Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Ballet Idea - Neko Nabe

So I had this idea for a slice-of-life ballet set in a restaurant where a human waitstaff serves cat customers. All the romance and visual euphemism and innuendo of traditional ballet is converted to the romance between the cats and their meals. I call it Neko Nabe.
Nabeneko San from Neko Atsume
Act 1

1st dance (solo) - The curtain opens on a darkened restaurant. The backdrop is a city scene viewed through the restaurant's windows. The Host enters and dances while setting up the restaurant for the day - turning on the lights, sweeping, taking the chairs off the tables, etc. The stage lights create a sunrise in the background.

 2nd dance (group) - One by one, three Waiters arrive and get ready for work - neatening their uniforms, tying on aprons, putting out glasses and silverware, etc. They dance solo, in duets with the Host, and with each other. This dance emphasizes the camaraderie of the staff and the easygoing environment of their workplace. of A bell rings every time someone opens the door.

3rd dance (group) - The Postmaster Cat arrives to deliver the mail to to dance with each of the Waiters and the Host. This is a quick piece, and demonstrates the familiarity the staff has with their regular visitors.
Ekicho San from Neko Atsume
4th dance (solo) - The first Cat Customer (a human in a cat costume) arrives and orders a meal. This is a dance of hunger and longing, as the customer communicates its desire for food.

5th dance (group) - One by one, the three Waiters bring out Fish (either humans in fish costumes or 5' tall cutouts of fish) and present them to the Cat Customer. Each waiter tries to convince the customer to select this fish, then the three dance together to conclude the presentation. The dance concludes as the customer selects a fish, and the other two are returned to the kitchen. One waiter seems disappointed their dish wasn't chosen. The waiters and host sit to watch the next dance.

6th dance (duet) - The Cat Customer dances with the chosen Fish. This is a very romantic dance, incorporating all the tropes of courtship and consummation. At the end of the dance, the fish disappears offstage, and the customer takes a seat near the kitchen.
Kafe San from Neko Atsume
7th dance (group) - A second Cat Customer arrives. This customer is a realistic cat puppet that immediately hops up on a table. The three Waiters bring out dishes on large silver trays covered with cloches. Again, each waiter competes with the other two to give the most tempting and hospitable presentation to the customer. This is really the waiters' time to shine, and ideally includes some tap dancing along with the traditional ballet. The customer appears thoughtful, then selects a dish. The frustrated waiter is again disappointed not to be chosen, this time in a more exaggerated and comical way. Again, the waiters retreat to watch alongside the host and first customer.

8th dance (solo) - The Cat Customer puppet performs a solo dance with a plush toy of a fish as a prop. The puppet imitates traditional ballet moves. Some are very impressive (and would be physically impossible for someone who isn't a puppet, such as jumps with incredible air time), others include humorous slips and pratfalls. The waiters, host, and other customer all clap and act very impressed, but this should be played for comedy for the real audience.

That seems like a showstopper, so let's go ahead and stop the show and have an INTERMISSION after that!

Bisutoro San from Neko Atsume
Act 2

9th dance (group) - The curtain reopens, and a new customer comes in, a Cat Parent (a human dancer in a cat costume) and numerous Cat Children (child dancers in costume). The puppet customer remains seated on a table near the kitchen. The parent dances with the children, and the children dance around the stage, exploring the restaurant.

10th dance (group) - The Waiters hand out fish to the Cat Children (some are simple paper cutouts, at least one fish pinwheel and one fish kite). The children dance with their fish while their parent takes a seat, but eventually, the kids entice the Cat Parent to stand up and dance with them and their fish.

11th dance (duet) - The Postmaster Cat returns after work, dances around the children, and dances a duet with the Cat Parent. They are a couple, but theirs is an established, familiar relationship, and they are both tired after a long day. They dance support and reassurance to each other, with each taking a turn to do more of the work. The Cat Children sit to watch their two parents dance. Halfway through, the Waiters serve two fish (large paper cutouts) to the parents, and they continue their duet with the fish props. At the end of the dance, the children stand up and join the postmaster, while their original parent takes a seat near the kitchen.
Sebasu San from Neko Atsume
12th dance (duet) - An elderly Cat Couple enters the restaurant and dances a duet with each other. They have been in love a long time, and although they are not as athletic as they used to be, they have a tender, romantic duet.

13th dance (group) - The three Waiters present the Cat Couple with dessert options. This dance has the feeling of a contest between the waiters, and the frustrated waiter has a brief solo after each of the other two. After pulling out all the stops, the couple selects the frustrated waiter's desert, and the waiter is comically triumphant.

14th dance (group) - The Cat Couple begins to repeat their romantic duet. They are joined by a personification of their Dessert (a human dancer in a costume). Over the course of the dance, we see the couple remembering their life together. At one point they are joined by two Cat Children playing tag. Later we see a younger version of the Cat Couple dancing a courtship. Later we see a Cat Couple in wedding clothes. Costume details (including both the cat coloration and the color and style of their clothes) help establish continuity. The elderly couple continues dancing alone, and are joined by the other two desserts, the three Waiters, and the Owner.

Again, that seems like a showstopper, so let's go ahead and stop the show right there and let all the dancers take their bows. The three Waiters and the Owner tidy up the restaurant while everyone else is bowing, reversing what the owner did to open the shop at the beginning of the show.
Manzoku from Neko Atsume
The music should be light and happy. I don't know enough about the classical canon to pick a good soundtrack. The idea came to me while listening to the instrumental dance break in the song "King of New York" in the Newsies musical, which sounds to me like very good music for presenting cats with silver cloches of food.

