I'll earn from these repairs, I can rent that hat I've had my eye on. You kids are alright."

With the wall open, the group looked down the deep pit. The very top of the old belltower only reached here, to the basement bellow Gallax hall. The belltower passed down through the steam tunnels and (they hoped!) opened out into the ruins of the Old University. They secured their ropes and climbed carefully down. At the bottom, they discovered that all the old doors out of the belltower had been walled up. There was no obvious way out. "I know!" shouted Chordy, his already loud voice amplified by the acoustics of the tower. "I can control the stone to make a new way out!" The others winced in agreement. After some debate about which side of the square room to install an exit, Chordy faced the southern wall, and sent a tunnel through 10' of stone fill to create a new doorway into a hall. There was a closed door directly in front of them, to one side they could see the enormous room containing the statues of the founders and the (presumably) cursed Seal of the University. To the other side they saw a double-wide hallway. 

Jimbo remembered the guardians of the previous double-wide hall, got out the forged "hall pass", and strode confidently out to meet the robotic guard. Glancing to the south, he spotted a carving of a knight in armor, and walked up to it. He slowed as he began noticing dozens of charred corpses further to the south. The carving's visor began glowing red. "Present hall pass," it intoned. "Certainly, certainly," Jimbo dissembled. "I'm sure this is all in order." The charred bodies began to stir and rise to their feet. The visor's red glow became almost blinding. "Hallpass rejected. Intruder alert! Intruder alert!" Jimbo turned and tried to run back around the corner, but he was shot in the back by a powerful laser blast that could easily have killed him a few years ago. The charred corpses began slowly shambling northward toward Jimbo and the others, waiting just around the corner. The statues visor returned to a dull red glow, and appeared to be recharging. Spellweaver rushed out to sabotage its electronics, barely avoiding the zombie vanguard. The group hustled into the closed door directly across from Chordy's tunnel. They heard the whine of the recharging robot reach a fever pitch, then heard an explosion as red light momentarily poured between the door and jam.

Turning from that near disaster, as Birdie gently patted out the last smoldering flames on Jimbo's back, the friends surveyed the room, finding themselves in some sort of catering staging area. A gang of 4 mean looking undergrads in fraternity robes were in the middle of shaving strips of meat off a pair of mummified kebabs, molding the strips into little gingerbread-man-sized puppets, then bringing them magically to life. Birdie and Spellweaver recognized their fraternity gang-signs from their own sorority days. "Ugh, its the Black Magic Bros. They're like, totally our rivals and junk." The Bros didn't look very happy to see the adventurers either. "Girls and grad students? Gross. Do you lift even?" A couple of the Bros came at the group with their carving knives, and Jimbo attempted to use his calming magic again. Unfortunately, he suffered a mishap, and vomited hemolymph all over the floor at their feet. Spellweaver eyed the liquid longingly. The Bros were disgusted, and shooed everyone out through the back door into the kitchen so they could continue their magic ritual uninterrupted.

In the kitchen, the group saw a zombie (a non-burned-up one this time) gnawing on another spindle of mummified meat. Deeringer tried to sneak up behind it, but his antlers accidentally knocked over a dishrack, raising a terrible clatter. One of the Black Magic Bros came in. "Yo! Are you bros interrupting our magic on purpose?" Deeringer explained that it was just an accident while trying to attack the zombie, but he wasn't able to harm it. The Bro was disgusted, but magically destroyed the zombie and then returned next door. "Yo, you bros are genuinely weak and pathetic. You sicken me. You need to lift and get swole!"

With the Bros distracted and the zombie defeated, the group decided to take advantage of the momentary calm to eat some lunch in the old kitchen. Jimbo felt much better afterward! After eating, they searched the kitchen for valuables, and turned up fine china plates worth 88 gp, and some good silverware worth 15 gp. Rather than risk interrupting the Bros again, they left the kitchen via the back exit, which deposited them in a small crossway with three other possible routes. Peeking into each room in turn, they saw a refrigerated room where a dozen zombies were trying to open a locked freezer, a cafeteria where a dozen zombies were tearing apart the corpse of a Black Magic Bro, and a blocked door that they eventually forced open. It was a supply closet, filled with tables and chairs, most of which had been piled up to prevent anyone from getting in. After finally weaseling inside, they pushed the stacked furniture back into position to keep out any zombies.

