Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG

The Class Alphabet for DCC
In spring 2016, David Coppoletti reached out to me and a couple dozen other DCC fans on Google+. He had an ambitious idea - a sourcebook of 26 character classes for Dungeon Crawl Classics. Sometime in fall or winter 2020, David's idea appeared as a finished book, The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG. You can read Raven Crowking's review here.

I was convinced by David's G+ pitch, and wrote the Knave. Later, due to the logistical challenges of managing the contributions of so many collaborators, I ended up a second class, the Cyber-Zombie.

The Knave receives, I think, the single longest class write-up in the book. My goal was to combine the various Jacks of fairy tale and nursery rhyme, characters like Liane the Wayfarer and Cugel the Clever from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, the Fool from Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic, the imagery of playing cards, and the tarot. I was also experimenting with the limits of the "you're no hero" writing style; I described Knaves as being nasty in a way that almost makes me uncomfortable to reread. The Knave class is so long because there are four fully described sub-classes based on the suits of playing cards, each subclass has its three Mighty Deed of Arms equivalents they can learn, there are 22 spell-like effects based on the major arcana of tarot, and also, yes, because of long-windedness on my part.

The Cyber-Zombie was my attempt to create a class that you can only start playing after your previous character has died. I was definitely inspired by Terra Frank's three undead classes from the first Gongfarmer's Almanac. As a Cyber-Zombie, you start out at whatever level your old character was, and you retain a remnant of your old class powers, although reduced from before. Cyber-Zombies also get upgrades. I based the possible upgrades on Super Metroid and Mega Man X, and on the Centurions cartoon series. 

The other authors in the collection are a veritable Who's Who of DCC fans and publishers - including Reid San Filippo of the Crawling Under a Broken Moon zine and the subsequent Umerica sourcebook and adventure series, Diogo Nogueira of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells and Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells and plenty of other projects, and plenty of other names that you might recognize from their contributions to The Gongfarmer's Almanac, their participation in various DCC podcasts, their DCC blogs, or other gaming publications.

It's a pleasant surprise for me to see The Class Alphabet finally out. This was one of the first times I was invited to contribute to a collaborative writing project. Quite a lot has happened in my life, and in the world, since David first approached me. I'm very happy to see that he was able to realize his goal.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds

How much damage does a hit point represent?

For some time now, the official standard in D&D and Pathfinder has been that starting characters get the maximum hit points at 1st level, based on class. So typically 6, 8, or 10 - maybe 12 for certain fighting types or 4 for certain magicians, depending on the ruleset - plus a bonus for a high Constitution, which is pretty common.

You gain about half that amount, rounded up, plus the Con bonus again, each level. So it would be fairly normal to see an adventuring party with hp totals of 7, 10, 13 at 1st level; 12, 17, 22 at 2nd; and 17, 24, 31 at third. 

I would also say it's standard that these hit points are treated as representing real, physical damage. In most games I've run, played in, or observed at an FLGS, the Game Master says something like "you hit!" and "you miss!" to describe combat results. They describe damage as being "just a scratch" or "a really bad wound". Characters recover lost hit points with the help of healing potions or healing spells, because those lost hit points represent bodily injuries that need to heal before the hit points can be restored.

(Let me digress for a moment to acknowledge that there are people who'll talk until they're blue in the face and you're blue in your soul about how well actually Gary never intended hit points to indicate anything so concrete as bodily health, etc, they have always and everywhere represented an abstracted reserve of luck, martial skill, fighting spirit, elan vitae, and character morale that gets depleted during combat, etc etc, anyone who says differently is playing the game wrong and ruining the hobby with their scurrilous misinterpretation of the founders' intentions, etc etc etc. I'm actually sympathetic to the argument that we could describe combat differently, but I think I'm on solid footing about how the game is usually played, and I don't find it useful to pretend that one's own preferred playstyle has some deep rooting in custom and tradition just to facilitate a rhetorical appeal to faux-historical authority.)

Most weapons use d6, d8, and d10 dice to deal damage, plus of course a likely bonus for high Strength. That means that depending on the match-up of character and monster and weapon, most starting characters can sustain maybe 2-3 hits before they run out of hit points, and can probably endure another 1-2 hits each time they level up.

So returning to my original question, how much damage does one hit point represent?

The Alexandrian argues that the answer is on a sliding scale. Suppose getting hit with a short sword deals 4 damage - how much bodily injury that 4 damage represents depends on whose body it is. For a 1st level thief with 7 hp, that 4 damage is over half their total. That's a pretty grievous injury. Another hit like that and they'll either be dying or just plain dead. For a 3rd level fighter with 31 hp, it's not so bad really. They could get hit 6-7 more times like that before it would kill them. The severity of the injury isn't determined so much by the number of hit points as it is by the proportion of the total.

DM David suggests that the abstraction of hit points - the fact that they don't easily map to any particular amount of bodily injury - is the reason for their enduring appeal. He observes that virtually every game that sets out to "fix" D&D's combat settles on some kind of rule to make hit points and weapons damage more "realistic", and that despite these many "fixes", D&D's decidedly un-realistic combat remains more popular. He argues that this is because it's more fun. Players like the positive feedback of actually hitting their opponents, and they like not dying instantly the first time an attack hits them. It's more fun to narrate combat as a trading of blows than as a series of dodges, blocks, whiffs, and misses.

When I first learned about D&D, before I started playing, I thought that 100 hit points per character sounded about right. I suppose I must have been thinking of hp as percents. If you'd asked me how long a fight should last back then, I probably would have wanted something like the duration of combat you get in a round of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. For "boss fights" anyway, although I don't know if the rhythm of lesser battles against weaker monsters leading up to the climactic crescendo of a "final boss" would have occurred to me then. 

But some people want something different. They want combat to be short, decisive, and deadly. Or they want combat to be a "fail state", a mistake that you instantly regret making. Or they want it to be more "realistic". Or they want it to be more concrete and less abstract. At the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past, reinventing the square wheel as it were, I have a proposal for how to do that.

You're dying, John.

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds
  • One hit point represents one bullet wound.
  • The number of hit point a character possesses represents the number of times they can get shot before dying.
  • The amount of damage an attack deals represents the number of bullets that hit the target.

