Thursday, December 30, 2021

My First 6 Months with Bones of Contention

About six months ago, I announced that I was joining the Bones of Contention blog. Although this has been one of my least productive blogging years, I did manage to get a few posts in.
For my first post, I decided to review one of the first adventures put out by the prolific minimalist Nate Treme. In addition to a careful reading of the gamebook, I was able to base my review on some actual play experience with my regular Friday night game group. This one also features something that I hope I can still make a somewhat regular feature of the column, a section where I put the procedural adventure generators in the book to work and run them through their paces by generating an entire setting.
One of the interesting things about Bones as a blog is that we have multiple authors. The Cryptic Signals series of posts tries to use that to offer a series of short vignette reviews of several different game books. I went ahead and organized this one, and wrote two of the reviews, including for the Pokemon-like browser game Google released to celebrate the 2020 Summer Olympics. My review of Mausritter included another test of adventure generation procedures.
When I wrote my Ghost Star review, I mentioned that I had been hoping for a setting like William Hope Hodgson's Night Land, which led Trey from From the Sorcerer's Skull to recommend this Night Land to me. Aside from the name and the basic premise of a weird, futuristic land stuck in eternal darkness, this adventure doesn't borrow much from Hodgson, but I'm still glad I read it. 

I feel like mentioning the book in my first two columns makes it seem like I'm obsessed with Night Land, and I'm sure I'll review more science fantasy in the future, but I promise that every column won't be about how another game designer has failed to sufficiently remind me of Hodgson.

This was our most thematic Cryptic Signals so far, and to be honest, I liked that so much I hope more of them will have some sort of unifying theme. I picked my second favorite review from the book. I didn't review my favorite - yet - because I don't want to pigeonhole myself as only writing about Mausritter. I'm hopeful that we'll do another batch of reviews from Dissident Whispers though, and if we do, I'll be sure to review it then. The process of writing my three "mini reviews" so far makes me wonder if I'm constitutionally incapable of writing an actually short review, but it is good practice reining in my tendency to wordiness.

My last review of the year looks at the free, public materials for the upcoming Root roleplaying game. I backed the Kickstarter, so I have the pdfs for the full game, but I wanted to base what I wrote on the parts that people can actually play. I wished I could have included this year's Free RPG Day adventure, but I didn't pick it up in person, and the pdf still isn't publicly available. 

I'm glad there was an adventure to review though. It could be tempting to fall into a trap of just reviewing rulesets, but I think the most interesting part of this project is looking at the more actionable advice that shows up in adventures. I want to note that Root actually has a small system for procedurally generating the campaign area, but I didn't bother testing it out, precisely because the availability of pre-written villages makes the random generator to create them less important.

My final contribution to Bones for the year was to make an index of the reviews so far. For next year, I hope to use my Cryptic Signals entries to highlight some zines that I think have done something interesting, but that maybe don't rise to full review status. I also hope to try out the Folie a Deux format that Gus and WFS pioneered. I think they're another good way to use our numbers, and I have a couple already tentatively lined up. I just need to come out of my shell enough to get them written.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Bon Mots - Iceman, I Shall Avenge You!

Suppose one of the Sentinel robots kills, idk, Iceman. Punisher sees this and is like, "Iceman, I shall avenge you!"

So then Punisher goes to the guy who built the Sentinels, but before he can say anything, the guy explains how he has this really sweet laser rifle he could give to someone who killed maybe ten more mutant scum.

And Punisher's like, "That is a really sweet laser rifle! Iceman, I shall avenge you ... after I get my hands on that laser."

So then Punisher goes to the X-Mansion. He sees the other X-Men are all dressed in black, standing around a big floral wreath next to a fresh grave in their private graveyard. Some of them are crying. Some of them are swearing vengeance of their own.

These are Iceman's friends. They would die to protect him if they could, and empirically, he did die to protect them.

And so now Punisher's thinking to himself like, "Alright alright, I never swore anything about the other X-Men. I can go commit a dozen more anti-mutant hate crimes, identical to the one that killed Iceman, and not break my oath! Plus, what is vengeance anyway. Do I really need to kill the guy who built the Sentinels? I mean he's giving me a really sweet laser, so long as I align myself with him and further his goals. I don't want to kill the golden goose, you know? So maybe I get vengeance on my new best friend and ally by switching his salt and sugar dishes so he drinks salt in his coffee? Surely that will satisfy my oath to avenge the death of Iceman!"

It's not at all related to this story,
but Punisher in Squirrel Girl is my favorite Punisher.
Punisher makes up his mind and rushes the crowd. "This will eventually lead to vengeance for Iceman!," he shouts as he opens fire on the mourners gathered at Iceman's funeral, instantly killing Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Archangel, Storm, and Banshee. Colossus was too slow to armor up and died. Shadowcat has time to become intangible, but chooses to take the bullets to shield the teenage Jubilee.

Punisher strides over to Shadowcat's body and kicks her aside. She dies watching Punisher reduce Jubilee to a smear.

Wolverine isn't dead, but his body is too full of unhealed wounds to stand. His friends, his family, everyone he ever loved lays dead around him. He weeps. "Why'd you do it Frank? First Bobby, now Scott, Jeannie, Hank, Kitty... Jubes was just a kid. Why Frank? Why?"

Punisher puts his gun to Wolverine's throat and pulls the trigger. He knows this won't kill the genetrash mutie, but at least it should shut him up for awhile. Punisher muses that maybe the really sweet laser rifle would be able to finish the job. "This is ultimately for Iceman," he says as he turns and walks away.

Punisher hops on his motorcycle and rides back to the base of the guy who built the Sentinels, deep in thought. His mind runs through a list of possible pranks and japes. Maybe he could find out the guy's least favorite color, then get him a really ugly tie? But he had to be careful. This was a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he had his oath of vengeance to consider. On the other hand, Punisher sensed there might be a lot more really sweet laser rifles where this one came from - but only if he played his cards right. He doesn't want to risk a too-hurtful joke ruining what could be a very profitable friendship.