The group then listened at the only other exit door, and heard whispering about budgets. They worried that this might be another administrative ghost, but decided that was still safer than trying to fight through a mob of zombies. They emerged into a dusty hallway connecting the giant University Seal room to the old front entrance to the original Gallax College building. The hall was dusty, but it was clear that a lot of foot traffic was coming north from the old entrance, so they headed in that direction. As they approached the foyer, they were accosted by more Black Magic Bros, "Yo, this is our turf, frat brothers only past this point!" Deeringer stepped forward, "Well what if we joined your fraternity?" The Bros seemed excited by this idea, "Bro, are you pledges?! This is great! Alright probie, you wanna join our gang, all you gotta do is commit an unforgivable sin."

Jimbo stepped forward with his Hell Gun, checked the group to identify the shortest and nerdiest looking Bro, and straight up wasted the guy with a torrent of hellfire. That Bro's soul was condemned to Hell, and Jimbo knew with a certainty that his own soul was damned in that instant as well. The other Bros took one look at the smoldering corpse, then at Jimbo, then cheered. "Bro! That was epic! You didn't tell me you dudes were hardcore!" A round of chest bumps, high fives, and keg stands followed. Spellweaver amused the Bros by trying to harvest a prosthetic from the corpse, but it was too badly burned. Jimbo seemed dazed, and kept looking at his hands. "My god, what have I done..." he mumbled to himself. "I used to be so nice... I was going to be a farmer..."

While partying, the Bros explain the layout of their turf, and the group made a plan to get to the vault. They entered a room that they believed had door opening to the north, but found their way blocked by some sort of arcane puzzle. The wall was carved with some sort of large circular rune, the indents were filled with dried blood, and key spots on the rune were adorned with teeth and ears. "I have some teeth!" Spellweaver cheerfully announced. "What? Why?" Jimbo was disgusted. "I got my boyfriend in the bursar's office to give them to me while I was building up to ask for his arm." Jimbo insisted that they get ears from the zombie remains they'd left in the kitchen. En route, they encountered a dungeon cat! Jimbo remembered he'd stolen a laser pointer from the Torture Department's lecture hall, and used it to entertain the cat, who proved to be very friendly. "Wow boss," said Birdie, impressed, "You're like a real evil wizard now. You've got an apprentice, a familiar, plus that Hell Gun." Jimbo mumbled to himself as they returned to the room with the mysterious seal, "No... supposed to be nice... farmer..."

Birdie and Spellweaver experimented with adding additional teeth and ears to the rune, but couldn't get it to activate. Deeringer tried wiping away some of the blood, and they realized that this was a Custodian's Seal ... which made them question whether the bodyparts were needed for the ritual, or some sort of negative consequence of performing it incorrectly. "I have an idea!" announced Chordy, and used his spell to control stone to open another doorway right next to the secret door being blocked by the seal.

In the next room, they found a bloodstained stone altar next to a pit filled with the skeletons of undergrads, still wearing a few mouldering scraps of their old robes. Another skeleton was reaching out toward the altar, obviously killed by a sword stuck through its back. Deeringer inspected this corpse. He thought it was Administrator Hargrave. " 'No escape, Hargrave,' indeed," he said. He found a slip of paper in the skeleton's hand with clues for figuring out the vault combination, but since they already knew the combination, they didn't bother trying to puzzle out the three riddles. Spellweaver took the sword and swung it around a few times, "Oh yeah, I could really chop some arms off with this!" Jimbo took the demon-faced wizard's hat the corpse was wearing, beginning to accept his new identity as an evil wizard.