Saito's not going to make it, is he?
  • Attack rolls truly are "to-hit" rolls. If you roll a miss, that means the bullet misses its target.
  • Your "armor class" represents your ability to dodge or evade. It's affected by your agility and by ducking behind cover, which causes the bullets to miss you.
  • Body armor allows bullets to hit you, and so doesn't affect your "armor class" at all. Instead it provides something like a saving throw after combat to see if it successfully prevent the bullets from damaging you as much as they normally would.

  • Hit point totals are low and will remain low. A non-combat character can survive being shot maybe 1-4 times, a combat-oriented character can survive maybe 1-6. Hit point totals probably don't increase as you gain levels, or only very slightly.

  • If a character with 1 hit point gets shot, they start dying. If a character with 0 hit points gets shot, they're instantly dead. Most civilian NPCs have 1 hp. Having 0 hit points represents an state of illness or frailty.
  • Dying will turn into dead unless you go to a hospital or other surgeon. Any character who gets shot will die from their injuries unless they take the time needed to apply competent first aid to their wounds. 
  • Any bullet wound that isn't treated in a hospital or equivalent will result in the permanent loss of 1 hp. Any bullet wound that is treated still requires something like a saving throw after treatment to recover, otherwise it's lost permanently anyway.
  • Recovery times are long. Expect to spend something like 1 hour per bullet wound on first aid and something like 2 weeks per wound recovering afterward. And those might still be "unrealistically" abbreviated. Translate into your game's relevant "turn" and "downtime" categories as necessary.

  • Most unarmed combat deals 0 damage. You can wrestle someone to restrain them, get in a fistfight in lieu of negotiation, maybe even knock someone unconscious, but your bare hands aren't likely to kill anyone, except under extraordinary circumstances. A critical hit might kill, even by accident, and so might beating a helpless person.
  • Knives deal maybe 1 damage. You get something like a saving throw. If you succeed, you still need first aid, and will suffer the consequences without it, but otherwise you take 0 damage. If you fail your save, you need a hospital, and take 1 damage. Knives can kill, but not as easily as a gun.
  • Most bullets deal 1 damage, but special guns might have special characteristics. A very weak gun, perhaps one that's very quiet or easy to conceal, deals maybe 1 damage, like a knife. A very powerful gun, or one that's firing very dangerous ammo, will definitely deal 1 point of damage and will maybe deal 2. Again, you need something like a saving throw. Armor piercing bullets don't allow you to make a save to prevent their damage, but let's say they only deal 1 damage if you're wearing a vest. Special guns and special bullets are very expensive.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

My Earliest Childhood Fantasy Inspirations

The other day, I was talking with some friends about our childhood fantasy inspirations. It occurred to me that everyone's knowledge of fantasy (or any other genre) is very limited at first, and grows over time.

But if I cast my mind backward, I can still kind of recapture what the fantasy genre looked like to me as a child. If I'd been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12, these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to provide the inspiration for my game.

For me, let's mark the end of "childhood" and the start of my teen years with the roughly simultaneous discoveries of Magic: The Gathering and The Duelist magazine, JRPG games I could read about in Nintendo Power magazine even if I didn't own them, and my family's first subscription to 1990s dial-up internet. Those three discoveries gave me windows outside my parents house and shaped my view of fantasy in my teen years, and they probably established the type of fantasy world I'd imagine today. But what I'm writing about here comes earlier, before that, when my world was still small.

What were your earliest childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world look like back then?

The Sword in the Stone - The origin-story prequel of the saga of King Arthur, Sword in the Stone tells the story of an unloved young squire nicknamed "Wart" who meets the wizard Merlin and his familiar, Archimedes the owl. Merlin and Archimedes tutor Arthur by showing him the world from the perspective of two different prey species, one a fish, and one a bird, both times defending him from predators, and eventually from the shapechanging witch Mad Madam Mim. The film ends when Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, almost by accident, while trying to fulfill his duties as a squire.

As a child, I was small, skinny, and had few friends. I found Arthur's life as "Wart" easy to relate to. One thing that stands out in this movie is just how tiny Arthur is, and how giant all the adults seem by comparison. The magicians' duel between Merlin and Mim, with all its creative shapeshifting, including her ending up as a dragon, is a real delight to watch - as are the scenes of Merlin magically packing up his study and cleaning the kitchen.
Robin Hood - The familiar story of Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, does battle with Prince Jon and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and comes to the rescue of his girlfriend, Maid Marian. Oh yeah, and everyone's an animal. Robin is depicted a hero of the people, beloved by the townspeople, and a group of small children who - in an almost metafictional gesture - play pretend at being Robin Hood themselves.

The Disney films on this list weren't just three of my favorite fantasy movies, they were also three of my favorite Disney films, and three of my favorite movies period, growing up. The music is especially good in this one, and the costumes are easy to imagine transposed onto human characters, and Robin in particular is a master of disguise. (Although his fortune teller disguise seems to be based on, and to perpetuate, stereotypes about the Roma people.)

Sleeping Beauty - A fairly standard telling of the story of Sleeping Beauty that's elevated by its details. The evil fairy Maleficent is frightening even before she turns into a dragon, the good fairies are fun to watch when they're fighting over what color Aurora's dress should be, and if the instrumentals sound good enough to dance to, it's because Tchaikovsky wrote them for the ballet.

All the verve and personality in this movie is reserved for the supporting cast, but they have it in spades. Maleficent is one of the all-time great villains, she turns into a giant black dragon, and I love her little army of mismatched goblins. She says "hell" once, you guys, which seemed like a big deal at the time. And even if most of what is does is stand there and look vaguely handsome, I also liked Phillip's brief turn as a dragonslaying knight on horseback.

LEGO Castle - Although I've often lamented that LEGO got much cooler right after I stopped playing with them, what I probably mean is that that's around the time they started making licensed sets with recognizable characters from other intellectual properties. I had a few sets of knights, bandits, and the "forest men" who are clearly modeled on Robin Hood. I used them to act out Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, and to make up my own fantasy stories. If I had been running a game of D&D as a kid, I would definitely have used these LEGO minifigures to represent each character.

The Princess Bride - The classic story of True Love TM , Westley and Buttercup fall in love when they're younger, and separated by circumstance, she gets unwillingly forced into an engagement to a prince, and Westley returns bristling with talent and dressed in all black to rescue her. There are some really excellent sword fights, and various extremely silly supporting cast members.