Also not relevant here, but I love the time that
Squirrel Girl went on a date with a Sentinel robot.

He arrives back at the guy who built the Sentinels' hideout. "Come in, come in! Your X-Mansion massacre is all over the news. I've laid out a room for you. Please be my guest until the heat dies down. In fact, I'd like to hire you to keep killing X-Men. Think of yourself as my employee, and this as your first payment."

At last the guy hands Punisher the laser rifle. It was really, really sweet. Punisher brushes tears from his eyes, just to see how cool it was.

"This particular rifle comes from a Sentinel I recently had to decommission. Poor thing came back drenched in some sort of cryo-blood that froze half a dozen of its essential systems. What you hold there is a former arm-mounted rifle that..."

But Punisher is hardly listening. He strokes his fingers down the length of the laser rifle, rubs it against his cheek. It is so, so sweet. Punisher wishes Iceman could see him now. He'd understand why Punisher had to get the rifle first, before his vengeance. Iceman would've wanted him to have this rifle, Punisher thought. This thing was so sweet it was to die for.

Suddenly, Ghost Rider appears before Punisher. "I am the Spirit of Vengeance," Ghost Rider says. "Punisher, you found a dead X-Man and swore an oath to avenge him. Then you killed ten more X-Men, and aligned yourself with the first one's killer. Explain to me your vengeance!"

So now Punisher is confronted with a creepy skull-face guy who's on fire, making some blabbity-blahs at him. Is this guy a criminal? Is he a filthy mutant? Punisher wishes he'd paid more attention at the last Avengers meeting. Whatever. Punisher smiles. It's finally time to see exactly how sweet this laser rifle really is. "Vengeance?," says Punisher, "This... is for for Ice Man!"

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Actual Play - Candlewick Mysteries

Over the last 6 months or so, I've been playing on-and-off in a campaign using Candlekeep Mysteries, run by Jack Shear from Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque. I made it to more sessions than I missed, though, and it was satisfying to have (what was, for me) a long-term campaign come to a conclusion recently.
Candlekeep Mysteries by Clint Cearley
The adventures in Candlekeep aren't really intended to be run as a single, linear campaign, I don't think. I believe the idea is that they're meant to stand alone, and that you can drop them in to other ongoing campaigns to add a bit of variety. They all involve books in some way, and I think most of them have a connection to Candlekeep Library set somewhere or other in the Forgotten Realms. Jack reskinned this to be Creedhall University Library, in his Krevborna setting.

I managed to play in 13 of the 17 adventures (although I missed the back half of one of them) and had an especially good run at the end. I played a paladin - a first for me! - and generally enjoyed getting to assist the other characters with healing and my various auras, and getting to smite my enemies with the power of divine magic.

Jack kept a running series of actual play posts on his blog, and a parallel series of reviews of each adventure. You can find links to the whole of both series here, in the appropriately titled "We Played the Whole Thing". I've gone ahead and linked to the adventures I played in below:

Since Jack's already written a good narrative of each session, I'm not going to try to reconstruct all of them now. My paladin Elsabeth had a good run, becoming friends with another lady knight NPC, getting magic muscles from a magic painting and managing not to suffer any consequences for it, slaying an actual dragon, and saving the world like 2 or 3 times. But I did want to say a few words about what I thought about playing through the campaign.

Too Many Demiplanes - If I had one critique of Candlekeep Mysteries, it would be that too many of the adventures have the same set-up where a magic book transports you to another dimension, and specifically a mini-dimension created by the book's author. (And way too many of those involved a rather tedious guessing game to figure out how to open the portal!) I mean, I get it, it's already metaphorically like every book has a secret world inside it, and like reading transports you there. It's a pretty good metaphor to make literal. But there are too many of them. And I also get that Candlekeep isn't meant to be played straight through. But there are still too many of them. 

D&D is set in a magic-filled world, Forgotten Realms especially so - you don't need to travel to some wizard's pocket dimension just to set the adventure in a magical environment. The need is even less if the environment turns out to not be very magical anyway. It sometimes seemed like the only purpose the conceit of the demiplane served was to handwave travel time or to put up a wall around the playable area that the player character couldn't travel beyond. But if so, I would argue that's the wrong approach. Metafictional concerns like that don't need rules workarounds, they just need the GM and the players to agree on what kind of game they're running.

Complex Backstories, Linear Adventures - If I had a second critique about Candlekeep, it would be that the backstories that set up the adventures are often complex to the point of unintelligibility. The example that stands out in my mind is "The Book of the Raven". The PCs get a book delivered to them by some mysterious ravens. The book leads them to an old abandoned house with ravens flying overhead. The house is haunted, with some whole drama playing out among the ghosts as they continue to fail to resolve their unfinished business from life. Also it turns out the ravens are secretly human cultists who can magically transform into ravens. They were compelled to deliver the book to you by a different cult, who worship some kind of demon lord, and who then pull you into, wait for it, a pocket dimension, where a couple of demons try to kill you. There is, as far as I can tell, no connection between the ravens and the ghosts, the ghosts and the demons, or the demons and the ravens.

And while the backstories of Candlekeep can be convoluted, many of the adventures themselves are pretty linear. You arrive at the entrance to the adventure site, perhaps by being teleported there by the book, and then follow a straight-line path going from one encounter to the next until you reach the conclusion. That's certainly not true of all them, but more than you'd hope for in what's meant to be a flagship product. The worst offenders combine both - a terribly complicated backstory leading to a terribly simplified conveyor belt of encounters.

