Sunday, December 14, 2008

TAW's Blog: The Ancient Art of Stabbing People

A largely programming-centric blog takes a diversion through a long historical look at the practice of stabbing people.

Relevance to gaming goes without saying.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

AI vs TCS: Old School Lispers vs Traveller Grognards

I remember reading about Trillion Credit Squadron in the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society back when I was a kid, playing Traveller (well, mostly rolling up characters and subsectors and buildng and mapping ships, but still). The idea is: you get a trillion credits to create a naval squadron using the rules in Traveller Book 6: High Guard. Then the squadrons beat on each other till one is left standing, in an apocalyptic battle. People from all over could submit their squadrons. I guess it was play-by-mail or something?

Anyway, Artificial Intelligence researcher Douglas B. Lenat decided to use TCS as a way to work on artificial intelligence in a "real" domain, that is, the computer had to compete with humans. He was working with heuristics, ways to take shortcuts to solutions across the immense and unnavigable search space of possible answers to questions. Humans use heuristics; up until that point computer AI work had mostly focused on brute force travels through search space, but the limitations of that approach had become very apparent. But brute force is conceptually easy and heuristics are hard to understand and optimize.

Anyway, he had the computer run a gazillion simulations of the TCS, starting with ideas about how to win that *he* provided, but with those ideas gradually supplanted by experience in simulated combats. Eventually the computer had evolved its own ideas about how to win, and they were... unorthodox. The computer had learned how to break the system: make a large number of tiny but very heavily armored ships, and count on outlasting the enemy -- be able to lose dozens and dozens of ships and still have enough left, when the last enemy ship is worn to the ground, to win.

He crushed the competition in 1981. In 1982 they changed the rules at the last minute, hoping to throw off the computer, but it still dominated the game. Finally they asked him not to compete in 1983, saying if he did they would shut down the game after that, I suppose because they were frankly sick of watching this highly effective but boring and annoying strategy keep on winning.

The whole story is well worth reading.

Little did I expect to find a story about original edition Traveller on the Programming Reddit. (Note: some of the Redditors find the story dubious, on the grounds that if that shit worked we'd still be using it today, and that hype-filled stories about AI were the order of the day back in the early-to-mid 80s, and the hype seldom panned out. So... grain of salt. But it's still a great story.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Old School Art: Curmudgeons and Dragons

I don't remember on which of the three or four retro-RPG blogs I saw this on, but you have to check out Curmudgeons & Dragons, which is a sketchblog of art in the glorious style of '70s-era D&D.

The art has a particular kind of quasi-amateurish (but in fact very well done) style that captures both the imagination and the wistful memories of games gone by.... Steve Zieser goes on my Favorite Artists list now.

Sweet St. Cuthbert, he even illustrated the Limed-Over Skeleton of the Abbot. Now there's a phrase I've not heard in a long time. A long time.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Acts of Evil

Me: If I keep thinking about the Acts of Evil game I played on Saturday, thinking it was really cool, wishing I could play more -- cause I really enjoyed playing a sociopathic occultist bent on chthonic godhood -- should I be worried?

My wife: Uh.. maybe?

Friday, October 10, 2008

From the Tweet and Rein*Hagen Academy of Latin

"Bios Ex Nihilum, latin for 'Life From Nothing'"

No, it isn't. Bios isn't even Latin, and the Latin phrase for "from nothing" -- a fairly common phrase because it comes up in theological discussions of creation -- is ex nihilo.

Game designers: the fact that you have a dictionary of a language doesn't mean you can construct actual meaningful phrases in that language, especially if it's a highly inflected language.

Googling around I find that there's a World of Warcraft guild called "Ex Nihilum," and the phrase occurs in the lyrics of a song by noted Latin scholars Gorguts, who also seem to have studied at the Tweet and Rein*Hagen Academy of Latin...

Nihil appears in Latin in two forms, the indeclinable, and a second declension neuter form nihilum. The latter can only appear in the ablative case (nihilo) after the preposition ex.

You want to put Latin in your game and all you've got is a dictionary, or vague, half-remembered High School Latin? Give me a call, I'll do my best to help.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Tunnels, Trolls, and Stars

Haha! I got me my 4th edition T&T, which I shall revere even as the neogrognard D&D'ers revere their little brown D&D books. And Starfaring! 1977 and 1976 respectively. Huzzah!