As a child, I really don't think I understood that this is intended to be a comedy. I read the book too, with its fake editor's notes and summaries of the expurgated materials, and failed to understand that the supposed "good parts edition" was the only edition, there was no actual unabridged original that I couldn't locate. For all that, I really enjoyed this movie, perhaps especially Westley's sword fight with Inigo, wrestling match with Fezzik, and battle of wits with Vizzini.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - Prince Adam of Eternia transforms into the indomitable He-Man, defending his kingdom from invasion by the evil sorcerer Skeletor and his army of colorful minions. The characters on He-Man are essentially fantasy superheroes and supervillains, but they'd probably make good additions to any cast of NPCs.

I've heard from people who've rewatched this cartoon that He-Man never actually uses his sword as a weapon, that he always wins his fights with other feats of unarmed strength, but as a kid I never noticed that. He-Man is one of the earliest cartoons I can remember watching, and I was kind of obsessed with it at the time. I had some of the action figures and played with them constantly, I played at pretend sword-fighting, on a few occasions I even wore across my chest so I could carry a toy sword on my back. While this was on the air, I never got tired of it.

Circle of Magic - Randal, a young squire, abandons the path to knighthood to learn magic. After seeing a demonstration by Master Maddoc, Randal follows him to the city where he wins admission to a wizard college. He meets Lys, a girl his own age who starts out homeless, orphaned, and dressed as a boy, stealing food to stay alive. Given an instrument and a chance, she develops into a successful traveling minstrel. Randal travels too as a journeyman wizard, and is joined by his cousin Walter, who has become a knight errant. Their adventures frequently culminate in an attempt to banish a demon from the world.

I think I probably bought these books off the Scholastic book carts on one of the occasions they took over the lunchroom at my elementary school. I remember sneaking out of bed to lie on the floor so I could read them beneath my nightlight. As a kid, to a certain extent, almost all my fantasy inspirations felt personal. Maybe all my classmates knew the Disney films, but none of my friends had seen Labyrinth or the Dark Crystal. But even today, the Circle of Magic books still feel personal. Unlike the other items on this list, there are no rewatches or reviews online, no shared generational nostalgia. 

I didn't understand why at the time, but I felt especially interested in Lys's story. These days, with the fantasy books I seem to read, I'd almost be surprised to find a girl character who doesn't disguise herself as a boy for safety, but at the time, Lys wasn't an example of an archetype to me, she was a unique and surprising individual. I liked that she and Walter were shown to be as skilled at their careers as Randal was at magic. 

There was also some subtle commentary in these books. Wizards don't tell lies because their magic will betray them if they do. Wizards don't use swords because they promise not to, and so using one would mean breaking a promise, and thus telling a lie. And in their travels, the group comes to a town where the upper class all wear fancy dueling swords, which they observe are quite different from the heavy killing blades Randal and Walter grew up with.


Return of the Jedi - Luke Skywalker helps rescue his friends from the alien gangster, Jabba the Hutt. They discover the location of a new, incomplete Death Star. The Rebel fleet will attack the space station while Luke and his friends turn off the shield generator that protects the station. The generator is on a forested moon, and they're aided in their attack by the alien Ewoks. Luke also goes to the Death Star to convince Darth Vader to quite the Empire.

In general, as a kid, I drew thick boundary lines between the genres, but the last Star Wars movie slipped through my firewall to inform my vision of fantasy far more than it did scifi. I was thrilled by the raid on Jabba's palace and the climactic sword-fights between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Evil Emperor (who shoots lightning out of his fingers!), and the Gamorrean guards joined the ranks of the goblin army in my mind.
The Neverending Story - Bastian skips school to sneak into an attic and read a new fantasy novel, also called The Neverending Story. In the book, the world is being dissolved by the encroaching Nothing. Heroic Atreyu travels across the shrinking countryside to find the Childlike Empress and try to save both her and the world, risking death several times along the way. He eventually gets help from Falcor the luck-dragon, and Bastian begins to understand that he has a role to play too - the fantasy world can't survive without the imagination of its readers.

This was another one I read. I found a luscious hardback copy of the book on my parents' shelves, printed with green and red ink to designate Bastian's and Atreyu's stories. It blew my mind when I discovered that there was a whole second half to the book that continued after the endpoint of the movie. I know everyone feels sad when they watch Atreyu's horse drown in the swamp, but the scene that always made me saddest is when we meet the rock giant for the second time. The first time, in the beginning, he's happy and confident, certain he can outrace the peril that's chasing him. When we see him again, he's wracked with guilt over being unable to save his friends from the Nothing, disappointed in himself because there's no one else left to be disappointed in him. For whatever reason, the way he was haunted by his failure really resonated with me, even when I was too young to have failed at much in life yet.

Labyrinth - Teenage Sarah wishes the goblins would come take her screaming, crying baby brother away ... so they do. To rescue him, Sarah has to navigate a maze with a shifting layout to try to reach the castle of the Goblin King. She helped by a handful of the labyrinth's inhabitants, and obstructed by the majority of those she encounters. She learns both self-confidence and a willingness to trust deserving friends, and eventually rescues her little brother, but retains a connection to the goblin kingdom.

This was one of the few fantasy stories I was aware of where a girl hero saves a boy damsel, and I really liked Sarah as a character. She's smart, but more importantly, aside from acting impulsively on her feelings at the beginning, she finds her way through the maze by being emotionally intelligent. I also felt there was something interesting about the Goblin King insisting that he only acted like a villain because humans like Sarah wanted him to, which makes him a bit like the Lucifer character from the Sandman comics - although I wouldn't read those until like a decade after I first saw Labyrinth. The visuals in this film are really good, the MC Escher inspired staircase room remains part of my idea of what dungeons should look like.
The Dark Crystal - Two elf-like Gelflings, Jen and Kira, meet on a quest to find a crystal shard and return it to the great Crystal. They're pursued by the horrible vulture-like Skeksis, who rule the world, and have bred monsters to protect the Crystal from being repaired and made whole. When the Crystal is repaired, the Skeksis merge with the ancient Mystics, each pair fusing to become a single body. These restored beings abdicate their rule and leave the world to the Gelflings.