Options and Opportunities - That said, some of the adventures did provide some good chances for the players to make meaningful choices. While trapped in a grotesque fairy tale, we met some wolves and managed to befriend befriend them and enlist their help in fighting some terrible hunters by borrowing a page from Aesop. We met a dragon who might have killed us, but we offered to catalog his library, and he ended up offering us safe passage through his section of the dungeon. In a desert hideout, we met a giant worm, realized we'd followed the wrong clues and were in the wrong place, and left without needing to fight it. (Though sadly we did lose our camel to the worm's ferocious hunger!) Even the dragon Elsabeth fought and killed was avoidable - although this was another case of misunderstood clues, and having set it free from its ancient trap, we didn't feel good about just letting it seek unlimited vengeance on the world that had entombed it.

Because we played this campaign as an "adventure path", we didn't take advantage of any of the opportunities to follow up on details that could give rise to new side adventures. If I recall, replacing the missing books in "Mazworth's Worthy Digressions" could have occupied several more sessions of questing, if the book thieves hadn't turned out to have spare copies on hand in the back room. And the university tower that turns into a rocket ship absolutely cries out for a follow-up adventure where you get to use the damn thing and go into space. Jack repurposed the last adventure in the book and set it on one of Krevborna's moons, but if we'd just let it blast off with us inside, instead of preventing the space cultists from launching it, I don't know if there would have been any advice in the book about where it should take us. But that's not just an obvious follow-up, it's a necessary one - if you write an adventure where it's possible for the characters to steal a rocket ship, you'd better also make up a planet they can fly it to!

Better Boss Fights - Boss monster types in 5e get special "lair actions" and "legendary actions" that basically let them react by doing something every time they're attacked. I was really impressed with how well this worked out in practice. I recognize that the ideal military strategy to use against a big monster is to come at it with overwhelming numbers and the element of surprise, win the initiative, and kill the damn thing before it ever gets to strike a single blow. But while that's probably the ideal strategy, it's not necessarily the ideal gameplaying experience. With these special actions, the monster gets to alternate with the players; we get to see the monster doing cool, scary, monstrous things; our numerical advantage is somewhat balanced by the extra attacks; and the fight ends up feeling much more epic and narratively appropriate than it otherwise would. These are a 5e innovation I can absolutely get behind!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

NaNoWriMo / NaGaDeMon - Let's Write an Adventure Site (part 1)

I don't know about you, but the idea of trying to write an entire novel, or design a complete game, in a single month (especially a month that's already filled with additional obligations to work and school and family) sounds to me like volunteering for disaster, like signing up to be crushed beneath a weight I can't possibly lift or carry. I already worry about failing at my responsibilities, I already fear disappointing people who are counting on me. 

Do I really want to fling myself into new opportunities for failure and disappointment? The NaNoWriMo and NaGaDeMon challenges say yes! My good sense says no.

But I haven't been writing as much as I used to lately, as evidenced by this year's fairly low post count, and I want to try to change that. 

This year has been hard for me. If we're being honest, the past 4 to 5 years haven't exactly been easy, for me or for a lot of people. But this year has felt different, like the exhaustion you get when all the adrenaline runs out. The disaster isn't over, the crisis is ongoing, but the tempo and the emotional tenor has changed, for me at least, and mostly I just feel tired, and it's been very hard to write anything. The one positive development for me has been that I finally feel able to read again like I used to, something that the manic phase of 2020 had nearly robbed me of.

I'm not planning on writing a novel this month, or designing my own game, but I want to do something to feel more like myself again, and perhaps enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing something. So I want to dig up an adventure I started writing and then abandoned a few years ago, and try to shepherd it to completion. I'll need to review what I wrote and drew (and just thought about but never actually put on paper) back then; figure out what works, what needs to be reworked, and what ought to be abandoned; write new materials to fill in all the gaps; and hopefully end the month with something I can feel the least little bit proud of.

So let's write an adventure site!

I think I want to start by recalling my initial idea and inspirations for this particular adventure. Next time, I'll take stock of what all I produced before, and try to identify the biggest flaws in my original plans. (Spoiler alert - too much simulationism, not enough gamism - and also too much railroad, not enough sandbox - but I'll do a deeper diagnosis next time.)
One of my first inspirations at the time was my recently learning about the desert superbloom phenomenon. A region of desert gets inundated by an unusually heavy rainfall, and for a few days or weeks afterward, the ground is carpeted in wildflowers that only bloom once every few years.

I don't think this idea is as trendy at the moment as it was back then, but when I first started dreaming up this adventure, a kind of au courant idea was that there should be some explicit reason why no one else had ransacked your dungeon before. So the idea of a dungeon (or adventure site, or whatever) that literally didn't exist before the player characters got there and won't be around long after - that immediately struck me as neat solution to the "problem" of dungeon availability.

I decided that the center of the adventure site would be a rain-filled pond or lake, and that the rest of the superbloom site would be a kind of oasis. It's an idea that comes with some set-dressing and some potential hazards - a hot angry sun, mirages and hallucinations, cacti and succulents, desert animals, shifting sands, etc. My original name for this adventure was "Night Garden at the Vanishing Oasis" - which I still kind of like the sound of!

Another source of inspiration were some books I had been reading at the time:
  • Nick Harkaway's The Gone Away World
  • Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World
  • Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day
  • Zachary Thomas Dodson's Bats of the Republic
  • ... and perhaps surprisingly, Catherynne Valente's The Habitation for the Blessed.
Against the Day is set in the historical American West. Half-Made World is set in a fictional second-world West. Bats of the Republic is set in the West in both the past and future. Most of Gone Away World is also set in the desert, although in the Middle East instead.