To come: fun facts about T&T 4th edition.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I just did a small logo design project for a friend fool enough to trust it to me, and picked up a few dollars on Paypal. Rather than ale and whores, this time I spent it on classic T&T-related material from Outlaw Press.

Specifically, Starfaring and the 4th edition of Tunnels & Trolls.

There is an amazing amount of cool stuff for sale at Outlaw Press! Wow! T&T variants for superheroes and post-apocalypse gaming, tons of adventures, fiction, all kinds of crazy things.

Good stuff.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

My Craft Project

Stopped at Michaels Crafts on the way home yesterday...

Green flattened marbles: $2.99
12mm googly eyes: $0.89
Glue-Gun stick: $0.50
3:16 threat tokens eyeing the players with a monocular, baleful glare: Priceless

Terra- F*ck Yeah!!!

Ran a second game of three sixteen last night. (First game was a one-player with Joe a couple weeks ago, which I haven't written up yet.) There were a group of five people at Dave's house that night; when the time actually came -- after a couple boardgames were done -- two were willing to play; the other three had gotten deep into playing video games. Of the two willing to play, one left right after character generation because that was when his video-game-playing ride was leaving, so we were down to one, while two remaining people played video games.

This sort of thing is why I don't get to run a lot of games with this group, eh? RPGs, especially weird RPGs such as I might bring over, are absolutely the lowest possible priority.

But that's OK, I know that one-player games work fine, and Dave was into it. Dave's character Cutthroat became Sergeant Cutthroat (FA 5, NFA 5).

The game started a bit slow, because I didn't have a lot of interesting ideas for what was special about this mission (good or bad). It was Silicon beings in an Asteroid Belt. (Random roll after I rejected a couple previous rolls as being inappropriate for a first planet.) The gist of it was that you can't blow up an asteroid belt, nuke it from orbit, or whatever else, cause it's already an asteroid belt. You just have to go rock by rock by rock, killing the silicon lifeforms. So they'd deployed every damn trooper they had, rock by rock, spreading out around the whole belt.

Cutthroat's squad was dropped on a large asteroid, a few km wide, highly crystalline, like a geode turned inside out. No aliens apparent at first; they made their way into a cave and the first attack began.

The aliens were crystalline humanoids with "wings" consisting of fans of curved crystal shards, which they could use to fly in the solar wind. They could attack with the crystals, they were ridiculously strong and could throw troopers against the hard crystal walls, and there was one more attack that was revealed at the end.

One-player games, despite the fact that there are only five threat tokens, have proved to be hard as hell, the two times I ran them. I think part of it is that neither time did the one player take a really high FA. And if you don't have a really high FA, and you start out with a few failed rolls, or low successes, you get wounded FAST. And if your opponents have Armor, as these did, and your first success is wiped out...

Things went really badly in that first fight. REALLY badly. Wounds: A mess. Wounds: crippled. Armor: ticked.

The last round of this encounter the troopers had fallen back into space using the small ion jets on the Mandelbrite, regrouped, and made a full forward assault, guns blazing, straight against the Crystal Angels. Complete fucking failure. Combat drugs! Another fracking failure. All this over one threat token! ONE threat token had brought Sgt. Cutthroat to the brink of death! There were four to go!

To survive, Dave called on is weakness: "Feels Nothing." He described a situation in training where another trooper had freaked out and attacked some fellow troopers, and Cutthroat had gunned him down... and kept shooting... and kept shooting. OK. So the weakness seemed to be he doesn't necessarily give a damn about his fellow humans. Much like the "psychopath" thing in the example.

We decided that because he Felt Nothing he did not call off the attack when it went horribly wrong, and his entire squad got picked off one by one by slicing angel-feathers, he just kept on going and going until in one assault he was grabbed and thrown against a sharp crystal structure, causing his onboard computers to freak the hell out, desperately kicking in internal repair procedures trying to protect atmospheric integrity, and flooded him with painkillers, causing him to pass out. (Wound level back up to: A Mess.)

He woke up on a slab inside the asteroid, with arcs of crystal over him. His guns were in a case on the far side of the cave. There were several of the entities apparently "talking" amongst themselves somehow, discussing him. He was still in his armor, and therefore, alive. And alone.