As a concluding thought though, here's "Kuroneko No Tango" as performed by Pink Martini & the Von Trapps.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Links to Occupations

Below is a list of occupation lists I might use in my own DCC games.

I like occupation lists, both for the way they paint an immediate picture of the game world, and also for the way they provide an instant prompt for playing the role of a new character.

The Medievalists:

from Coins & Scrolls:
Actual medieval occupations

from Ten Foot Polemic:
Failed Medieval occupations

from Zenopus Archives:
OD&D NPC occupations

from Into the Dark:
Old School occupations

The Dickensians:

from Into the Odd:
Failed occupations (for the Bastionland city setting)

from Zero Level Blog:
Our World occupations (for the Our World / Lost World setting)
Lost World occupations (for the Our World / Lost World setting)

from Roles, Rules, and Rolls:
Baroque occupations

from Iron & Ink:
Yellow City races, castes, and backgrounds (for the Yoon-Suin setting)

from Pride & Parchment
Scythian / Slavic occupations, goals, and traits

from Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque:
Dark Secrets (and a pdf of the same)

The Weirdos:

from What Would Conan Do?:
Planar backgrounds (for the Troika! setting)
Bonus planar backgrounds (for the Troika! setting)

from Living 4 Crits:
Mouse Guard occupations and character creation
Disney occupations (and a pdf of the same)
Revolutionary War occupations (and a pdf of the same)
Numenera occupations
JRPG occupations
Star Wars occupations

from Giblet Blizzard:
Weird Urban occupations

from Rogues' Repast:
Carcosan occupations (for the Carcosa setting)

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Invaders - Invid, Inheritors, Dreamers, Ividia

The Invid were one of the first monsters I ever wanted to fight. The Invid are the villains of season 3 of Robotech.

The villains of season 2 of Robotech, the Robotech Masters, spend about half the season worrying that the Invid are coming. While the human heroes of the story are all going crazy wondering whether they can beat the Robotech Masters and their seemingly invincible army of clone pilots and bioroid mechas, the Masters themselves are going crazy because they're certain they CAN'T beat the Invid, and their only hope is to hurry up and finish things on Earth so they can run away before the Invid get here. In other words, the Invid are introduced by reputation as the REALLY BAD GUYS that even the regular bad guys are scared of. I have to tell you, as a suspense-building device, kid me found it pretty successful.
The evolution of the Invid from the Legends of Zor comic
Season 3 of Robotech opens with the Invid coming to Earth and completely wrecking up the place, so that the rest of the season is set in a ravaged, post-apocalyptic wasteland where humans are barely eking out subsistence. Which is to say, from the moment of their arrival, they absolutely lived up to their reputation.

The Invid we see appear to be crab-like crustaceans with partially mechanical/electronic components. On the show, it's ambiguous if what we're seeing are the Invid themselves, form-fitting suits of battle armor the Invid wear, oversized mecha with the same body-plan as their human-sized pilots, or mecha with entirely different looking aliens inside. (It's possible, for example, that the blue-green ooze that bleeds out when the armor is pierced IS the pilot, not the pilot's blood.)
Invid Scouts
This and subsequent images from the Robotech Picture Archive
Invid Armored Souts
Invid Trooper
Invid Shock Trooper
The Invid come to Earth seeking the Flower of Life. In season 1 of Robotech, a battle fortress crashes into the Earth, and the alien Zentradi come to seize it. Humans eventually repel the Zentradi  invasion. The battle fortress is so desirable in part because it's fueled by a large supply of a power source called Protoculture. In season 2, the Robotech Masters come to Earth to try to retrieve the Protoculture for themselves. Unfortunately, over the course of the season, the Flower of Life starts growing in the Protoculture, which makes it both useless to the Masters, and irresistible to the Invid, who can sense its presence from across the galaxy.

There are some interesting anti-colonial themes and themes of decadence at work in all this. The Robotech Masters enslaved the Zentradi, turned them into giants, and gave them their fleet of warships, but by the start of season 1, the Zentradi have escaped from the Masters' control, and are just a roaming army. They know how to pilot their warships, but not how to repair them or build more, and everything looks pretty heavily worn, even broken. They're hoping the battle fortress that crash-landed on Earth will include schematics that will let them make things and not just use them.

The Robotech Masters have also forgotten some of their technology. They can use Protoculture to grow clones, build bioroid mecha, and fuel their whole civilization, but they no longer remember how to make more Protoculture. They want the battle fortress basically just to buy time. The entire season, we see them fighting at far less than full strength because they're almost out of fuel. They want to seize the Protoculture in the fortress to replenish their supply, and it's pretty heavily implied that if they fail, they'll go extinct. They might be doomed even if they seize it though, since they have no particular plan to relearn how to synthesize the stuff for themselves, and the fortress might be the last great untapped supply anywhere in the galaxy. What they need is renewable energy, and instead, they're going absolutely all-in on using up the last bit of irreplaceable fuel.