I'm certain I didn't understand this movie as a kid, although I loved the visuals. The plot isn't necessarily that complex, but I found it disorienting. It doesn't just tell a new story, it tells it using unfamiliar characters. There are no humans or recognizable animals in Dark Crystal, it's got its own complete ecology. Like Neverending Story, it tells the story of a world that's practically disintegrating from some sort of overuse and exhaustion, a world that is reborn like the first day of spring after a final victory that's less about defeating an enemy than fixing something that was broken.
The Secret of NIMH - Field mouse Mrs Brisby knows that she needs to move her family out of their cinderblock home before the farmer ploughs the field, but her youngest son is too sick to move. She seeks help from the mysterious rats of NIMH. She meets a friendly crow, a terrifying giant owl, puts sleeping powder in cat named Dragon's food dish, and eventually uses a magic amulet she got from the rats to levitate her house to safety. The rats are having their own internal disputes, which they settle with a lot of sword-fighting.

I thought this was the coolest animated movie as a kid. One of the rats says a swear word - "damn!" When the rats sword-fight, they get cut, their swords get bloody. Nicodemus and the Owl both have scary glowing eyes, and the amulet lets Mrs Brisby use what amounts to telekinesis, but animated with absolutely gorgeous glowing fire light. Between Mrs Brisby's dead husband, her deathly ill son, and the Lab Animal style revelation of the source of the rats' intelligence and powers made this a pretty dark movie. Although as I write this, actually several of the films on this list have some pretty mature themes for children's entertainment.

Looking across the different stories, it becomes possible to draw out common themes, to see the key features of a campaign world inspired by these movies begin to take shape.

Your friends are small and weak - When the heroes in these stories have allies - friends who support them even if they don't join in their adventures - those allies tend to be marginal and vulnerable. They're children, the elderly, people who have been disabled by sickness, or people who spend most of their time helping the above. Think of Robin Hood's many supporters among the poor, and Friar Tuck, whose obligations to his ministry limit how much he can help his criminal friend.

When the heroes receive supernatural help, its often from allies we might think of as gnomes. They might not be called gnomes in-fiction, but I'm thinking of the podlings from Dark Crystal, the observatory keepers at the Southern Oracle in Neverending Story, perhaps even Yoda. These allies can provide information, medical attention, a place to sleep, but there's a reason they aren't adventurers themselves.

Heroes wear black - And not just literally, like Luke in Return of the Jedi and Westley in Princess Bride, (and Zorro!), but also figuratively, many of these heroes are criminals and outlaws, and many of the villains are kings and princes, people with the law, the government, and an army on their side and at their command. Jabba the Hutt might be referred to as a gangster, for example, but he's the one with the palace, the courtiers, the guards, the multiple sites where he executes people for spectacle. Even the heroes who used to be royal themselves have been thrown out of power. If they retain anything at all from that time, it's a bit of status and respect from the common people. These are adventures where the bad guys have won before the story even starts, and the quest is an attempt to repair a situation that has been broken for quite some time.

Villains lead goblins - The villainous rulers of these stories wear quite a bit of black themselves, and they're often quite frightening and imposing. Think of Skeletor's skinless face, Maleficent's horned headdress, the Skeksis' terrible bird-like features, or Darth Vader's whole costume.

The villains also frequently have their own private armies of goblins, who look quite distinctive compared to the goblins that I saw later in Magic and Pathfinder illustrations. These goblins are typically short, pale brown or sickly yellow skinned (not human skin tones, more like colors you might associate with disease), and with diverse bestial features. Some have pig's noses, or animal maws, or horns, some mostly look like kids, and their individual uniqueness gives them a distinctive look when they're grouped together. Goblins are cunning and dangerous, but also cowardly and undisciplined. They're like a cruel reflection of kids and gnomes as allies.

Dragons are deadly - Mad Madam Mim and Maleficent turn themselves into dragons, the LEGO knights fight dragons, and the Rats of NIMH live in fear of Dragon the cat, who killed Mrs Brisby's husband and broke Mr Ages' leg. While many of the fights in these stories are fought until one side can knock out or capture the other, a fight with a dragon stands out because it's a fight to the death.

Knights should be a character type - I still remember how surprised I was learning about D&D and realizing that knights weren't really a viable character class. There are fighters who wear plate armor, there are self-righteous paladins, and occasionally there's some sort of cavalier as an optional addition to the core rules, but despite how often they appear in the fantasy media (and LEGO sets!) I was familiar with as a kid, knights just don't really have a place in standard D&D. They certainly would if my kid self ran a campaign, though!

The protagonists of these stories are more likely to be former squires than active knights, but there are plenty of knights in armor among the supporting casts. Knights errant should probably also be a possible NPC ally, someone you could recruit to accompany you and fight on your behalf. I would probably let the players take turns controlling their mounted champion in combat though, so it doesn't feel like fights are decided by contests between a GM-controlled protector and some GM-controlled monsters. Speaking of combat...

Fighting means sword-fighting - I think the most common sort of fight in these stories is a one-on-one duel with swords. As others have noted in detail, this is not a type of combat that standard D&D models particularly well, although I think it probably requires a change in the common practices of description more than it requires a change in the rules. These sword fights are rarely to the death. They typically end with someone surrendering, being taken captive, or knocked unconscious.

Swamps are scary - Princess Bride has the Fire Swamp, Neverending Story has the Swamp of Sadness, Labyrinth the Bog of Eternal Stench, and Return of the Jedi has Dagobah, plus poor Mrs Brisby's house sinking into the mud in Secret of NIMH. Swamps are a place where heroes are at their emotional low point and villains have the upper hand. If you're in a swamp, something has already gone wrong to get you there, and things are about to get worse. If a friend is going to die or get captured, it's very likely to happen in a swamp.

Magic is giant - Besides the dragons, these stories have other giant magical creatures. Think of Morla the Ancient in Neverending Story the Owl in Secret of NIMH. Places of magical power are ancient and oversized. Magical creatures are giant and terrifying, even when they're not overtly hostile. They might offer some help, but they're not allies - they must be convinced to intervene, and might demand a price for their assistance.
The worlds these stories describe are troubled places. The rulers of the land are typically evil, and things might be in actively in the process of getting worse. These rulers are magical and frightening. They're powerful fighters in their own right, and they command things like dragons and armies of goblins that strengthen them more.