He wanted to bust out and surprise attack them. Dominance roll didn't permit that, but he did get mutual surprise. He managed to crack off one of the arcs holding him down and improvise it into a piercing weapon. The dice were finally kind to him and he managed to take one down by piercing its "heart center" with the crystal shard... He hurled it at another and the creature (using its Armor to ignore the kill) absorbed the shard onto its body and went on the attack against Cutthroat with it, like a giant claw! I think maybe he got down to Crippled again at this point...

He managed an NFA roll to get past them and free his guns, and finished them off, filling the interior space of that cave with floating crystal fragments that were once aliens. As they died, the light went out in the cave -- it had been illuminated by their own bodies. (2 threat tokens down)

End of encounter. Now he was on his own inside the tunnel system of the asteroid. (Medikit time! Up to A Mess.)

He was going to hunt down the rest of these diamond bugs, dammit. He made his way through the caves... and found them deserted and dark, or as dark as silica in the sunlight gets. Like they'd all abandoned it. But we wanted another encounter... we rolled for dominance and got an Alien Ambush.

So he made his way to the surface again, through another tunnel... lookin for the damn bugs. And as he crawled out of the tunnel, he was enveloped in pure burning blinding light. The armor went into full panic mode as its heat compensators failed one by one and Sgt. Cutthroat started to cook inside his own armor... The remaining aliens from the rock were hovering in formation between the rock and the sun, and had formed a giant Fresnel lens with their wings and focused sunlight on him, like a magnifying glass on an ant.

His options exhausted and again Crippled, Dave called on Sgt. Cutthroat's Strength. Flashback: previous mission. They're on a jungle planet, and ambushed by arachnoid aliens who shoot webs down out of the trees and yank troopers up to their deaths faster than they can figure out what's going on. Sgt. Cutthroat is Cool Under Pressure and leads the way in incinerating the web structures in the trees and frying them like so many tent caterpillars. Flash Forward. Ignoring the heat, even as it builds to near lethal levels, he grips the crystal surface with the mandelbrite's boots and calmly draws a bead on the hostiles, one... by one.. by one.. by one.. by one... till instead of a point of horrible heat and light in the sky where they were, there's a bright stardust of fragments...

And he calls in with confirmed kills for the rock, and signals to the deployment ship that his squadron is ready for return. He manages to collect a few victims of that first horrible assault who were merely comatose and floating in their armor in space... and heads back to the ship.

He increased his HTH to 1d6 reflecting the brutal combat where he broke out of captivity.

He tried for an increase on his long range slug rifle to reflect the last attack, no luck.

He did not try for promotion. Because he used a weakness he would have been eligible for demotion if another PC had targeted him for it, but there were no other PCs. (I understand how this works now -- using a Weakness is kind of a dick move because it saves your ass and leaves the rest of the squad in danger. That's why your fellow PCs would target you for demotion over it.)

He got a respectable handful of medals. Increased his FA. And that was that.

Wow! Good little game. Single player games seem to be brutal, and drawn out if you don't have the FA to reliably take down aliens quickly. Note to self: if I get in any more single player games, recommend a high FA. :)

Nice to notice also that he used EVERY resource he had in this situation and barely made it out. Every wound level short of death, on every encounter, even after the use of medikits; his armor was ticked; he used Combat Drugs, a Weakness, and a Strength. Makes me feel like I did my job as GM. :)

UPDATE: he didn't use every resource -- he didn't use the E-Vac. But that's mainly cause I forgot it existed and so didn't tell him it was an option.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Forge vs. Work

I have really just not been paying that much attention to the Forge for a long time now. I'd drop in on Story Games, I'd chat with people who dig the games, get info second hand about what was going on, but I've just been kind of out of it. I don't know when it started but it's gone on for a long time now, like, maybe a couple years.

So now I'm off the wagon. The prospect of reading the details of the Under My Skin game that Ron, Rob, and others played at GenCon, whose images I'd seen on Story-Games, was one thing that sucked me in. There were some others, I don't remember. But I find myself following thread to thread, delving back in time, story to story, watching people explain things to each other and work out ideas, and talk about their play, and where to go...