Meanwhile, the Flower of Life itself is like a prion or a parasite, at least from the Robotech Masters' perspective. They describe it as both a pest that grows in Protoculture and as a mutation of Protoculture itself. Regardless, the Flower of Life contains all the energy of Protoculture, but in a form that's unusable to the Zentradi or the Masters. The Invid, we're told, were once either non-sentient, or at least a non-technological species from the same planet where Protoculture originated. The Masters' uplifted the Invid and enslaved them to either grow Protoculture, or to grow the Flower of Life and convert it into Protoculture. By the time of the show, the Invid have also escaped the Masters' control, and now outnumber and overpower them. All the old Protoculture farms are controlled by Invid who use them to grow the Flower of Life for themselves, and when they come to Earth, it's to enslave humans to farm and harvest the Flower of Life for them.
The Invid Flower of Life
The Invid use bio-technological Genesis Pits to experiment with ways to better adapt the Earth to their own purposes. They also use the Pits to transform a few of themselves into human-like bodies.

So to summarize, the Invid are simultaneously the sympathetic victims of a colonialist empire, and a terrifying unstoppable invasion force. They come to Earth to transform it into a slave-tended garden for growing their sole food-source, the Flower of Life. And they control their own biology to such an extent that we see them as both giant crab-robots and as humanoid spies.
Marlene was grown to be an Invid spy,
but her egg was damaged and she hatched with amnesia
Sera retained her memories,
but found that her human form gave her human emotions
Now these are absolutely some monsters I want to fight. BUT, they also remind me of some other monsters, and so rather than leave well enough alone, I want to put my own take on them for Gilded Age horror gaming. What shall we call these not-Invid? I think I would call them the Invidia, the Invaders.

In Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford's novel The Inheritors, the eponymous Inheritors are humanoid invaders from the Fourth Dimension who are endlessly fascinating to actual humans, and who are successfully able to exploit this fascination to ascend to fame, power, and prominence within British society. The book ends at about the point when they're about to move from acquiring power to using it to remake the world.

The Inheritors look basically human, but their presence is like a superstimulus that overwhelms most people's psychological defenses against being abused or manipulated. It's sort of not clear to me if Conrad and Ford intended these characters to be alien invaders, or just like a new "breed" of modern humans who are unbounded by tradition - but for the sake of gameability, let's go with aliens. Likewise, it's not clear if they intend the Fourth Dimension to be a literal place, or just a metaphor, and both interpretations of 4D were pretty popular at the time, but again, for the sake of gaming, let's assume it's a place. If the Inheritors are from another world, and take on human-like bodies when they come to ours, it's possible that they have another appearance entirely when they're at home.
The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story by Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, 1901

In Samuel Delaney's short story "Aye, and Gomorrah", Spacers are essentially a third gender of humanity. Delany describes them as being agender and asexual. They live full-time in space stations that orbit the Earth, but can teleport down to the planet for recreation. When they come down, they're idolized, exoticized, and fetishized by "frelks" - people whose only sexual attraction is to Spacers. The story seems to imply that most people have a low opinion of both frelks and Spacers, and Spacers seem to see frelks' attraction to them as basically a joke. Throughout the story, frelks basically beg Spacers to exploit them, and Spacers are easily able to get cash, or a favor, or a laugh at a frelk's expense.

Although Delaney writes about a public that is distinctly un-sympathetic to his main characters, he seems to be pretty sympathetic to both the frelks and the Spacers, while showing that their relationships aren't healthy for either party. They kind of can't be, since they're fleeting, and so one-sided. But what if Spacers were more like Inheritors? What if almost everyone fell in one-sided love with them the way frelks do?
Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison, 1967
In James Tiptree's story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side", humans have encountered aliens, and have joined galactic civilization. We're the newest members, so we have the least technology, least political power, and are economically the poorest species in galactic civ. And a significant portion of humanity becomes sexually obsessed with aliens from the moment we first meet them.

Tiptree describes this almost exactly like superstimulus - whatever qualities we find attractive in other humans, aliens simply have MORE of those qualities, more than any human ever could, so much MORE that we become unable to feel attraction for other humans again. The humans who love aliens love them desperately and one-sidedly, and never seem to get more than a pity-fuck out of their pursuit. Tiptree never says if the aliens who go along with this exploit their human lovers, economically or in any other way. But the relationships are clearly unhealthy, both emotionally and physically, as every human who loves aliens is shown to have permanent injuries they sustained during sex.

The Invid spies with human bodies do elicit deep feelings of affection and attraction in season 3 of Robotech, but throughout the series, love between humans and aliens occurs over and over because both sides sometimes find one another alluring and irresistible. The difference is, in Robotech, this love is shown to be reciprocal and valuable. The xeno-philia or xeno-sexuality of humans and aliens alike proves again and again to be the first step toward greater mutual understanding and diplomacy. Robotech is a war story - three war stories, really - but in each season, it's people who feel inter-species attraction who make the first overtures to peace. Tiptree's vision is different, like Delaney, she imagines a lopsided attraction that leaves one side willing to sacrifice everything, and the other side only willing to condescend to interact at all for the sake of receiving their sacrifices.

