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 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 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