And I'm digging into old threads I never followed the first time around, and picking up ideas for how to run and play Sorcerer, trying to figure out whether my one-sheet idea ("Impiety") is doable and how it'll be doable.. Learning how to run the Pool well and how not to...

Just a few threads here and there but it's so damned addictive, I have got to put this shit aside while I'm at work... but you open one and it refers to three others, and I just have to see what's in those three others, and I pop 'em open in another Firefox tab and keep reading...

I'm so off the wagon.

I think I've maybe... matured? I don't know, do you still mature when you're 38? Aren't you supposed to be done maturing? Let's say I've grown a little in knowledge and perspective since the last time I was really paying attention, and things mean more to me now than they once did.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How to Host a Dungeon

It's a Friday night and what am I doing? Sitting at a crappy card-table playing How to Host a Dungeon, the solo game of dungeon creation. Damn you Tony for making such a cool and addicting game! *shakes fist*

This is what I have so far:

A cluster of natural caves, some filled with horrific primordial beasts and others with a vile plague, lie waiting to be discovered...

A clan of dwarves, the Stonesplitters, began mining the rich vein of gold hideen deep beneath the earth, and for several years, their civilization thrived. They even built a great hall for their king, Naraz. But from the bowels of the earth, magma erupted forth, forcing the dwarves to abandon their mines and homes, and in their haste, leaving behind their greatest treasure, the Crown of Naraz...

A group of monsters moved in: antlings, goblins and a rakshasa. The antlings discovered the Crown and added it to their treasure, but an exploratory group from the Castle Halwn encountered them, and both groups were slain. The goblin clan grew for a while until a group of earth devils moved into the neighborhood and squashed them like gnats. The rakshasa spent most of the time going around eating everything she could find: an ooze, an ettin, adventurers, a giant slug. Then she hit a part of heroes that were too much for her. Granted, she took them down too, but her reign of dungeon snacking came to an end. An owlbear moved in, promising more monster on monster smackdown, but just at that time the earth devils accrued enough treasure to trigger the end of the Age of Monsters... and I had to stop playing.

Oh, I wanted to keep going into the Age of Villainy, but no... must escape the lure of the dungeon...

Monday, August 18, 2008

GenCon 08 Odds and Ends

A few notes here mostly for myself, cause I come back to entries like this months and years later, to help remember how things went...

  • I got a tiny bit of Sorcerer demo with Ron, cause he was demoing for somebody else and grabbed me in. Cool, cause I still want to run it sometime soon.

  • The guys playing Storming the Wizard's Tower kept the whiskey flowing all night. Rock.

  • Late nights watching the olympics (well, sometimes just watching Jason, Greg, and Robb watch the olympics cause I wasn't seated in view of the TV)

  • Demo of Fisherman's Wife from Julia Ellingboe herself, woot!

  • After the whiskey-fied game of Wizards Tower, chatting with the group, watched Julia hammering an icepick through copies of her game at 1 AM so she could do the stitch binding. Note to self: never piss off Julia, chick looks sweet and innocent but carries a hammer and an icepick around

  • I gotta start ordering my own stuff at Buca's rather than joining in the huge family size portions, it's delicious but I'm too old anymore to eat that much food at one sitting -- poor use of funds

  • Some things which seem fun and cool to do once, and then fun to repeat cause you did them before, you don't necessarily have to do them again a third time just for the sake of doing them, you can go do something else with your time. Like, I didn't snap pictures of cute costumed gencon attendees or go to MacNiven's and eat haggis this year.

  • Some things you do want to do again and again.

  • Took the utterly awesome HDR picture of the facade of the Indiana Repertory Theater that I knew was out there waiting for me to take

  • Met and talked to some new people, got to know some people by sight whom I knew only by name, and vice versa, got to re-meet some cool folks I've known for a long time

  • Tony Lower-Basch was really apologetic not to know me by sight, which was way silly, because we'd only met once before at a time when I was one of dozens of people he'd demo'ed Capes to; I mention it only because I'm always pleasantly surprised at how many people do remember me and are happy to see me in the indie games group; it's definitely a group of cool friendly people who like and care about the people who are interested in their games. There are still a ton of them that I don't really know at all yet, which means there are many gencons of meeting cool people to go.

  • It was the mildest (heat-wise) Gencon that I can remember.