Both Gone Away World and Half-Made World take place in settings where reality itself breaks down, and the world reforms itself in response to human thought. In Gone Away World, the process is faster, as cottony clouds of "Stuff" reshape themselves to become physical manifestations of our fears, desires, and hopes. In Half-Made World, it's more like the far desert is a place still inchoate, where things are made up of incorrect parts, animal, vegetable, artificial, made up of images that look almost right but not quite, not yet fully formed. A place of unreality, even temporary unreality, seems like a great place to have an adventure. Thoughts that become partially real also remind me of heat mirages, so there's a nice affinity there.

Half-Made World's uncanny imagery fits really well with Habitation of the Blessed, which is full of strange plants. There are trees that grow books as fruits - they are both book and fruit at the same time, and can, for example, become overripe and start rotting, possibly faster than you can read them. There's a strange garden with all sorts of trees, including one that grows cannonballs. And while A Voyage to Arcturus and Carcosa both famously have scenes of a person turning into a tree, Habitation of the Blessed has scenes of human-plant hybridization that are far more disturbing. A special garden surrounding a special oasis absolutely should be home to special plants.

Against the Day is filled with strange doublings and various devices that produce doubled images. Bats of the Republic has the same characters living different lives during different time periods, a kind of doubling by reincarnation, or by something like Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. Gone Away World has a few very frightening scenes of doubling, where a person's self-image imprints on "Stuff" and becomes a kind of horrible doppelganger. There are a few ways these ideas could be worked into an adventure.

There are also plenty of smaller things that could be incorporated. Individual characters who could appear as wandering NPCs. Creatures who could show up as monsters. Incidents that could form the basis of locations within the site. 

Thinking about the theme of unreality lade me to think about glitches in computers and video games. I thought that some of the more famous glitches might be neat to include to signify the breakdown of reality, things like Missingno and 'M from Pokemon, or the underwater Minus World from Mario, or even the imagery from Google's Deep Dream engine, like their famous puppy-snails, that are so much like the edge of reality in Half-Made World. I still think these would be good to include as I update what I wrote before.

Thinking about different kinds of deserts also led me to think about sea beds. I kind of thought the oasis should include a shipwreck, a ship that sank back when the desert was the floor of an ocean. I also thought that ancient sea life might come back to life because of the rain, possibly representatives from everyone's favorite Cambrian fossil site, the Burgess Shale. This doesn't seem crucial to the overall concept, so maybe I should treat these as only a tentative inclusion. This might be like a spice that gives the adventure that little bit of something extra ... or it might be thematically confusing and something it would be better to leave out.

I think all this is enough to get started, or rather re-started. Maybe too much! As I said earlier, in the next post in this series, I'll take stock of what I planned before to see what can be saved and what should be thrown out.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Science Fantasy Factions - Oh No! Necro-Tokyo! Go Go Godzilla!

My ongoing Tolkienian Science Fantasy project is all about creating an easy-to-understand "french vanilla" setting by replacing the common character and monster species of fantasy with some well-known examples from science fiction.

In personal communication, From the Sorcerer's Skull described the project this way: "I think this idea could broadly be placed in a category of setting creation: Make a D&D setting as derivative as possible, while employing as little as possible of the usual stuff D&D campaigns are derived from."

I think that sounds right. You get something different and distinct from a plain vanilla fantasy setting, but because all the pieces used to assemble this campaign are easily recognizable in their own right, the setting as a whole should remain easy to understand and remember.

Today's faction is the Lizard Kingdom, which occupies the Monster Island Archipelago, and the skeletal ruins of the once-great city, Necro-Tokyo.
The most numerous residents of the Monster Islands are the time-traveling Sleestaks from the original Land of the Lost tv show. The first Sleestaks to join the Lizard Kingdom were incredibly technologically advanced, although their numbers were few. But having found a haven for their species, and wishing to secure both their own past and future survival, these Sleestak scientists set about transporting other Sleestak communities from across space and time to coexist in the tropical region of the Archipelago. 

Alas, the time travelers discovered that they represented the pinnacle of Sleestak science. Most of the other communities they found were stone-age tool users. The few remaining scientists are outnumbered by their machines, and vastly outnumbered by the temporally-displaced Sleestak migrants.

The technologically advanced Sleestaks might also be able to produce a class of infiltrators capable of disguising themselves as humans (or whatever other faction they're trying to subvert) based on the Visitors from the tv show V.
The mountain and desert regions of the Archipelago are patrolled by the Gorn, highly skilled and solitary hunters who gather to socialize only rarely. They're strong, intelligent, and cunning, with a keen understanding of stealth and ambush tactics. They have an ancestral hatred for humans and Apes, and owing to some famous historical encounter, prefer to arm themselves with bamboo-barreled rifles when fighting against primates.

If I wanted to add more variety to the Monster Islands' wilderness, I might add in some technologically advanced Dinosaucers, who are armed with high-tech laser pistols and bio-scanners and the like, and who can temporarily "dinvolve" into unthinking monstrous dinosaurs.
At the heart of the jungle, in the seat of the science Sleestaks' technological civilization is a compound that holds their greatest science leader, Kraid from the Super Metroid video game. Kraid sets the Sleestaks' agenda, directs their research, and reaps the rewards of their studies. Kraid is a genius and, thanks to some successful experiments, a giant. Kraid's political machinations and self-improvement programs are aimed at the eventual goal of seizing control of the whole of the Lizard Kingdom.

The revered, godlike ruler of the Monster Islands is, of course, Godzilla, from the original movie. Godzilla is the only living permanent resident of Necro-Tokyo. A city of ruined skyscrapers and abandoned pagodas, Godzilla patrols streets haunted by a thousand skeletons of the ages-gone human residents. The skeletons arise again each night to reenact a long-lost battle, led by the skull giant Gashadokuro. Each night, Godzilla wins again, and each day, he wanders amidst the bones.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Bon Mots - Darkseid & Cinderblock

Darkseid left his suit at the cleaners, and all the other DC villains mistake him for Cinderblock, who got stuck working overtime at, you guessed it, the dry cleaners, trying to get all the invulnerable super-blood of Darkseid's costume.
Cue the Odd Couple theme music...