Deeringer felt around the northern wall, looking for a way through into the vault. As he did, the skeletons in the pit began stirring. Chordy used a spell for packing things securely to slide the altar into the pit, crushing the skeletons to dust. (Meanwhile, upstairs, every other skeleton in the dungeon reanimated and went on an indiscriminate killing spree!) Administrator Hargrave's skeleton rose up to attack them, but Spellweaver used the magic sword to put Hargrave down for a second time. Eventually Deeringer was able to force open a door that was probably somehow tied to the altar's magic. And with that, they were in the vault!

Deeringer used the combination Birdie and Spellweaver had secured to open a locked safe. Inside the found the mythic Eleventh Hourglass! They weren't really sure what use it might have, beyond securing their good relationship with Monica Doom. The room was filled with other treasure chests, but they were mostly open and empty. In fact, only one was undisturbed. Deeringer feared a trap, and used his spell that commanded coins to open the chest from a distance. Nothing seemed to happen, and they found two heavy gold ingots inside. Birdie and Spellweaver each carried one.

To leave the dungeon and return upstairs, the group decided to take a different way back so the Bros wouldn't see them carrying the gold. They went down the hall past Chordy's entrance to the blood-sealed room, and found a closet for storing contraband that had been confiscated from unruly undergrads. There were storage areas for knives, swords, staves, crossbows, and wands, but only a handful of loose daggers were left lying on the floor; everything else had been taken.

In the next room, they found a walk-in closet with a lot of dusty old Administrator's robes, and a lot more empty hangers. Rounding a corner, they saw a dying undergrad slowly dragging himself toward a farther door. Inspecting him seemed to reveal that he wasn't a ghost, but maybe someone trapped in slow motion and a time-loop. They used the Soul Gun to disperse the soul from his body one segment at a time, until he was finally released from the prison he'd been trapped in for hundreds of years. Spellweaver drank some of the blood off the floor and learned a bit of history - the graduating class of 677 had all been killed and turned into zombies which still wandered these lower halls. This lead to a worsening of faculty-student relations, culminating in a rebellion led by the class of 702. That was probably the source of the various battlefields they'd seen, and the reason the old university was abandoned and built over, as well as the cause of this poor fellow's death.

The group dressed in Administrator's robes and used a couple of spares to hide their gold ingots. Confident in their new attire, they found their way to one of the double-wide halls, where a knight statue greeted them in its robotic voice, "Greetings, administrators." They had no further trouble returning to the surface.

With the Eleventh Hourglass to use as a bargaining chip, Monica Doom was able to buy back her ability to return to human form. And with their gold bars, new magic items, and purloined dinnerware, the group was financially well set up to leave the University and start up their own wizarding gang.


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Let's Read Barbarian Prince - part 1 Map and Layout

I recently read a really glowing review of the boardgame Barbarian Prince that got me curious about the game - both what it's like to play it, and also at a more basic level, how it works.

You may have noticed I have an interest in using procedural instructions to generate a game experience, and learning from other games that use instructions, like the roguelike genre of computer games, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series of game books.

So consider my interest in Barbarian Prince to be part of a broader interest in how to use game rules to create a certain kind of experience, either in the absence of a gamemaster, or with a gamemaster who's more like an interpretive guide than someone actually directing the action of the game.

Fortunately, since 2003, the Reaper Miniatures company made six games originally published by Dwarfstar Games available as free downloads, including Barbarian Prince, so it's very easy for us to experience, despite the game being out of print from something like 30-40 years at this point.

Barbarian Prince map by Cynthia Sims Millan, copyright Reaper Miniatures

Let's start by looking at the map. It's really gorgeous, and it's fair to say that the beautiful map is the only reason I ever heard of Barbarian Prince before reading that review.

The Dwarfstar games were a bit before my time. Same with Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival and Magic Realm and TSR's Divine Right. But the maps are so evocative that people still post about them from time to time. Like many of you, my first knowledge of the existence of those games was seeing one of their maps online.

The first Dwarfstar game I ever saw was actually Demonlord. I learned about it, roughly at the same time, from People Them With Monsters (where it was being used as the map for his Outland campaign) and from Dungeon Skull Mountain (where it was being used for his Demon Verge campaign). Following the link to learn about Demonlord first introduced me to Barbarian Prince, although at the time, the map was the only part of the game I was interested in.