Photo: Joe and Paul, playtesting

Bonus points if you can find Matt Snyder and myself in the picture.

Gaming at GenCon 08 part 2


Friday night I had a tough choice; Paul Czege had invited me to playtest Acts of Evil, but my friend Dave VanDyke had gotten intrigued by In a Wicked Age on the way down to Indy, and thought we could scare up a game that night while other folks in our party were having fun boardgaming. I went with my homeboys and Paul allowed that maybe we could do the playtest Saturday, which was very cool of him. By this time I'd gotten in touch with fellow Esoteric Murmurer Joe, who I hope will post his own report.

At first it looked like the guys might not be willing to set aside their boardgames for IAWA, which would have been frustrating, but Dave helped make it happen, and soon we had me, Dave, Joe, Matt "Kub" Kubiak, and Greg Bush ready to play In a Wicked Age. The oracle gave us some very grabby elements and some more oblique ones, and we managed to weave them together. We did a mostly good job picking Best Interests, though Greg's character, a spirit of the lower air, wasn't really directly connected to specific characters, which I think led to some boredom on Greg's part; he left the game about 2/3 of the way though. The other characters included a tyrant king (Joe), his 7th queen (Dave), who believed she too, like the first six, would be executed for not producing children, and so had sent for the palace guardian (Kub) from her own land to spirit her back home; but who had just learned that she was carrying the child of the King's chief huntsman (NPC), a fact which was known by the king's concubine (NPC). All of this involved a harvest festival which the King had banned, to everyone's disappointment, especially the spirit of the lower air who loved celebrations, and the proprietress of a wayhouse where the Queen had planned to meet the Guardians (concealed by the celebratory crowds).

Long story short, the story was spun on its head by the fact that Joe took, as the King's Best Interest, "to believe his wife is faithful to him." I thought that I would demolish this Best Interest at the beginning of the game when the concubine attempted to destroy the queen by revealing the secret to the king, but by the end of the game the best interest was in place, because the King had executed the concubine (on the pretense that she had lain with the woodsman) and slain the woodsman with his own scimitar, and had received the Queen back without speaking a word of the business, and the Queen had accepted the offer rather than run away with her Guardian, and she never spoke a word of it either, to the King... So the only people in the kingdom who knew of the adultery, besides the silent King and Queen, were dead. And the King had an heir.

Outstanding, just the kind of grand, violent, messed up story that IAWA is supposed to produce. I was really happy about it and told the story of the game (hopefully tolerably briefly) to basically everybody I talked to at the con.

Saturday I got up very late; took some time in the dealer room, and sooner than I liked, found that the day had passed and it was evening. No time for Games On Demand; I was going to Buca di Beppo for the traditional Saturday Night Gencon Pasta Feast in the Pope Room. Talking to Paul I found out it would work out to play at about 8:30, and Joe was up for it. So cool -- something could happen.

I left Beppo's by about 8:45 (doh!) for the Embassy and found Joe and Matt Snyder there with Paul. We started a game of Acts of Evil which took place in two places and times -- a big box store called Price Castle which is Wal-Mart if David Lynch were the store manager, and the Impressionist-era Paris art scene. I got to see the system as it stands -- I won't go into details on an unpublished game, but Paul has solved the biggest issue of the earliest versions of the game, where "Acts of Evil" had tended to turn into "Acts of Pointless, Vicious Squalor." Now there's some focus and interest to it, despite the evil.

Anyway, after about an hour and a half, Matt stopped and asked if Paul was hitting the issues that he was concerned with, and Paul wasn't so sure; he definitely wasn't hitting the mechanics he was hoping to test. We broke the session and started talking about what was up -- it turned out that we had indeed run into the problem that Paul saw as the final stumbling block to finishing the game, so we could talk about it from a point of view of specific examples; we discussed that baby to death for the next two and a half hours, with Ralph Mazza dropping in to help kibitz. Many solutions were proposed; none totally satisfactory. When we had all packed up and were heading away in the wee hours, Danielle met us and we briefly went over what was up one more time, and I repeated the inchoate feelings about the nature of the problem (I had a clear metaphorical idea of what was wrong and how it had to change but no clear idea how that metaphor could be translated into reality); I gave a silly, radical idea on how things could change, and Paul replied with a pause, and a very slow and distinct, "huh." Danielle brightened and said, "That's a good sound!!" Paul came back with his idea of what he thought I'd said, which was a considerably more crazy and radical idea than what I'd actually meant... and he seemed to have something bubbling in his head. So cross your fingers. Something's brewing in Paul's brain; I hope it's the thing he needs.