Darkseid gets roped into participating in some heist Cinderblock was supposed to do. The other villains are really rude and dismissive and don't listen when he tries to tell them he's not Cinderblock. "Stop messin' around, Cinderblock", etc.
The villains dig a tunnel under some science complex. Darkseid is tasked with punching through the underground portion of the security wall. He's not even trusted to go in and grab the loot. But showing initiative befitting a planetary ruler, he goes ahead and gets the stuff.
When he comes back out of the tunnel, laden with riches, he finds that the other villains are getting their asses kicked by a hyper-obnoxious team-up of Booster Gold and Guy Gardner.
Darkseid gives the heroes the old Hulk-Loki treatment, thus saving the heist just when it seemed all hope was lost. The other villains hoist him onto their shoulders and carry him back to their hideout, cheering "Cin-der-block! Cin-der-block!"
Meanwhile, all this has been intercut with scenes of actual Cinderblock working at the dry cleaners. They just can't get the damn super-blood out of Darkseid's clothes! Cinderblock knows he's running late for the heist, but he really needs this job, and his manager is so despairing that Cinderblock can't bear to leave the poor guy.
They call in Chemo, then Plasmus, but neither can get the stains out. The boss is ruined. He's spent far more than Darkseid paid, but at this point, it's all about not getting murdered for failing a New God.
Cinderblock has an idea. If the boss is willing to bust open the piggybank, they can call in Lex Luthor. They guy's a genius, he can solve anything, right?
Luthor shows up, and he's thrilled to get his hands on some super-blood. He has just the right tools to extract it and bottle it, and pays the boss a finder's fee that's even more than he spent hiring the Chemo and Plasmus. The boss is so relieved that he's not going to get vaporized, he gives Cinderblock a big tip. 
Cinderblock leaves, just narrowly missing seeing Darkseid who's arrived to pick up his uniform.
Back on Apokolips, Darkseid has returned to his routine of bossing around parademons, etc. He starts yelling at Kalibak, but then remembers the other villains yelling at him when they thought he was Cinderblock, and has a change of heart.
Cinderblock leaves the cleaners to go to the bar to apologize for missing the heist. He knows he took so long the whole thing is probably over by now. He's shocked to find an impromptu celebration in his honor. "There he is! The man of the hour! Get over here, Cinderblock old pal!"

All in a day's work...

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Why the Sun is Dark and the Realms are Forgotten

From the Sorcerer's Skull's recent posts about Dark Sun have gotten me musing about the relationship between the world of Dark Sun and other fantasy worlds within the WOTC orrery.

Magic in Dark Sun is scarce, and comes at a high price, especially compared to places like the Forgotten Realms, where magic is plentiful and virtually free. 

Suppose that the relationship between these planes isn't just one of coincidence or natural variation, though. What if it's not just that Athas has less magic and Faerun has more? Suppose that the relationship is one of cause-and-effect. What if the Realms are rich because Dark Sun is poor? What if Dark Sun is poor because the Realms are rich?

The basic idea here is that mana is a finite resource. Every time you use it to cast a spell, you're also using it up. (Or perhaps it replenishes itself, but slowly. Over geological time, not human time scales.) 

Faerun is a lush, tropical land supersaturated with mana. With mana so abundant, people use magic with abandon. Magicians are everywhere, and every other adventurer carries a magic sword, sings magic songs, punches with a magic-infused fist. People summon fire elementals to cook their breakfast, cast illusions to amuse their kids, rely on healing spells in lieu of any other form of medicine, brew potions so they can drink magic, make trinkets so they can wear it.

Athas is a desert. It's desiccated. There's very little mana left. Accessing it is is hard, few people have the ability to access it, and they only spend it on spells that are important. Even the most callous and depraved Sorcerer King or Templar Defiler isn't going to harvest the souls of a thousand worshipers or kill all the crops in a hundred mile radius just to iron their shirts, or light their cigarettes, or play a little light jazz to set the mood for a date. Even if they're going to waste their magic, they're going to waste it ostentatiously and dramatically as a show of strength, to impress an ally or overawe a foe. To waste magic in private really would be too much of a waste.
Dark Sun Creature Catalog cover by Wayne Reynolds
There are a couple possible relationships.

Perhaps Faerun is the past and Athas is the future. 

In ye olde days of yore, the Realms could use magic for anything, so they used it for everything, including the pettiest, stupidest shit you could possibly imagine. Goodberries on your cereal in the morning. Disposable Tenser's floating discs to carry home your groceries. Bardic inspiration before you take a test. Scrying when you don't feel like walking to the library. Leomund's tiny hut to keep out of the rain. Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion for a weekend getaway. Glamours on everything. Continual lights on everything. Sleep spells to knock you out when all auras and dweomer's you've been staring at all day start to mess with your circadian rhythm.

Eventually the supply of mana just can't keep up with all the demand. Peak Mana arrives when wizards have to start going farther and farther afield, work harder and harder, longer and longer, to bring back a diminishing supply of mana. Sadly there's no such thing as renewable energy in this world. Some genius invents solar power and starts extracting elemental fire straight from the heart of the sun. Some other geniuses come up with wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy, letting them convert the air to smoke, the seas to salt, the ground to dust. The inexhaustible bounty of the Realms is exhausted, and there simply isn't enough mana from any source to maintain civilization in the style to which it had become accustomed. 

Then comes the Collapse. Then there is no Faerun anymore. Then there is only Athas.

Or perhaps Faerun and Athas are separate. Perhaps Faerun is a resource extractor, and perhaps Athas is a resource.