(Quick thought that serves no purpose: what if there were a setting were "homosexual" referred to ANY humans who loved humans - who loved the SAME species as themselves, who loved other HOMO sapiens? What if "heterosexual" referred to humans who loved aliens - who loved DIFFERENT species? That has no real relevance to what I'm talking about here, but I would find that to be a fascinating linguistic drift.)
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1972
To take another tack, in D&D's Eberron setting, the Inspired are humanoid bodies inhabited by the minds of extra-dimensional aliens - the Quori from Dal Quor. The humanoids are explicitly described as being not quite human. Their species, when not combined with a Quori to become an Inspired, are simply called Empty Vessels. The art depicting the Inspired often shows a phantasmal Quori floating behind the Inspired body. Personally, I interpret this not just as a way of illustrating that we're looking at an Inspired rather than a human, but as an indication that the Inspired sometimes project psychic images of their Quori when they're being overt about their identities.
Inspired and Quori
Inspired and Quori surrounding adventurers
In Jack Shear's Umberwell setting, he describes a species he calls Dreamers. Just describes Dreamers like this: "Dreamers are a rebirthed race; they are the souls of an insectoid species originating from a lost age of the city’s history reincarnated in bodies indistinguishable from the human form. If the theory that the city’s islands are the remains of a dead god is true, it may be the case that the insectoid souls of the dreamers achieved their initial sentience and innate psionic powers by feeding on a divine body as parasites. When they sleep they dream only of Scarabae - the precursor city that stood on the islands currently occupied by Umberwell."

You could imagine Dreamers as being like the Inheritors - human bodies with alien minds. You could imagine them like the Khepri from Perdido Street Station, as humanoids who simply followed a different evolutionary path to arrive at much the same place humans did. You could imagine them like the Insect-kinden from Empire in Black and Gold, as humans whose psychic powers and tribal identities draw on actual insects as a source of imagery and fictive-kinship. Or you could imagine them like the Inspired - humanoid bodies with phantasmal insects hovering behind them, like the totem animals that appear DC comics' Vixen or Mera use their superpowers.
Umberwell: Blackened be Thy Name by Jack Shear, 2018
Lin the Khepri by Justin Oaksford, 2011

In Greek myth, Invidia is the goddess of jealousy. Invasion, I think, could be imagined to be like jealousy. You want what someone else has, and you try to take it away from them.
Circe Invidiosa by John Williams Waterhouse, 1892
From there, it's a simple misspelling to arrive at Ividia, a genus within the family of pyramid-shelled snails. Is there any animal more D&D than a snail? It's almost too perfect to learn that Ividia snails are hermaphroditic, and usually parasites.
Turbonilla acutissima, not a member of the Ividia genus,
but still part of the Pyramidellidae family

And that, I think, is enough to start building our Invaders, our Invidia.

The Invaders come to us from somewhere beyond. Some of them claim to hail from the Crab Nebula, situated in the night sky between Aldebaran and the Pleiades. Others claim a kingdom within the Fourth Dimension, a realm but a sidestep away from our own reality.

The Invidia appear to us in humanoid guises. They are intoxicatingly beautiful, with flawless androgynous features. Some dress in men's clothes, others in women's, others in some mix. They claim no human gender, and each addresses itself like royalty, as "we" and "our". Those humans who have seen the Invidia without their clothes claim that all their bodies are alike, no matter what they wear, and that the resemblance to humanity only goes so far before giving way to impossible alien anatomy, unattainable foreign beauty. Those humans who have been trusted to see the Invidia like this are inevitably too far gone to really return to humanity. The rest of their lives will be spent as the Invidia's evangels.

Humans are like thrall before the Invidia. We lack the strength to refuse them, lack the will to oppose their desires. The first encounter with an Ividia is an unsettling, uncanny experience. They seem too good to be human, too perfect. Their strength of personality is overwhelming, their very presence, overaweing. Many who meet the Invidia fall instantly in love with them. They become suitors, followers, hangers on who accompany their beloveds everywhere they go. Others fall so deep in thrall that they become almost insensate. These "sleepwalkers" are uncanny in their own right, nearly mindless servants despite their human form.

It is as easy as breathing for the Invaders to enter the highest echelons of human society. They collect socialites and celebrities as their most valued sycophants. The Invaders' power over humans with worldly power makes their domination almost instant, almost complete.

The earth, to these Invaders, is like a garden, where they seek to grow Golden Lotus. This flower is life to the Invaders, it is the source of their abilities and their only food. It is also a powerful narcotic that affects them as opium affects humans. The effects of Gold Lotus on humans is even stronger. It can turn lotus-eaters into "sleepwalkers" or put them into a near-permanent twilight sleep. It can also imbue seemingly magical properties on the eater. The Invaders have come to earth to grow their garden, and though their vanity seems insatiable for our adoration and our praise, what they really want humanity for is to labor as their gardeners.

Though they usually appear in their humanoid form, the Invaders have other bodies as well, kept just a sidestep away in fourspace. When roused to anger, or high on Lotus, these ghostly golden bodies appear just behind the Invidia, always behind, no matter which angle they're viewed from. The translucent gold bodies of the Invidia are not human. They appear as the ghosts of giant, monstrous snails. A lesser caste of Invidia exists, who dwell on earth in their snail-bodies, and are summoned to act as soldiers when their leaders' charisma and diplomacy fails them. Sightings of the soldier caste are rare, for few can refuse the Invidia any request.
Should the Invidia be snails? or crabs, like the Invid?
Should they just have golden eyes? or entirely golden bodies like the Sovereign from Guardians of the Galaxy?
Consider this idea a work in progress.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Investigations in DCC

I mentioned before that I'm going to be taking over as the head writer for Discerning Dhole's CRAWL-thulhu zine. I haven't made many decisions about the future direction of the zine yet, but I know I want it to be set in a fictionalized Gilded Age (encompassing roughly the period from 1880-1945) and I know I want it to focus on mystery investigations.