After Paul and Danielle left for the night Joe and I stopped to say hi to John Harper, who was in a big group of people, and he broke off to talk to us and we ended up shooting the shit into late, late into the night, about 3:30 or so. Got to learn about the current state of Stranger Things, and his plans for his next game.

That was it for gaming at GenCon 2008 for me. I think four games (Wizard's Tower, Lacuna, In a Wicked Age, and Acts of Evil) is a pretty awesome step forward after no full length games last time. I enjoyed meeting all the people I did, put faces to some names I hadn't before, and I'm already missing it and wanting to come back next year.

Maybe this year I can hit some con or get-together in between, like Forge Midwest or something.

Gaming At GenCon 08

It was a good Con. One of the things I've wanted to do that I haven't done in previous cons is just plain play. I love being there, I love meeting cool people, checking out new games, being out as one of a group of rowdy nerds pretending they're still in college together... But I haven't really done much play in the past. This time I wanted to play.

Thursday night I went to the Embassy Suites. I had done that a couple times last year; in both cases, everybody was already busy gaming; once I'd sat down and had a good talk with Paul, and another time I had just sat down and read all the way through my newly bought copy of Dictionary of Mu. This time, I started looking around and it looked like it might be the same thing all over again -- lots of games already in progress, nothing to join -- but then I happened on John Harper. He said "hey Ed! I've got somebody who wants to meet you!" -- and introduced me to Tony Dowler, cartographer extraordinaire. (Besides enjoying his work in the unpublished Stranger Things and similar places, I'd come across it linked on MetaFilter before!)

Tony was about to join John, Matt Wilson, his friend Brandon, and Vincent Baker in a game of Storming the Wizard's Tower, an in-progress game of Vincent's which was his personal answer to monster-fightin' old school D&D. (Paul Czege on encountering us playing the game, asks Vincent: "are you ever NOT designing something?" Vincent: "uh... no.") They invited me to join, and that was my first game of the con. So it had begun! This time I was gaming!

STWT worked well for what it was (we got our asses handed to us but it was very fun play). I don't particularly need what it is -- if I wanted something like that, I'd probably go with Tunnels & Trolls, which for me holds all the nostalgia value and is light and enjoyable and good at being what it is (no need to reinvent it). It was fun getting pissed off by those jerkface Swamp People, and fighting our way down to the Crow Mother under the river...

Friday I found my way to the Games On Demand room, and Mike Holmes was there, and hooked me and a few other players up with Graham Walmsley, whose book Play Unsafe had been so important to me (both in itself, and because it had introduced me to Keith Johnstone's Impro). I was glad to meet Graham; he had just been running Poison'd for a group and asked us what we were interested in. After bandying a few things about we came up with Lacuna, which was great because I knew from the book that Graham really dug it, and I knew next to nothing about it, which was perfect.

English comedian John Oliver starts his act in America with the warning, "because I speak with an English accent, everything you are about to hear will sound slightly more authoritative." That phenomenon worked to good effect with Graham in Lacuna, where you play an agent, always in communication with the mysterious voice of "Control" (the GM -- Graham) who has sent you into the game world to carry out a mission. In our case it was an assassination, and our target was given to us only as a mysterious photograph.

One particular thing sticks in my mind as bringing out the extremely paranoiac atmosphere of Lacuna. Agents are assigned names by Control (and we put those names on little cards in front of us) -- we were Tapper, Miller, Hooper, and Black. I was Hooper. Early on in the game, I got a message from Control, informing me that the name "Hooper" had been reallocated, and I was now Agent Haywood. A bit later, we managed to trace the identity of the person in the photograph, whom we were to assassinate. His name was Hooper.