Any benevolent leaders have been cast out of power or co-opted. They either retain just enough royal status to make useful hostages, or they're so busy trying to care for the government's victims that they have no time for adventuring. And their aid to the poor limits their ability to oppose the government - they can't openly defy the rulers without endangering the people they're working to help.

The heroes and their allies are both figuratively and, often, literally small and vulnerable. They are taking a terrible risk to their lives by trying to free the land from the evil of misrule. They're outnumbered, out-equipped, and overmatched. They rely on stealth, magic, and a tactic of surgically striking at their enemy's weakest point to have any chance of victory, or even survival. This is why our heroes travel overland, to avoid the enemy's power centers and guard posts. This is why the fate of the world is decided by swordfights and appeals to the conscience of the main villain's lieutenants - because that's the only scale on which the heroes can fight and possibly have a chance to win.

The heroes' weakness is contrasted against both the villains' strength and the hugeness and indifference of most magical places and creatures. In addition to an villain who wants to kill them, the heroes also face a world filled with oversized and overpowering magical creatures who simply don't care about them or their problems.

If I were to add any more stories to this list, I might pick Alice in Wonderland or David the Gnome or Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Pirates of Dark Water - but for the most part, I don't think the themes I pulled out would change very much. A list like this is partly generational, partly idiosyncratic. I know you would have been inspired by different stories, would have taken different lessons from them.

What would be on your list of inspirations when you were little? What kind of fantasy world would you have built out of them?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Musical Miscellany - Symphonic Planets, Dark Cells, Synthesizing Mushroom, Novel Virus, Volatile Market, Noisy Colors

The Symphonies of the Planets
NASA Voyager Recordings

"Soaring to the depths of our universe, gallant spacecraft roam the cosmos, snapping images of celestial wonders. Some spacecraft have instruments capable of capturing radio emissions. When scientists convert these to sound waves, the results are eerie to hear. The probes picked up the interaction of solar wind on the planets magnetospheres, which releases ionic particles with an audible vibration frequency."
The Dark Side of the Cell
Anne Niemetz and Andrew Pelling

"Professor James Gimzewski and Andrew Pelling at UCLA first made the discovery that yeast cells oscillate at the nanoscale in 2002. Amplifying this oscillation results in a sound that lies within the human audible range. The tool with which the cell sounds are extracted - the atomic force microscope - can be regarded as a new type of musical instrument. The AFM 'touches' a cell with its small tip, comparable to a record needle 'feeling' the bumps in a groove on a record. With this interface, the AFM 'feels' oscillations taking place at the membrane of a cell. These electrical signals can then be amplified and distributed by speakers."

Pink Oyster Mushroom Playing Modular Synthesizer
Myco Loco

"Electrical resistance is measure by passing a small current through the mushrooms similar to a lie detector test. The changes in resistance are then converted into control signals which determine the rhythm, pitch, timbre and effects parameters of the modular synthesizer."
Protein Counterpoint Sonification
Markus J Beuhler

"The proteins that make up all living things are alive with music. Markus Buehler, musician and MIT professor develops artificial intelligence models to design new proteins, sometimes by translating them into sound. The Covid-19 outbreak was surging in the United States, and Buehler turned his attention to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the appendage that makes the novel coronavirus so contagious. He and his colleagues are trying to unpack its vibrational properties through molecular-based sound spectra, which could hold one key to stopping the virus."
Sounds of a Volatile Market
Jordan Wirfs-Brock

"With the craziness of the stock market lately, there have been some nice visualizations flitting around. I set out to sonify the stock market data with the goal of conveying both the recent precipitous drop and the crazy volatility. I focused on two metrics: the daily percent change (conveying volatility) and the daily closing price (conveying overall market movement)."

The Colors of Noise
Mark Frauenfelder

"White noise is a blend of random frequencies with a flat spectrum - any frequency band has the same amount of power as any other. I find white noise to be sharp and harsh. Most white noise generators don't actually play white noise - they play a 'colored noise' that's more soothing. Colored noises have a blend of random frequencies but some frequencies play at a higher volume than other frequencies. This gives the noise a 'color' or distinctive tone."

Sunday, February 14, 2021

My Friends' Kickstarters - Gridshock, Project 8ball, Errant

So, you may have heard the rumor that there's this Zine Quest going on right now over at Kickstarter. This time around, there are a few projects out by people I'm friends with, people I regularly chat online with, and I wanted to give them a bit of a boost.

First up is GRIDSHOCK 20XX, by Paul Vermeren. I've known Paul since the Google Plus days, and we've played in a few online games together. He's been working on GRIDSHOCK for as long as I've known him, writing, revising, playtesting, brainstorming. 

GRIDSHOCK is a game where the apocalypse happened in the 1980s. Since then, super-villains have taken over the post-apocalyptic wasteland. The players take on the role of a rebellion of super-heroes, trying to overthrow the various evil warlords and autocrats. 

The aesthetic Paul's going for leans hard into 80s synths and neon and Cold War despair. It's a world where the 1980s never ended, where it remains the 1980s forever. The adventures probably play out something like Earth X or Old Man Logan, but in a setting that looks closer to Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Paul is selling his rules advice and campaign setting as a series of 4 zines. $19 for pdf, $39 for print and pdf.

Next up is Project 8Ball by Leighton Connor. Leighton is part of my regular online gaming group. I was introduced to him by Josh from Bernie the Flumph, who has collaborated with Leighton on a number of projects in the past.

Players in Project 8Ball take on the role of secret agents investigating impossible phenomena like ancient aliens, cryptids, time travelers, etc. That part is pretty similar to The X-Files or Men in Black, but Leighton also explained an added twist in his premise to me. 

The player characters are all recent recruits to the secret agency. They're told that they've been members for a long time, that they're sleeper agents who are being re-activated, and that the lives and identities they think they know are all just deep cover forgeries to help them blend into the populace. That adds wrinkle akin to Total Recall or Psycho Shop or The Filth, and suggests that the agency might not be entirely trustworthy. (A shocking revelation in any spy story, I know.)

Leighton is offering a single zine as pdf for $5, or print and pdf for $10.