Which has got me thinking more generally about the question, how do you conduct investigations in DCC? How do you handle skills? How do you handle clues?

Zine by John Potts, cover and interior art by Todd McGowan

CRAWL-thulhu issue 1 has a mystery investigation adventure, but basically everyone is willing to talk to you, and all the clues are laying out in the open. The core mysteries arise from the fact that a key witness is dead and a key source of danger is invisible. Essentially any character should be equally likely to solve the mystery - deciding where to go, what to look at, who to talk to are all tests of player skill instead.

But often in mystery investigation games, there's an element of character skill involved instead. The basic idea being that not every character should be able to find every clue. Even in Trail of Cthulhu (and related games) where any character with the right skill can find a clue automatically just by asking for it, they still have to have the skill, and they still have to ask if there's a clue. In the original Call of Cthulhu, you not only need to have the skill and ask to use it, you also have to roll the dice to see if you succeed at finding it. This introduces an element of ambiguity - was there really no clue there? or was there a clue but you failed to find it? (I'll talk about some possible solutions to the "what if they don't find ANY of the clues?" problem at the end. Dungeon Crawl Classics HAS a skill system that involves rolling dice already - so I'm NOT going to propose adopting Trail of Cthulhu's diceless skills.)

CRAWL-thulhu issue 2 introduces skills, and the list would look pretty familiar to players of both D&D and Call of Cthulhu.

There are a few other people who've written rules for conducting investigations in DCC, so I'm going to look at Brent Ault's Cyber Sprawl Classics, Stephen Bean's Bloody Hound character class for Julian Bernick's Nowhere City Nights, and Paul Wolfe's Dark Seas. Luckily for us, these are all freely available online, so they're very easy to look at.

In DCC, there are two types of skills - the named, formal skills practiced by Thieves, and the unnamed, informal skills that every character learns from their zero-level occupation. A Thief's formal skills can usually be substituted by an ability score check - although the Thief might roll against a lower DC, and always benefits from a bonus determined by her alignment and level. The informal occupational skills are considered either "trained" or "untrained" - and about a dozen occupations are likely to be considered "trained" for any particular task. Untrained characters roll a d10 to attempt the skill, while trained characters roll a d20. So using a trained skill in DCC is basically the same as making an ability score check.

CRAWL-thulhu's skills build on this framework. All skills start out untrained, and you can roll a d10 to attempt them. You get one trained skill from your occupation, and you can roll a d20 for that. As you gain levels, you earn "skill points" that you can either use to train in untrained skills, or to improve your training in a trained skill - becoming an expert who rolls a d24 or a master who rolls a d30.

There are two really basic ways to find clues in a mystery investigation - talking to people, and finding / analyzing objects.

There are also two really basic dangers to designing skills for a mystery investigation. The first is having too few skills - most people would agree that a single "Clue" skill is too few, and likewise that a "People" skill and an "Objects" skill is still not enough. The second danger is having too many skills. Consider the question of talking to people - if each PC occupation could only talk to NPCs in the same occupation, then surely having 100 different "Talk to Person of the Same Occupation" skills is too many. (A third basic danger is making the skill tests too difficult, which is related to the "what if they don't find ANY of the clues?" problem I'll discuss at the end.)

Zine by Brent Ault, Cover art by Korotitskiy Igor

In Cyber Sprawl Classics (CSC), player characters know Etiquettes that help them talk to NPCs. CSC treats Etiquettes a bit like foreign languages - everyone knows the common tongue, but you need a positive Intelligence modifier, a Lucky Sign, or a class feature in order to learn an Etiquette. If you are smart or lucky enough to know an Etiquette, you get to roll a d24 when speaking to the relevant NPCs, instead of the standard d20. So in this game, everyone is "trained" to talk to everyone else, but if you know the relevant "foreign language," then you become a bit of an expert.

There are seven Etiquettes - Academic (for talking to scientists and doctors), Corporate (for talking to CEOs and white-collar workers), Gang (for talking to criminals), Security (for talking to police and military), Runner (for talking to hackers), Socialite (for talking to "industrialists" and "the elite"), and Street (for talking to blue-collar workers and people who provide services to criminals.)

If that list sounds familiar to you, it's probably because it's so similar to the list of backgrounds available in 5e and the GLOG. Before looking at what other DCC writers were doing, I made a list of the way I would divide up Gilded Age society, and CSC's list is very similar to what I came up with. It's probably very similar to the list you would come up with, if you were thinking about how to divide virtually any Western society.

If I were to alter CSC's list, I think I would combine the Corporate and Socialite Etiquettes. In the Gilded Age, "society" was basically synonymous with the corporate elite and their families. That might be different in a cyberpunk game - indeed, in such a game, it might even make sense to have two skills for talking to the same person in two different environments, at work and at leisure. I might also do away with the Runner Etiquette, or combine it with Gang, since there isn't really any group analogous to hackers in a Gilded Age setting, and since the motives of any analogous individuals would be essentially criminal.

I like "etiquette" as the name for this kind of skill though. I'd thought of calling them "interaction skills," but I think "etiquette skills" might sound better.

There's also a question of how common these skills should be among characters. In 5e and the GLOG, essentially every character starts with one Etiquette due to their background. In CSC, only a fraction of characters know any Etiquettes. In the heroic fantasy of 5e, character backgrounds are mostly relevant for receiving material support from NPCs, and the support most NPCs provide is food and shelter, and perhaps friendship with a specific faction. In CSC, Etiquettes might have many uses, but they're optional, a bonus. You get along fine without them, you just get along better if you have them. But "etiquette skills" could be treated as a skill like any other, a skill that you could either be "untrained" or "trained" in - but doing that changes something else fundamental about how social skills work though.