If Dark Sun and the Forgotten Realms are different planes, then when Faerun starts to run low on domestic mana, they'll begin plundering their neighbors for supply. Perhaps they start by whaling - capturing dragons, demons, angels, and gods to press them like olives, crush them like grapes, until hot, wet, living mana pours out to fill the pipes and keep the faucets running. 

But as the herds then and the fisheries grow sparse, Faerun's prospectors will turn to other worlds. Some planes are easy to reach, and have deep wells of easily tapped mana. Some planes are like shale oil and tar sands. They're hard to get to, their climate is hostile, and it takes so much more work and effort to extract their mana, like wringing it from a damp dishrag. Athas is the tar sands. Athas is wrung out.

Magicians in Dark Sun divide themselves into Preservers and Defilers. The locals do their best to monitor their Mana Footprint, to cut back on their Mana Emissions. They name and shame. They reduce, reuse, and recycle. But it doesn't matter, because theirs is a problem that can't be solved by individual conservation or local action. Every mage in Faerun is a Defiler ... of Athas.

This is why the Realms aren't forgotten exactly, but they are a closely guarded secret. When the Mana Barons and their pirate crews set sail, they fly no flags, they carry no papers. They dare not bring with them anything that could identify the name or location of their homeworld. 
Dark Sun Campaign Setting cover by Wayne Reynolds
The really exciting part of either idea comes when the people of Faerun and Athas finally get to meet.

When people from Faerun come to Dark Sun, they arrive as imperialists. They've landed with their cargo holds empty, and won't be leaving until they fill them up with mana. They're not particularly concerned about how big a mess they make, or how many people they hurt, while doing it. Indeed, there are surely some among their number who are mostly there for the chance to commit violence and atrocities in a context where their home government will not only tolerate their depredations, but reward them for it. 

Others may be motivated by patriotism. Still others find meaning in their work knowing that they're helping to maintain the high standard of civilization, imagining that the Faerun too would be a desert ruin without their efforts. And some are just there for a paycheck, doing the only job they could find at the time they needed work, their only consolation the knowledge (or at least hope) that the money they're sending home is enough to support the people they're sending it to.

When citizens of Athas arrive in the Forgotten Realms, they want revenge. If they're there, it's because they've finally realized who destroyed their world, and they're going to make those fuckers pay, and stop them from plundering anyone else.

The only real question, when the hotwired Spelljammer crashes through Elminster's tower like the Old Mage built it out of Jenga blocks and plows through the center of Waterdeep like a plow through that verdant, mana-rich soil, when a mob of gladiators and psychics and giant mantises tumble out of the wreck wearing leather bondage outfits and carrying weapons made of the bones of the last people they killed, the only real question is whether they have a plan to bring the fight directly to the Big Mana companies who've been financing all the drill sites on Athas, or if they're just going to start breaking things and killing people in an indiscriminate frenzy of vengeance.

Either direction of visitation sounds like a pretty good game session to me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Blogs on Tape 4 - Resources 4 All

Nick LS Whelan has started the fourth season of his Blogs on Tape podcast, and I'm honored to have one of my posts included as the first episode of the new season!

Another round of big thanks to Nick for the entire Blogs on Tape project, and for including my work in it!

Friday, June 18, 2021

Bones of Contention

I recently joined the Skeleton Crew of a new blogging enterprise - Bones of Contention.

The overall goal of the blog is to serve as a repository of reviews written by a group of people who have at least somewhat similar taste in RPG adventures.

Individual motives for participating probably vary from person to person. My motivation is to take a closer look at the kind of adventures that interest me most, to understand how they work, and to think about how they could be improved.

My initial plans are to focus on adventures that use procedural generation, and to look at some of the new "heartwarming" rulesets that are being released. I may expand my list as I go. These are things I've been meaning to look at more closely anyway. So for me, joining Bones of Contention was originally mostly  an excuse and a motivation to actually go forward with that intention.

That said, I think there's something valuable about creating a miniature community of reviewers, and I'm curious to see how our tastes will evolve over the course of the project. Will they converge? Will they grow apart? Will any of our reviews produce valuable aesthetic or game-design insights? I'm excited to find out.

You can read the introduction, and meet the other Skeleton Crew members, here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Gygax 75

There's a worldbuilding challenge called Gygax 75 that's been making the rounds on the blogosphere. I decided to try to look its origins and follow the people who undertook it, as is my way.

The earliest origin of the Gygax 75 challenge is an article written by Gary Gygax in the April 1975 issue of the Europa fanzine. Gary lays out a 5 step process for building a new fantasy campaign. I think it's fair to say that this 45 year old piece of ephemera isn't the immediate source of most blogger's participation in the challenge, though.
Initial credit goes to Charles Akins from Dragons Never Forget. Charles is the one who found the long-forgotten Gygax article on the Internet Archive and shared the link with the blogosphere. Charles is also the one who called this worldbuilding method "Gygax 75" and threw down the gauntlet to make it into a blogging challenge.

The Gygax 75 challenge is a 5 step process that's supposed to take place over 5 weeks. Dragons Never Forget describes these in much better detail than me, laying out the parameters of the challenge, but permit me to at least briefly outline them.

Week 1 - decide on the thematic basis of your campaign and pick out some inspirational materials that you can refer to whenever you need help populating your campaign with details

Week 2 - draw a region map of the wilderness adventuring sites that will surround the dungeon that will form the heart of your campaign.

Week 3 - draw your dungeon! in one week! Gary recommends starting with some overview planning to pick themes, monsters, and architectural oddities for each dungeon level, and then setting out to draw and key the first few levels. in a week! I would argue this should be an 8 week challenge, with week 3 devoted to planning and perhaps mapping, and weeks 4-6 given to keying levels 1, 2, and 3.

Week 4 - design a "home base" for your players, replete with factions, NPCs, and rumors so your players can engage in social intrigue in between trips to the dungeon.