Finally, Ava Islam has written a low-fantasy game and setting she's calling Errant. I met Ava relatively recently through playing in an online game led by Nick from Papers & Pencils. I know she's been workshopping both her rules and her writing hard, and she's gathered up an impressive crew of collaborators in a relatively short time. I have no doubt that her energy and drive show through in the final product.

I know less about this one than the other two, but Ava seems to be leaning in hard to the "you're no hero" aesthetic that remains a staple of OSR games. Also, her crapsack quasi-medieval world has an evil Goose King.

Ava is selling Errant as two zines, $10 for pdf, $20 for print and pdf.
BONUS! I'm not as close with either Donn Stroud or James Pozenel as I am with the other people I've mentioned, but we are friendly acquaintances, and both of them have commissioned me to do some writing for them in the past. 

They've written a series of 3 zines for DCC and MCC that play into both of their strengths and build on both of their existing work. They have a series of purchasing options, ranging from $5 for one zine in pdf to $18 for all three zines in print and pdf.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Science Fantasy Factions - Sub-Planetary Territorial Unit of the Apes

In my post about Tolkienian science fantasy, I suggested creating a "french vanilla" setting by replacing elves, dwarves, and hobbits with famous science fiction species.

Today I want to do a little more worldbuilding on that setting by imagining a faction the player characters could encounter. The idea is the same as before - create something that's consistent with the themes and tropes of vanilla fantasy, but replace the usual monsters with species with famous creatures from scifi.

 First up is the Empire of the Apes, centered on the ruins of Empire City, located on Skull Island.

Most citizens of the Empire of the Apes are, well, Apes, from the Planet of the Apes films and tv series. In the films and show, Ape society has a division of labor by species. Orangutans perform the social labor, they're the political and religious leaders, the ones who make and enforce rules and give orders to others. I'd argue it would be logically consistent for them to have caretaking roles as well - taking care of children, the sick, the elderly. Chimpanzees perform intellectual labor, they're scientists and doctors, and arguably anyone who needs to read or write or do math as major part of their job. Gorillas perform physical labor, they're the workers, guards, and soldiers. I like to think that Apes don't divide up any jobs by gender, since they've already got this complex setup related to species.

As NPCs, I would probably just use human NPC statblocks for Apes. I don't see a strong reason for them to have unusual abilities, and their appearance differences are basically cosmetic. If somehow a player wanted to make a PC Ape, I would just stat them up as normal in whatever rule system, let them pick the class, and then suggest that they describe their appearance in terms of the species most likely to have that job. Unless for some reason they wanted to play an Ape who leaves their tribe to pursue an atypical career. 

(But Anne, I can almost hear one of you asking me, doesn't that mean that in 5e, with the standard statblock, I could make a weakling Gorilla with 8 STR and 10 CON, maxed-out CHA and only middling INT, and turn them into an ineffectual Wizard, a job that matches neither their species nor their stats? It does mean that, yes. There's nothing stopping you except your own and your fellow players' sense of what's appropriate. If you feel a compulsion to look for things the rules don't explicitly forbid you from doing, to use those things to achieve results that offend your own sense of logic and fairness, and then feel sad about having done so, that's maybe something you should talk with a counselor about, not a constructive basis for gaming criticism.) 

In addition to the majority population of Apes, the Empire of the Apes also has some rarer members. The Mugato from Star Trek have essentially animal intelligence, and are like, pretty common wildlife in the lands controlled by the Empire. Mugato have white fur, a giant horn growing from the tops of their heads, spikes growing down the lengths of their spines, and prehensile tails. They're also venomous, although surely Ape doctors keep vials of the anti-toxin on-hand (or maybe Apes are immune to Mugato poison?) 

I would probably treat Mugato as bears by selecting a simple monster in the 3-5 HD range, adding poison to their regular attack, adding a giant horn special attack, and perhaps giving them a defensive bonus from their spine spikes. If you wanted more variety, you could add six-limbed Martian White Apes from A Princess of Mars as a second wild animal that roams freely within the Empire. 

At lower levels, I would make a lone Mugato and a group of soldier Gorillas the greatest military threat the player characters might face. At higher levels though, anyone who stirs up trouble inside the Empire is likely to encounter a crowd of Mugato led by this guy, the Robot Monster from the mvie Robot Monster. The robot monster has the body of a giant gorilla and a skeletal head beneath a futuristic space helmet. Robot Monster is the Empire's chief enforcer. I would make him about 10 HD, and I'd definitely include his badass death ray attack. If you want to give the Imperial Ape Army a second general, I would probably pick Beast Man from the He-Man cartoon.

Of course the unquestioned ruler of the Empire of the Apes is King Kong, who rules Empire City from atop his throne on the roof of the Empire City Building. You could use the original version of Kong from the first King Kong movie, or you could make him much larger, like he's been depicted more recently. 

I would imagine this King Kong is capable of intelligent conversation when he's calm, and unthinking berserker frenzy when he's enraged. I think he's probably aloof from the day-to-day administration of the Empire though. He's more like a figurehead, maybe even worshiped as a god by the Apes below. He's also the Empire's mightiest champion, capable of laying waste to entire armies of non-god-level beings. (I think each faction has a leader like that. The primary threat to any one of these giant rules would be one of the others, or perhaps PCs who've figured out how to fight a god.)


As I said earlier, the Empire of the Apes is centered on the ruins of Empire City, which is basically just New York as it appears in Planet of the Apes or Escape from New York. The Apes maintain the ground level for habitation, but the upper stories of all the buildings are just empty shells with broken-out windows. King Kong probably mostly stays at the top of the skyscrapers while almost everyone else stays down on the ground. 

I think there should be several ruined Statues of Liberty around the city. Perhaps a small army of living Statues once attacked the City and tried to expel the Apes, and were defeated and destroyed? Regardless of how they got there though, their severed torsos and heads are major landmarks now.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Advice from the Blogosphere 2020

So, last year, I started what I hope will become a tradition for myself by posting about my favorite links from the previous year. I built this collection of links as I saw them throughout the year, with an emphasis on saving posts that gave advice about how to do things.

Last year I also gave my take on the state of the OSR. My current take is that the label OSR seems to mean "small-press D&D-like roleplaying, not 5th Edition, and not Powered by the Apocalypse". If that sounds like it might encompass quite a lot, I think that's because it does. The OSR continues to enlarge and diversify, so much so that I wonder if it can continue to hold together. 