If everyone has an "etiquette skill" (or, what amounts to the same thing, if not everyone has one, but nobody needs one) then it's possible to have other social skills as well - separate skills for persuading people, for tricking them, or for intimidating them. Those are the kinds of social skills we're pretty used to seeing. But, if not everyone starts the game with an "etiquette skill" and every NPC needs you to have one, then I don't think you can have separate "traditional" social skills as well. If the party wants to blackmail a robber baron, I think it's too much to ask for them to have both a "corporate etiquette" and a "blackmail skill."

So the question becomes, which is more interesting for a mystery investigation game? Is it more interesting if you have a skill to interact with corporate types in whatever way you please? Or is it more interesting if you have a skill to blackmail any NPC you come across? Which leads to more interesting dilemmas if you don't have the skill? Is it more interesting if you have "academic etiquette" and you have to try to find a scientist who can talk to the robber baron for you? Or is it more interesting if you have "intimidation skill" and you have to find someone you can bully into setting up the blackmail?

Roleplaying games, including D&D, including Call of Cthulhu, have traditionally answered the latter - that it's more interesting to use character skills to define a particular approach and then let the PC use that approach on any kind of NPC they want. But part of me wonders if it might not be interesting to try the former. Perhaps it's more interesting to use skills to define a kind of NPC and then let the players use whatever approach is situationally appropriate - but only on the correct kind of NPC. At least for a mystery investigation game, where (paradoxically) the whole point of skills is to not let every character find every clue. To misquote Maslow, if all you have is a Seduction skill, every NPC looks like a nail. But if the only kind of NPCs you can talk to are workers, then perhaps it forces you to get creative to figure out what happened inside that share-holders meeting.

Nowhere City Nights by Julian Bernick, Bloody Hound by Steven Bean
The "Bloody Hound" character class (BH) is an investigator character that Steven Bean wrote for Nowhere City Nights and published in the 2017 Gongfarmer's Almanac, volume 7. BH includes six skills for mystery investigations. The Bloody Hound character class gets all six, every other character gets a single skill based on their background.

BH's skills are Search Scene (for finding clues within a crime scene), Analyze Physical Evidence (for learning information from objects), Analyze Medical Evidence (for learning information from dead bodies, primarily), Interrogate - Charm (for making people want to talk to you), Interrogate - Intimidate (for making people talk to you even though they don't want to), and Conduct Surveillance (for staking out a person or location to see what happens.)

In terms of the effects of skills, BH distinguishes between finding a clue (with a "clue" here meaning an fact from an interrogation or an object discovered at a crime scene), making a deduction (which means analyzing the fact/object to learn what it tells you), and discovering an answer (which refers to piecing together several deductions to solve the mystery, or at least an important part of it.) So for example, finding a shell casing next to a murder victim would be "finding a clue," figuring out what kind of gun fired that bullet would be "making a deduction," and realizing who the shooter is would be "discovering an answer." Note that to discover the answer, you would need another strand of the investigation that tells you what type of gun a specific person has, so that you could later discover that that person is the shooter. BH also awards XP for each of these activities.

So BH makes a few key distinctions. First, it distinguishes between finding a clue and learning something from the clue. Those are two separate steps, and it's important for anyone adopting this approach to keep in mind that adding a step increases the chance of failure, especially if adding a step means adding a dice roll. Difficulty Classes that look intuitively too low individually can easily become too high collectively if you make ultimate success contingent on succeeding each roll in sequence.

Second, BH distinguishes between clues from objects and clues from talking to people. It does this in two ways. First the obvious - you use one set of skills to find and analyze objects, and a second set to learn information from NPCs. But second, and less obviously, you only have deductive skills related to objects. You make one roll to find an object at a crime scene, and a second roll to learn something from it. But when conducting an interrogation, you make one roll to learn a fact, and then ... It's possible that you make a second roll on the same interrogation skill to get the person to tell you what you deduce from the clue. It's also possible that making deductions from verbal clues is a player skill, and not a character skill.

I agree that "discovering an answer" - that is, finally solving the mystery - should be a player skill that doesn't rely on rolling the dice. I'm not sure if I agree that "making a deduction" should be a player skill, or at least, not always. Some information NPCs give you is going to be clearly useful. It will either already be a deduction, or it will clearly point to a deduction that the players can make. But if an NPC tells the players something, and they just have no idea what to do with that information, it seems like it might be nice to have some mechanism in place to let them ask the judge for help. The danger of that is players relying on that mechanism instead of their own thinking, or judges insisting on that mechanism even when the players are able to deduce on their own. If you don't create such a mechanism, then no one can abuse it. But also, no one can use it in a real emergency. I guess it's the same problem you run into with traps in D&D, where it's inherently ambiguous whether you should find them with player skill or character skill, and where any GM hoping to rely on player skill is at the mercy of the adventure writer to provide enough detail to make that possible(Although we're veering into "what happens if they don't find ANY of the clues?" territory here, so let's come back to this.)

What I find especially useful in the "Bloody Hound" class description is the idea that learning from clues in a mystery investigation is a two-step process, and that it might be profitable to separate those steps.