In thumbnail, the thing I notice most about the map are the colors, the soft lovely shades of green and purple that help distinguish the terrain types. If you look at the enlarged version though, there are details I didn't initially see. The cross-hatched fields of the farmland, the numerous towns, temples, castles, and ruins. This isn't, as I thought at first glance, particularly a wilderness map, like in Outdoor Survival, it's a map of a settled and interconnected region.

The dimensions of the map are unusual, 23 hexes down by 20 across. Its scale reminds me of Save vs Total Party Kill's repository of crowd-sourced hex maps, but the most common size there is 20 by 20. Outdoor Survival has a big map made of 6 smaller ones, and each of those is 17 by 14. Divine Right's map is oriented the other way, and it's 31 by 34. The Land of Nod's maps of, well, the land of Nod are even bigger. Even the Demonlord map is 22 by 23. I would say that 20 by 23 is a size that never caught on, but I think the fairer assessment is that there simply is no standard size for large hexmaps.

original layout, copyright Reaper Miniatures
layout by jumbit, copyright Reaper Miniatures

While the map is beautiful and informative, the appearance and layout of the rules is ... not. I'm not going to throw stones at what was - for all I know - the cutting edge of information design in gaming in 1981, but I will note that by contemporary standards, it is maddeningly poorly laid out, and that's just my reaction as a reader. I have to suspect that these problems would be amplified in play. If ever there were a document that cried out for the loving touch of a skilled layout artist, this would be it.

The rules of Barbarian Prince are divided into two booklets. e000 - e199 are events and covered in the Events Booklet, and r200 - r399 are rules and covered in the Rules Booklet. No, I don't know why the rules come second. These numbers correspond to sections rather than pages (they could as easily be labeled §000 - §399, like you see in some works of philosophy) and their purpose is to facilitate easy lookup. That's how the Choose Your Own Adventure books work too, (though with page numbers instead of sections) but what it really reminds me of is computer programming using the BASIC language. All that's missing are the GOTO statements.

(I spent a couple years in high school learning to program in BASIC on Apple IIE computers. This was some time around the turn of the millennium. My high school was ... not good. In college, I gave up on computer programming in favor of finally learning to understand other people, a decision that has unquestionably enriched my life ever since. I did have one accomplishment to show for my computer classes though. Some of my classmates had copies of Drugwars on their TI-83 calculators. I was never cool enough to have a copy on my calculator, but I did write my own game of trading stocks and avoiding the SEC and IRS that had the same interface and, as closely as I could guess, the same price fluctuations and kinds of random events. The Barbarian Prince rules remind me so much of the dot-matrix printouts of my game code. As I'll discuss in a future post, there's actually a very similar logic at work. You start each day on the "main menu", then select an action, which takes you to new submenus to resolve the consequences of your selection.)

I think I know why Barbarian Prince is written this way, or at least I have a couple guesses. I suspect the primary purpose was to minimize the space required to print the booklets. By never giving more than the 4-digit code number to look up another instruction, and never retyping any text that could simply be referred to by referring to its code number, the game probably minimized the number of lines and pages they needed to print the instruction books - and thus maximized the amount of game content that would fit in that number of lines and pages.

If the designer, Arnold Hendrick, was familiar with computer programming, he might also have felt more comfortable replicating the logic of reference and look-up to organize the game he was writing. In fact, one good question is, why isn't Barbarian Prince a video game? either instead of or in addition to being a board game. I feel fairly certain the Commodore 64 or Apple IIE could have run this program, perhaps with a short chiptune MIDI soundtrack and some rudimentary on-screen graphics to show your position on the map, or the appearance of the nearby village or temple, like you see in Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. A computer would also do a bang-up job of tracking your money, food, and time. I suppose the answer might be as simple as the fact that Dwarfstar wasn't a video game company, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. Maybe an enterprising retrogame emulator will some day fill in the gap.