Week 5 - design the larger world around the starting region. you don't need a detailed map of the whole world, but you should know the other regions that can be reached from the current one (either by overland or magical travel) so that you can start writing rumors to entice your players to travel to them.

The Gygax 75 Challenge Introduction - Charles links us to the original Europa article and provides links to his other posts in this series.

1 The Setting of the Campaign - summarizes Gygax's worldbuilding advice and lays out his own campaign inspirations, setting the stage for post-apocalyptic science-fantasy.

2 The Map Around the Dungeon - Charles creates his starting region, the Valley of the Three Forks.

3 How to Build the Gygax 75 Dungeon - summarizes Gygax's dungeon-creation advice. pick your themes, place your setpiece treasures and encounters, then write or borrow random tables and procedurally generate the rest.

3 Dungeon Level 1 - the top dungeon level is a ruined, abandoned temple

3 Dungeon Level 2 - the next level features a hall of statues and a giant chamber full of pools

3 Dungeon Level 3 - a prison level, with an exit leading down to allow for further expansion

4 The Local Town and All the Trouble - Charles goes over Gygax's town-building advice and comes up with a list of neighborhoods and the most important shopkeepers in each one.

5 The World Plan - describes three important factions that will be encountered outside the Valley

0 Conclusion and Links to Other Challengers - Charles once again encourages us to take up the Gygax 75 challenge, and points us to Viridian Scroll and Beyond the Gates of Cygnus.
As is often the case in these kinds of situations, the person who created the challenge and the one who popularized it are not the same person. Credit for successfully spreading the word goes to Ray Otus of Viridian Scroll. If you've seen another blogger taking on the Gygax 75 challenge, they've likely been directly inspired by Ray. If you've seen a single-link version of the challenge, it's probably been to Ray's free pdf version on Ray fully credits Charles, but Charles inspired a couple bloggers, while Ray inspired at least a dozen. I should note that Ray's pdf contains both more detailed instructions and a workbook to follow along in, so the work he put into the presentation might explain his greater success in popularizing the challenge.

As we'll see in a minute, Ray and JJ from Beyond the Gates of Cygnus did the challenge at the same time and recorded several episodes of the Plundergrounds podcast about their experiences.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Ray describes the premise of the challenge and links back to Dragons Never Forget and Europa.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - gathering together inspiration, Ray envisions a world where Iron Age humans in city-states reside uneasily alongside communities of monstrous humanoids.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - Ray sketches and then finalizes a vibrantly-colored map of a desert region, Timuria, the Land between Two Rivers.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - more iterative sketching results in a single dungeon level based loosely on a Hindu temple. 

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - released more retrospectively than the others, this one covers setting up the town of Addak, which matches the vaguely Babylonian naming scheme of the other cities.
Over at Beyond the Gates of Cygnus, Cinderella Man JJ used the Gygax 75 challenge to create a setting for a Delving Deeper campaign.

0 Creating a Delving Deeper Campaign in 5 Easy Steps - JJ announces the start of the challenge, which he's completing simultaneously with Ray Otus from Viridian Scroll.

1 The Overall Setting - in addition to using the Delving Deeper rules, this setting will be inspired by the band Rush.

2 The Starting Area - a town called Willow Dale, a Necromancer's tower in the heart of dead forest, and the River Dell leading to the Down Mountains.

3 The Dungeon - JJ creates the most important details for the Necromancer's tower dungeon.

4 The Home Base - the basic features of the town of Willow Dale.

5 The World - more Rush albums are brought in to help define nearby regions of the gameworld.
The Plundergrounds podcast is a collaboration between Ray Otus and JJ. In addition to taking the challenge at the same time, Ray and JJ met once a week to compare notes and talk about their worldbuilding progress.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - introducing the challenge and comparing sources of inspiration.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - drawing the starting area maps.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - starting dungeons that will continue being updated over the next couple weeks.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - working on the starting villages.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 5 - thinking about the wider worlds, and looking back on the challenge.
Not everyone who starts the Gygax 75 challenge decides to finish it. Most people, in fact, seem to stop after a couple weeks. The next person I found who started the challenge was Italian blogger Omnia Incommoda Certitudo Nulla. They were apparently inspired by a post by Shane Ward on a message board called OSR Pit

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week One - the starting pitch here is for a campaign world inspired by The Hobbit, but also by Dracula and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week Two - a starting map, largely without features, and a wandering encounter table emphasizing human antagonists like duelists, cultists, and bounty hunters.
Shane Ward from 3 Toadstools Publishing was the first person I saw who took up the challenge because of finding Ray Otus's He got scooped from being the first person to start it without a personal connection to Ray because he managed to inspire OICN to try the challenge before starting it up himself.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - Shane announces the challenge and starts brainstorming, drawing on ideas from Piers Anthony and fantasy botany.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - a more developed start to the setting, inspired by Xanth, Shanara, and Disney's Robin Hood.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2? Sorta - Shane begins drawing a region map, listing possible encounters, and thinking about character classes
Verbum Ex Nihilo also briefly attempted the challenge.

0 The Gygax 75 Challenge - about the potential benefits of structure and deadlines in worldbuilding, with the challenge as one way to impose them.

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - about the process of selecting a notebook, creating a mood board, and attempting to conquer writer's block by looking for structures to build one idea off another.
Dave from Blood of Prokopius was the next to complete the challenge. Dave comes in with his own ideas and methods for creating sandboxes, keying dungeons, etc, so an interesting part of his commentary is about trying to set his own approach aside to try it Gary's way (as interpreted by Charles and Ray).

1 The Gygax 75 Challenge - introduces Dave's inspirations, science fantasy pitting the forces of Heat & Light against the forces of Cold & Dark.