Dark Seas by Paul Wolfe

Dark Seas (DS) is a mini-setting with it's own fairly complete set of rules modifications that Paul Wolfe wrote and published in the 2017 Gongfarmer's Almanac, volume 4. 2017 was a good year for DCC mysteries! DS doesn't have any specialized skills for investigation, but what it does have is a really excellent interpretation of clues and how to use them.

Let me start with what I consider to be the key takeaway, and then back up. Every clue is an object. You might find some clues by talking to people and other clues by looking around the environment, but what you GET when you find a clue, what you KEEP once you have it, is a physical object. Like any other object, it goes in your character inventory.

But what that means for a mystery game, is that when you want to take stock of your investigation so far, you don't have to wrack your brain trying to remember every detail, you just look through your inventory and see which clue-objects are there. If you need help remembering what a particular clue told you, you just ask the GM to describe the object again. All this is probably easier than tracking ephemeral bits of information that are untethered from any specific reminder. I think this is brilliant, and I definitely plan to take Paul's advice.

So technically, in DS, Paul doesn't talk about "clues" but rather about Secrets. As mentioned, each secret takes the form of a physical object. Players collect Fragments like treasures as they explore - and 10 fragments combine to form one secret. In the example adventure, characters can collect fragments by doing things like searching a dead body, gathering rumors in a bar, inspecting magic items, questioning NPCs, they can be acquired like treasure from defeated monsters, and they're a reward for finding islands. The number of fragments acquired at one time is generally random, and is usually somewhere on the order of 1d10 fragments per investigative activity (although sometimes you get a full secret at one go).

I don't know if I would use this approach, but it encourages players to search as many places as possible, and it means that you don't need to know the meaning of every fragment, only the meaning of the final secret (clue) once it's assembled. And, you get to pick which secret you give them, which could maybe avoid the problem of finding a lot of clues hinting at one thing, while missing all the clues hinting at something else. Some examples of secrets in DS are port reports and charts of the sea, but also ghost stories and chess moves. Each character begins the game with a "starting secret" that grants them one boon, so for example you can have a political pamphlet that gives you an NPC contact, a last will and testament that gives you money, or a racy novel that gives you a bonus on certain saving throws.

I'm not completely convinced the experience system in DS would really work in practice the way Paul seems to want it to. When characters find fragments, they divvy them up, each character gets their own secret at 10 fragments. Characters earn XP for secrets - although not for finding them, but rather for divulging them to an NPC confessor. I think you're supposed to need a new NPC for each secret, although that could add up quickly. Raising 4 PCs from 0th level to 1st level would take 40 secrets and 40 NPCs ... which feels like kind of a lot. Starting secrets also need to be divulged in order to earn their benefit, which seems more appropriate. I'm quibbling over details at this point though - the big takeaway that every clue is an object is still absolutely brill.
Zine by John Potts, cover and interior art by Todd McGowan
Finally, as promised, let's address the question "what happens if they don't find ANY of the clues?" How are you supposed to run a mystery if there's a chance that the players won't find, or won't be able to interpret, ANY of the clues that are left for them?

1) First, and most obvious, give lots of of clues. The Alexandrian famously recommends including a minimum of 3 clues for any conclusion you want your players to draw.

The point is that in order for there to be ENOUGH clues for the players, there need to be what feels like TOO MANY clues from the perspective of the judge. The judge can see everything, the players will only ever experience a fraction of it. The judge also knows all the answers from the outset, and so can instantly see how each clue points to each conclusion. The players are assembling a mental image piece-by-piece, and it's not always immediately clear where each piece goes.

2) Second, provide multiple sites of investigation. Give the players several distinct places to go look for clues. Following the Alexandrian's advice again, at every site, leave clues pointing to the final solution AND clues pointing to the other investigative sites.

Realizing that there's another place to go look can feel like a discovery in itself, and leaving one site to go to another can feel like forward progress is being accomplished. Movement between sites also passes some time that gives the players a chance to think, and creates opportunities for new information to become available.

3) Third, use the random encounter table to provide breaks in the case. Mysteries don't necessarily need wandering monsters the way other D&D adventures do, but random encounters are still useful for pacing and for marking the passage of in-game time.

Each day that passes with no solution to the mystery, allow events to be in motion. Maybe the criminal keeps committing similar crimes. Maybe the criminal gets spooked and engages in some kind of cover-up. Maybe new witnesses come forward. Maybe new sites for investigation are revealed. Maybe an NPC investigator got killed but left a diary behind. These random events provide verisimilitude, they can be a way to just GIVE the players a clue they might need, and they should almost always open up some new avenue for investigation that wasn't available before.

4) Fourth, speaking of just giving the players clues, sometimes just GIVE the players clues. Sometimes don't require a skill check. Sometimes just let the clue be sitting right out in the open, so all the players have to do is say they want to look at it. Sometimes let the witness be perfectly willing to talk, so all the players have to do is say they want to talk to them. Sometimes, the barrier of the players having to notice that they want to look at something or talk to someone is going to be enough without getting the dice involved at all.

Alternatively, if you're going to require a skill check to find the clue, then consider just TELLING the players what it means. You want to be a little careful with this, because you don't want to rob your players of the chance to exercise their player skill at solving mysteries, BUT if you're going to require a skill check to FIND the clue in the first place, then maybe don't require a second check to discover the meaning of the clue.