Aside from the eye strain of trying to scan through so many pages of undifferentiated text though, there are a couple down sides to this organizational approach. The first is that there are some rules that are more important than others, that serve as primary references that do most of the work of directing you to the other sections you need to read. Because you need to look at these rules to play the game, it's something of a problem that playing the game also requires you to continually turn the page away from them.

It would be enormously helpful to have key rules and reminders printed out on separate reference sheets, perhaps page-sized or half-page for certain tables, playing-card-sized for monsters and NPC allies. The top "Travel Events" sheet shown above, I think, was printed on a separate sheet of paper, but a bit more of that would have gone a long was. As would some color, variations in font size, table formatting ...

To give only the simplest example, compare the original layout above to one fan's attempt at an improved layout right below it. The second layout does take up more space, it's true, but look at how much easier it is to read, and how the addition of section titles alongside the section numbers already helps to orient you to what's coming next. Notice also the way the sample hex illustration and larger title fonts helps guide you to the correct terrain type, and how the inclusion of the rules for getting lost, for triggering an event, for hunting, and for finding animal fodder actually reduces the amount of flipping around you'll have to do, even though you will have to turn a page to find the correct table.

Another problem with using references and look-ups instead of repeating text is that it makes it that much easier to run into the "infinite regress" problem that can strike any game that uses procedural generation tables. Basically this is a problem where you look up a rule or event, and it has you roll on a table, that then directs you to another rule or event, which has you roll on another table, that then takes you ... and on and on and on.

Infinite regress can be difficult enough to cope with in a really well-organized document, but the additional page-flipping and booklet-switching here seems like it has the potential to really get you lost. Short of never having one table refer to another, you probably can't completely avoid the risk of too-much-page-turning in any game that uses procedural generation, but I think the takeaway for anyone wanting to design such a thing is that these cross-references can add up quickly, and that the total will always be more than the sum of the parts. I can't know without playing it (which I will!) just how much Barbarian Prince suffers from infinite regress, but the way it's written certainly appears to create a risk.

This time I focused mostly on appearances, but I'll start diving into the actual rules next time.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Intercultural Miscellany - World in Motion, First Contact, Cultural Appropriation, Indian House, Migration Museum

A Picture of Change for a World in Constant Motion
Jason Farago
New York Times

"During Hokusai’s lifetime, Japanese were barred from leaving the country, on pain of death. But the country was not totally closed. Some foreign goods could come in. And some foreign techniques, too. Do you see, here, how the traveler in the back is so much smaller than the woman who’s lost her papers? And how sharply the landscape slopes up? A hallmark of Renaissance image-making. Hokusai was among the first Japanese artists to employ Western perspective, though he used it playfully. Hokusai would have picked up this perspectival technique from Dutch prints circulating in Edo, even as elsewhere, in the same image, Hokusai employs a perspectival technique common in Asian painting, with similarly sized figures positioned along diagonal sightlines. That, too, was imported knowledge, absorbed from Chinese examples into earlier Japanese painting."

"In 1867, the World’s Fair took place in Paris. Japan participated for the first time, and displayed coats of armor, swords, statues - and woodblock prints. The French went wild. A critic at the fair singled out Hokusai. What these young moderns loved were the prints. Hokusai’s example would soon influence the work of Paris’s modern artists. Mary Cassatt, for instance. She learned from Japanese printmakers to create spaces of blocky color, with hard transitions from tone to tone. Or her friend Edgar Degas, whose flat and asymmetrical spaces channel the Japanese model into the opera house and the ballet studio. These Parisians understood the prints they were looking at only in part. They made foolish, patronizing generalizations."

"Like most fantasies, 'Japonisme' said more about the fantasizer than the fantasized. These Parisians, defeated in war and rocketing through industrialization, saw themselves in landscapes that were both ageless and adrift. And Hokusai, who’d already metabolized Western technique into his images of Japan, was the perfect vessel for their dreaming."