You've still got people playing the retroclone Old School Editions and neo-retroclones like  Dungeon Crawl Classics and The GLOG, but you've also got people playing Mork Borg and Mothership and Troika. You've got a proliferation of unique minigames via itchi.io and ZineQuest. You've got people fully committing to abandoning written rules in favor of ad-hoc rulings in the FKR, as well as more people than in past years (that I'm aware of, anyway) trying their hand at actual wargaming. 

Ultimately, the question of how well any of this holds together as a scene will be answered by many people cross boundaries and play more than one game. Everyone who sticks to just one thing builds up their circle, but also makes it more distinct. Everyone who splits their time between two or three or more circles builds bridges between them and brings them closer together into a more unified scene. It's an open question how many people are acting as bridges and will continue to do so, especially if we add any more distinctions into common circulation.

As with last year, please feel free to share links to posts that you thought were helpful from the past year in the comment section.
"Initial Sketch" by Luka Rejec
Luka Rejec, who in addition to authoring and illustrating his own books, is also an artist who sometimes works on commission, has a guide explaining How to Commission Art, which strikes me as a very useful guide for those of who might like to author a book but don't plan to illustrate it ourselves.

Thriftomancer from Dice in the North has advice about Writing Coherent Session Notes. You'll notice that this will be something of a mini-theme among the posts below. Either this was on a lot of people's minds so they wrote about it more than usual, or it was on my mind so I noticed more than usual. Thriftomancer also provides a nice Kilodungeon Definition for creating a space for delving that's much larger than a single-page dungeon, but much more manageable to design and explore than a full-on megadungeon.

Jason Tocci from Pretendo Games has advice from Pretendo's First 4 Months Self-Publishing on Itch.io. Jason talks about how he got started, and kindly pops the hood to see how much he'd made at that point from each of his minigames, both from payments and "tips". Since then, he's written the 24XX System Reference Document for science fiction games, which seems like his most popular game to date.

After years of writing and illustrating great, isometric, two-page spread mini-adventures, and giving them away free, Michael Prescott from Trilemma Adventures launched a successful Kickstarter to fund a hardcover print edition. Afterward, he wrote up My Kickstarter Task List to help other first-time publishers get their project funded successfully. 

I liked this year's piece of advice by Trey Causey over at From the Sorcerer's Skull so much that I actually wrote about it once already. Trey encourages us that Setting History Should do Something, and provides us both with three goals to reach and three pitfalls to avoid. It might seem obvious to observe that it's not helpful for setting history to "describe events that have little to no impact on the present" or "describe events that are repetitive in nature or easy to confuse" ... until you think about just how often setting history falls into exactly those traps. This was also a good year for Trey's writing about planetary and space adventures, and I was particularly glad to see his first Pulp Solar System Anthology and the follow-up about Pulp Uranus and its Moons.

This year, I most often find myself reading Jack Guignol at Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque for interesting book recommendations and Gothic actual play reports, but he did have one advice-y post early on about his recommendations for a possible 6th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. You can probably find a lot of people opining about what they'd do differently next time, but I appreciated that Jack's premise for a hypothetical 6th edition was basically "the good parts of 5th edition, but more so", while at the same time leaning into some useful simplifying mechanics.

I mostly stop by Stone Drunk Wizard to see his art, and I have to admit, this is not his original post, but something he re-tumbled. This is where I saw it though, and I find the genealogical process of tracking down the history of a Tumblr post to be at or past the limits of my internet skill, especially since there was a nice testimonial appended to this version of the post that I wanted to hold onto. Anyway, this advice originally comes from an artist called Xuu, who tells us How to Draw Anything.

RJD20 has advice for How to Build a Unique Culture for D&D, which he demonstrates by planning some yeti-taming glacier goblins. 

Advice for how to run traps is evergreen, but I thought Paul Hughes from Blog of Holding had good advice in How the "Odd Detail" Can Make D&D Traps Way More Fun. An "odd detail" is a clue, something to catch the players' attention, alert them that there's something to investigate, and a puzzle that possibly communicates the nature of the trap. This advice is especially pitched at 5e gamemasters, and Paul does a good job for explaining his rationale for rejecting the alternate advice that "traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise."

Also speaking to 5e gamemasters, DM David has advice for Using Experience Points to Make Your D&D Game More Compelling. David recommends using the recommended XP for non-combat challenges as an alternative to the standard monster XP. He identifies a few advantages. This reduces the XP award for fighting monsters (which has other advantages he discusses), makes calculating the awards simpler, and makes it easier for lower-level characters to "catch up" to the other members of their party. The non-combat XP system is technically optional, but I've had success using it for traps and other challenges when I've run 5e.
"How to Draw Anything: Step Six" found on Stone Drunk Wizard

John Bell from The Retired Adventurer has roleplaying advice for portraying a character whose actions will seem consistent, sensible, and thus predictable to other players. In Roleplaying, Decisions, Intelligibility, John argues against characterization via "quirks", which show up sporadically and don't necessarily convey a lot of information, and in favor of simple and clear motivations, which can be deployed again and again to create a character that the other players can easily understand.

In a year when all of us did almost all out gaming online, David Schirduan from Technical Grimoire has a great primer of advice for Playing RPGs on Discord.

Anxiety Wizard wrote Half-Organized Thoughts About Monsters, which lays out an approach to presenting information about monsters, both the way information about them is written on the page for the benefit of the gamemaster, and the way that it's spoken during the game for the benefit of the players. He recommends a way of writing up physical details, rumors , and encounters. He suggests an encounter roll that doesn't just produce the number of enemies, but also what they're doing when the players meet them. The full process is a bit labor intensive, so it's probably most worth it in an ongoing campaign, and for like, one of a handful of common recurring monster types.

Chris McDowall from Bastionland spent a lot of the year developing his own minimalist wargame rules. I liked his advice for Cheap Tricks a gamemaster can use to create particular emotional effects in the players, whether that's showing the impact of their characters' success or failure, or trying to get them to laugh or feel (momentarily) frightened. Chris calls these "cheap tricks", but we can also think of them as simple effective storytelling tools.