Always be careful not to set your skill check DCs too high, and be DOUBLY careful not to make the checks too difficult by requiring multiple rolls to succeed. What sounds like "this is an appropriate test of skill" to a person just READING the adventure will often turn out to be too difficult to people actually playing through it. What sounds like "this is way too easy" to someone who's just reading will often turn out to be appropriately difficult for actual players. Set your DCs for players, not for readers. And wherever you set your DCs, make the reward proportionate to the difficulty. If you need one check to find the clue and another to research it, then the reward for those paired successes had better be a REALLY GOOD CLUE so that the players' efforts are worthwhile.

5) Fifth, give the players multiple opportunities to find and interpret each clue. If they fail once, give them a second try. If one approach comes up short, let them attempt another.

Use these multiple attempts to create the narrative of the adventure. Maybe the first time the PCs search a room, they try just looking around very carefully during a house party. If that fails, they can try searching a second time, but they have to try a different approach. Perhaps they try breaking in and tearing the room apart looking for secrets. Perhaps they hire a professional burglar to search the room for them. Make sure there are narrative consequences for whatever approach they choose. The first attempt requires getting invited to the house party and roleplaying interactions with the other guests. The second attempt is sure to tip off the house owner that somebody's on to them. Hiring a burglar is going to require using criminal etiquette to make contact with the local underworld.

If a character can't interpret the meaning of a clue, let them try again if they can get access to a library or a lab. Or let them find an NPC who can interpret it for them. NPCs don't need to make skill checks. Picking the right NPC to ask, and using your etiquette skill to ask them, is difficult enough. There's no reason to add another chance of failure by making the NPC roll the dice as well.

The point is, failing once shouldn't mean failing forever. Players should have multiple clues they could find, multiple ways to get information out of each clue, and multiple ways to "get help" if they find they can't do it alone.

6) And finally, what happens if they can't find any of the clues? Let them fail. Give the whole mystery some kind of time limit. Create consequences for failing to solve it. And if the players fail, let them fail. The killer keeps on killing. The burglar pulls of their heist. The sorcerer summons the monster. The monster destroys the city and slinks back into the ocean.

If you've provided lots of clues, made them easy to find and easy to interpret, allowed second chances for anything the players want to try again at? Then let them fail. Just make sure their failure is legible. At least let them understand the solution to the mystery when they see what happens as a result of them not stopping it. Nothing's going to be less satisfying than having the mystery end and STILL not understanding what happened. If the players don't stop the villain, then at least let them watch the villain take their mask off, or gloat in triumph, or commit one final crime right before their eyes.

At that point, you've created a recurring villain, and a chance for your players to shout "I'll get you next time, my pretty!" When the villain DOES recur, the players have a much better shot at stopping them the second time around. Or, if they're very proactive, they can start planning to bring the pain directly to the villain's doorstep. Either way, failure in one case can be made to simply raise the stakes and make another case more interesting.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Overland Maps - Gridcrawl, Chromatic, Mars

Lately I find myself wishing my campaigns were set someplace a little better defined. For awhile now I've been running a very episodic campaign that started in one town, then relocated to another, and then another. I have no idea where those town are in relation to each other, no idea what other towns might be nearby, no idea what terrain lies between or around them.

And this has sort of worked okay so far, but lately it's also got me feeling like I want more definition from my setting. I want the "sense of place" that comes from knowing where you are and knowing what's around you. I want the opportunities that come from having a sandbox for my players to traverse and explore. I want an overland map.

Let's look at a few examples of overland maps I've seen recently that I've liked.

First, and most recent is the unnamed map Edward Kann posted to the Forbidden Lair of the OSR MeWe group. He calls it "wilderness map done in gridcrawl style". I like it. It's simple, hand-drawn, unconventional for being on a grid instead of a hexmap, and something about it captures my imagination. It pleasantly reminds me of the maps from the old Legend of Zelda games, and other 8-bit overworlds.
Wilderness Gridmap by Edward Kahn
Legend of Zelda map from NES Maps

Next are a couple maps by Evlyn Moreau of Le Chaudron Chromatique. Evlyn has a couple maps I want to show off. Her most recent is a keyed map of a lake and its surrounding environs. I particularly love the way the black-circle numbers break through the edge lines as they lead you on a meandering tour around the lake. It reminds me, for some reason, of Tom Gauld's map of his home.
Lacustres Map by Evlyn Moreau
Map of the Area Surrounding Our Holiday Home by Tom Gauld
The other map of Evlyn's that I find really inspiring right now is her Doodle Map. This one is more colorful and more whimsical, with more obvious landmarks. Again, it's a pointcrawl, rather than being tied to a grid or a hexmap. This one feels more like something that might accompany a Mario game from the 16-bit, SNES era. It's full of skulls and snails and mushroom houses, and other interesting details. I should point out that if you go to the sidebar of Evyln's blog, she's got a link to free PDFs of Lacustres and Doodle Map as well as her other books, as well as a link to her Lulu storefront.
Doodle Map by Evlyn Moreau
Super Mario World Map from Mario Universe
Finally, I like Aos from Metal Earth's map of the Bad Canyon region from his forthcoming B/X Mars book. Compared to the Wilderness Gridmap and the Doodle Map, this is much smaller in scale, much closer to the Lacustres Map in terms of the geography covered. Like Evyln's second map though, Aos has included a number of interesting landmarks to draw the players' attention. The canyon setting is also a neat way to put literal walls around the sandbox setting, rather than making it an island, or requiring informal agreement to stay within the bounds of the map.
Bad Canyon Map by Aos