First Contact
David Olusoga

"In the 15th and 16th centuries distant and disparate cultures met, often for the first time. These encounters provoked wonder, awe, bafflement and fear. Art was always on the frontline. Each cultural contact at this time left a mark on both sides: the magnificent Benin bronzes record the meeting of an ancient West African kingdom and Portuguese voyagers in a spirit of mutual respect and exchange. By contrast we think Spain's conquest of Central America in the 16th century as decimating the Aztecs and eviscerating their culture. But even in Mexico rare surviving Aztec artworks recall a more nuanced story."

"The Tokugawa Shogunate, after an initial embrace, became so wary of outside interference that they sought to cut ties with the outside world. But in their art, as in their trade, they could never truly isolate themselves from foreign influences. By contrast the Protestant Dutch Republic was itself an entirely new kind of creature: a market driven nation-state. It was a system that created new freedoms and opportunities. The British in India: at first the British were as open to foreign influence as the Dutch. But by the 1800s they became more aggressive and the era of encounters gave way to the era of muscular empire, that was dismissive of India's arts and cultures."

How to Change Your Conversations about Cultural Appropriation
James Mendez Hodes

"A cultural practice or cultural expression is a mode of behavior, communication, or self-assertion with origins or close associations with a certain culture. Either internal factors or external factors may form those associations. Cultural exchange is one culture’s adoption of cultural practices or expressions originating with another culture. We’ll call the former culture the adopters, the latter the originators. Cultural appropriation is an instance of cultural exchange which aggravates, entrenches, trivializes, or mocks a power imbalance between an enfranchised adopter and a systemically oppressed originator. An instance of cultural appropriation may also have positive or benign effects - for the originator, the adopter, or third parties - which exist in parallel to the appropriative dynamic."

"What’s the context? What does it look like without that context? What power dynamics differentiate adopters and originators? What’s the connection between adopter and originator? What’s the tone? Who feels hurt, and why? Where I hope this analytical strategy takes us is the complicated places. Where expressions are simultaneously racist and anti-racist. Where different subaltern groups borrow from each other along intersectional gradients of power that leave each group empowered over the other in a different way. Where there’s contradiction, harm and help given and taken simultaneously, or long histories of borrowed expressions becoming the adopter’s cultural signifiers. The most complex, challenging questions of cultural appropriation concern marginalized groups exchanging culture with one another."

This is an Indian House, According to One Architect
Aatish Taseer
New York Times

"Indian architecture was effortlessly palimpsestic, a place on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. India's oldest stone buildings are stupas and rock-cut caves of Buddhist origin. These were preceded by an older tradition of building in wood. When Buddhism declined in India, and resurgent Hindu faith rose, it was the ghost of Buddhist architecture, visible in both the apsidal shape of certain temples and in the use of stone-latticed windows, that was resurrected in a new tradition of Hindu temple architecture."

"With the coming of Islam, many features of Indian building, such as screens, carved brackets, corbeled arches and deep eaves projecting hard black shadows, became part of Indo-Islamic architecture. Dynasties rose and fell, the religious makeup of India changed, but Indian architecture, like Indian food, music and literature, was able to absorb the new influences."

"The English writer Robert Byron makes an important distinction between what he describes as 'fusion' and 'allusion'. The first is the use of diverse architectural inventions and ornamental themes, whatever their dates or racial origins, simply for their practical value in creating and artistic unity and in giving effect to the values of mass, space, line and coherence in the whole design. The second is the use of these same inventions and themes in a mood of reminiscence regardless of their relevance to mass, space, line and coherence."
A New Type of Museum for an Age of Migration
Jason Farago
New York Times

"A whole new order is proposed, one that does not care about an artwork’s uniqueness, a dress’s elegance, or an artifact’s fine condition. What matters here is movement - how objects and forms circulate through time and across the globe."

"Here’s an example: Two pieces of blue-and-white pottery are on display - a vase ringed with Persian script and a porcelain dish decorated with Chinese characters. They both date from around the late 16th century. But it turns out that the 'Persian' one was made in China, while the 'Chinese' one comes from Iran, and on both of them the characters are nonsense. Their meaning lies not in the gobbledygook written on their surfaces, but on the trade routes they map and the relationships they signify."