Daniel from Detect Magic offers a contrarian opinion in Dungeons are Irrelevant. Look closer though, and its also an argument about character motivation, what kinds of in-game events are impactful for players, and an argument about how best to spend gamemaster preparation time in light of those ideas.

Paul Beakley from the Indie Game Reading Club had a couple of pieces I really liked this year. In Whadday Know?, Paul lays out the different ways to decide what the characters know about their world, which turns out to be one way of thinking about how the gamemaster and the players are dividing up worldbuilding authority. In The Cudgel and the Contract, he compares rolling dice (the cudgel) versus coming to an agreement (the contract) as a way of resolving conflict between two players with different goals. I think you could also read this as a comparison of "rules" versus "rulings". What I like here is that Paul identifies several positive points and downsides for both methods, and talks about each way of doing things's vulnerability to bad faith.

Alex Chalk from To Distant Lands has some thoughts about gamemaster preparation, and the difficulty of prepping appropriately for a sandbox style game, which he shares in GM Anxiety and the West Marches. The heart of this post is a story about a time when he prepped 100 hexes for crawling, and his players spent their entire 2 ½ hour session trying to cross a single river. I really appreciate when people share stories of GMing gone wrong, and Alex is thoughtful about how a certain ideal vision of what good GMing looks like can easily lead to misadventures like the one he describes.

Arnold K over at Goblin Punch wrote something called Advice for OSR DMs, but really he lists out concrete advice for both gamemasters and players interested in trying out OSR-style dungeoneering.

Gabor Lux from Beyond Fomalhaut has an interesting method for looking at The Anatomy of a Dungeon Map. He turns all the hallways into straight lines, ignores all the rooms that don't have a second exit, and thus creates a diagram showing the routes around the dungeon. The idea is to be able to see the most basic pathways that will define how characters are able to move around, free from the any other set dressing that ordinarily obscures that view. Gabor also released Castle Xyntillan this year, which I've noticed showing up in several other bloggers' actual play posts.

Alex Schroeder also had some thoughts about session reports. Looking at the date just now, this is clearly an older post, but somehow I only saw it this year. (Perhaps it was linked somewhere?) In Session Reports are Read Just Once, If at All, Alex suggests writing session reports for your own benefit, without expecting a larger audience, and has advice for keeping them short and useful. Throughout the year, Alex has been posting about his Hex Describe, Text Mapper, and Gridmapper projects.
"Dungeon Graph" by Beyond Fomalhaut

Alcoops at Make a New Cult Every Day posted images of handwritten session prep notes, complete with hand-drawn maps, and invites the rest of us to do the same, asking How Do You Do Session Notes?

Jim Parkin from d66 Classless Kobolds posted back to back Simple and Universal Referee Advice and Simple and Universal Player Advice. Jim's referee advice is about how to communicate information that will be helpful to players, especially about the dangers their characters' face, the choices they have available, and the difficulty of each option. For players, Jim advises a mix of curiosity and caution.

Otspill from BAATAG introduces The Grand d666 as a way to quickly generate setting elements. They recommend filling a d66 or d666 table with the kinds of things you want to be in your campaign setting. Factions, species of monster, but also things like themes, moods. Then whenever you need help starting to write some piece of the setting - such as "what's in this dungeon room?" or "what's in that wilderness hex?" - you roll two or three times and combine the results to serve as your inspiration.

Rodongo from antiknez has written about How to Sandbox, with advice focusing on creating factions, setting them in relation to one another, and finding an entrypoint for your players into that situation.

Gundobad Games wrote On a Method for Handling Secret Doors in Dungeons, that I really liked. Gundobad suggests that players should be allowed to detect the presence of a secret door automatically, so that game time can be spent on trying to figure out how to open the door, rather than trying to figure out if it exists or not. It's one of those proposals - like I2TO eliminating the to-hit roll in combat - that feels radical at first, but also promises to speed up the game and refocus on the most interesting parts of the game.

Artist Donato Giancola (yes, that one) writes the Dweller of the Forbidden City blog, and honestly, this is a real unsung treasure trove for good GMing advice. In Running D&D Games - The Role of the Ref, Donato lays out what he thinks a gamemaster's job is, as well as what he thinks it is not. The three main pillars are creating the game world, deciding how the inhabitants of the game world react to the player characters' actions, and serving as an adjudicator whenever the rules alone aren't enough to decide how to do something or what its consequences are. In Randomization - It's Not What You Think, Donato offers a defense of letting the dice decide elements of the game, from monster hp and NPC reactions to individual initiative and the rewards found in a treasure chest. 

Gus L, now operating out of All Dead Generations, has some advice about One Page Dungeon Design. Gus identifies a few key dilemmas and recommends solutions. Obviously you need to write succinctly to fit on one page, but you also need to avoid saying so little that your dungeon is incomprehensible because you were unable to describe anything, or boring and generic because nothing needed to be described. Evocative imagery, both drawn and written, is your ally here. This year, Gus also started publishing small dungeons again.

Psionic Blast from the Past has a suggestion for Designing Content with a Hierarchical Graph in Sandbox / Hexcrawls. His basic argument is that you can build the sandbox as you go as long as you take some time to figure out what you players are able to reach in the next session and what they're likely to need several sessions to get to. Since in a hexcrawl you can't know exactly which path your players will take, he argues against over-preparing areas that might never be visited. Also, despite the title, he doesn't actually recommend making a graph to decide these things.

Rook from Foreign Planets has a set of tables for procedurally generating a dungeon, quickly at the table. Adrenaline and Spark Tables: Dungeon Generation During Play suggests coming up with some simple elements of set-dressing, common active elements, and common passive elements. Then in each new room, roll the dice and take inspiration from the tables. Sundered Shields and Silver Shillings was also inspired by this post to give some of their own advice for jotting down a quick coherent dungeon.

Ben L from Mazirian's Garden started the year with So You Want to Make a Zine: Printing, which goes over the pros and cons of using a photocopier, a home printer, hiring a print shop, and hiring an online printer. He ended with some thoughts about different approaches to writing and using notes about what happens in each session in Barker's Rolodex: Record Keeping for a Long Campaign. In between, he also had a nice series of posts about character downtime between adventures.
"Session Notes, page 1" by Make a New Cult Every Day