1 Laser Guns and Plasma Swords - defends adding scifi weapons to this particular fantasy setting.

2 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 2 - Dave draws a fantasy map loosely inspired by Kyrgyzstan, starts stocking his sandbox, and creates a very Lost World random encounter table full of dinosaurs and cavemen.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 3 - a general plan for a dungeon of caves atop a glacier atop a crashed alien spaceship.

3 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 4 - keying the dungeon with monsters and treasures, and writing a wandering monster table.  

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 5 - Dave names his starting city Darkport.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 6 - Dave creates a random name generator to name two shops, and observes some differences in the equipment lists of Basic and B/X.

4 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 7 - human and elven factions for Darkport.

5 The Gygax 75 Challenge Part 8 - Dave builds out his world by adding three more factions and developing a key NPC for each.
King Brackish actually attempted the challenge twice, first starting it on Tomb of the Wandering Millennial (apparently inspired by Verbum Ex Nihilo), and then restarting and finishing it on Brinehouse.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Brackish proposes a setting inspired by Berserk and Dorohedoro, among others.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the city-state of Evangelos, surrounded by the Blackmange Forest and the Sancana Steppe, and a random encounter table full of megafauna, necromancers, and skeletons.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 1 - Brackish restarts the challenge with a similar, though not identical list of inspirations.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 2 - a new region map with the port city of Dis on the coast of an ocean, surrounded by three distinct forests. the new random encounter table emphasizes boars, wolves, dragons.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 3 - Brackish outlines the three-level Temple of the Swine God.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 4 - the village of Mun, along with 10 shops and 5 NPCs.

5 Gygax 75 Challenge Redux Week 5 - more worldbuilding, including a sun god, rumors of dragons and falling stars, and religious-themed magic treasures.
Andrew Sawyer from Seven Deadly Dungeons is the last person on my list to finish the challenge. 

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - Andrew's plan involves creating a fantasy postapocalyptic Meso America.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the region contains an active volcano, a ruined city, and several places where ghosts are on the haunt.

3 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 3 - Andrew has a pretty cool dungeon concept here. the whole complex is a superweapon meant to kill angels. the top level is filled with ghosts, the middle is a star chart that functions as the weapon's targeting system, and the bottom level is a site for the blood sacrifices needed to power the weapon.

4 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 4 - NPCs from the character's home base, all of whom have terrible injuries, which is presumably meant to communicate something about the danger of this place.

5 Gygax 74 Challenge Week 5 - encounter tables for three terrain types.
I've noticed religious themes, and especially postapocalyptic settings have come up in several of these challenges. Justin Hamilton from Aboleth Overlords picks a decidedly Biblical apocalypse to set his game in the aftermath of.

1 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - human civilization has returned to a late bronze age in the aftermath of a Deluge that drowned the world.

2 Gygax 75 Challenge Week 2 - the setting gets a name, Umbroea, along with a list of villages, geographic features, possible dungeons, and encounters. 
I'll admit that Liche's Libram's Tlon setting is the one that excites me the most out of all of these. It's one that they were working on before, and seemed to use the Gygax 75 challenge as a way to continue building out their setting. Tlon reminds me of Dying Earth fiction, but transplanted from Earth to a Dying Mars.

1 Tlon Week 1 Gygax 75 Challenge - an overview of the setting's themes. everything is old, civilization is crumbling, water is the most important treasure.

2 Tlon Week 2 Surrounding Area - a visually compelling map, accompanied by descriptions of two cities, a couple geographic features, and a necropolis.
Rob Magus from Penny Ventures decided to make a setting in the aftermath of a cyberpunk apocalypse. I like the image he conjures of whole forests of solar-panel trees.

1 Technoccult Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - the opening setting pitch. images of demon-haunted computers and ghost towns of still-functional neon lights.

2 2d6 Electric Devil Skeletons Gygax 75 Challege Week 2 - locations for the Technoccult setting and a random encounter table with a number of undead cybernetic monsters.
Like Liche's Libram, The Eternal Slog was already working on their Zorn setting when they discovered the Gygax 75 challenge, and started it as a way to do a bit more worldbuilding on an ongoing project.

1 G75 Challenge Week 1 Zorn - the setting here is a previously undiscovered island that rises out of the ocean in 1936 on the even of WWII. various countries send explorers to the island to plunder its ancient occult treasures to use in their war effort. a pretty solid pitch!
Jim from d66 Classless Kobolds is an interesting case to me. He published his Weird North game in August 2020, then started the challenge in October to start making a campaign setting for the game.

1 The Conceptual Beasts of the Weird North - human Vikings on an alien planet that resembles Earth's arctic north, full of ancient tech and extradimensional visitors.

2 The Dank Morass A Swampcrawl for the Weird North - a rather nice-looking pointcrawl map and a random encounter table full of dinosaurs and robots.
Mihau from Fractal Meadows of Reality started the challenge to work on a far-future alien world setting. One interesting thing about going through these challenges is getting a chance to see where the current campaign setting zeitgeist is at. Science fantasy, post apocalypses, aliens instead of demihumans, and magitech meets stone-age all seem to be en vogue right now.

1 Attempting the Gygax 75 Challenge Week 1 - inspiration from videogames and an online art book that looks very cool to me. humans and aliens on a distant world ruled by satellite gods.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 Plains of Eyes and Hands - the Ascendancy of Teal arcology sits aside the Plains of Salt, and an encounter table full of megafauna and cavemen.
Phoe of Magic Trash is the most recent person I've spotted to start the challenge. His proposed setting is inspired by extremophile biology and vernacular architecture - a winning combination as far as I'm concerned!

1 Gygax 75 Week 1 - no humans, no humanoids, only talking animals and extremophile aliens, each building unique cities.

2 Gygax 75 Week 2 The Legend of Gygax's Gold - a few points of light in the wilderness, with attention given to the architectural style of each place.