It was a good game. Graham's love for the game was clearly evident, and my fellow agents were inquisitive and interesting. Agent Miller especially, whose real name eludes me, was a lot of fun, because he brought to the table a very "special ops" attitude, like a tough and canny mercenary, not a creepy intelligence agent; I kept thinking of him as Brian Van Hoose from Knights of the Dinner Table, playing the fictional espionage game "Hacknoia," watching the mission go horribly wrong and always trying to stay on top of the situation, out-think everybody, and keep in control as best he could.

I'm going to post this now and add to it later.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Blast from the Past

Vincent on IAWA, March 2008:

I don't do any world creation stuff at all before character creation and I try to keep a tight lid on backstory during character creation. The philosophy's very much "we start HERE and go forward."

Me (well, rules ideas by me, written up by Steffan O'Sullivan) in 1992:

Instead of creating characters before starting the game, create them as the game progresses! [...]

The players start with most of the character sheets blank - simply write out a brief sentence or two describing the character in a general way. ("Jeb is a surly dwarf, a good fighter, who is out to make a name for himself as a mean customer - and pick up some loot on the way. He likes to talk tough, and doesn't care much for halflings")

As the character is confronted with challenging situations, the player must decide the level of the trait in question...

Ah, here's some of the original discussion...

(In my "dream system", characteristics would not necessarily be listed in terms of ability or power, on graded scales of any time. They would be whatever properties defined the character, whether useful or not, and gave him a place in the story. They would accumulate during the story, and not be spelled out beforehand (though they could be planned, they needn't be)... But I'm not sure in how much detail such a thing can be done...)
I'm not trying to say I anticipated the Forge a decade earlier (elsewhere in the thread SOS points out that some of what I'm saying sounds very Over The Edge-ish, so it's not like nobody was publishing these sorts of things already at the time), but more that it's not too surprising that certain Forge directions and designs seemed so cool to me when I discovered them.

I was reading Umberto Eco at the time, and the idea of characters being defined and created moment by moment by the text in which they existed was bopping around my head...

Out Of It, Missed Things

I was never really deep into discussions of RPG design and play and theory at El Forge and Story Games and all, but there was a time when I followed them. I haven't for a long time. For whatever reason I find myself starting to again.

This is mostly Chris Kubasik and Vincent talking about In a Wicked Age and Sorcerer; I think I was directed to it by some other Sorcerer-related threads on Story Games, which I followed because I was interested in CK's plan to do a how-to-play-sorcerer book.

It sent me to this one, which is about how in indie RPGs people often fall off the other side of the GM fiat horse, and don't let the narrative affect the rules, other than just to set up opportunities to use them. My impression is that many of the older-school Forgies take "just plain roleplaying" where you establish consensus on the imagined reality just by talking it out and agreeing on it absolutely for granted, but many Forge-inspired designs and many Forge-inspired players seem to leave that behind, and just want to think about the mechanics as a closed universe, and this leads them to misunderstand the ways in which games like Sorcerer and In a Wicked Age and others depend on that narrative consensus to make the rest of the rules make sense.


I think this is really strongly tied to what Ben Lehman's fictional elements for strategic choices thing, or Emily's story capital thing. At it's heart, I think it's about where the play rides on straight Baker-Care principle- the fiction says this, and it makes sense to us, as a group, that the following results should happen.

Though I think a lot of folks conflate that with the usual cop-out to dodging broken rules or fiat-y behavior, which historically has been the case for a lot of play, instead of being used in conjuction with the mechanics & cues.

That thread bounced me back to this Forge thread about Sorcerer combat and character death and lack thereof.

So... I wonder if I can track down a game of Sorcerer, IAWA, or Poison'd at Games on Demand or the Embassy Suites this coming week.....

Sunday, August 03, 2008

1983 Interview With Ken St. Andre

Stumbled across this awesome interview, available on the Fiendish Board Games site.

On T&T's silly spell names:

**** 'em If they can't take a joke! I still feel that the T&T spell names are as good or better than any others on the market. They are descriptive and amusing. There is a rationale for them being slightly silly. And besides, they are a game mechanism, like saving rolls, not an integral part of the T&T world.

On the future of roleplaying (as of 1983):

Nothing ever dies out. There are still blacksmiths for gods' sake, and people who wear armour and knock each other off horses with sticks. People are still playing the same crude board games they had in ancient Egypt (*JH ..and calling them Kensington and charging a fortune for them.) No, FRP won't die. But the golden age is already past. It will become less and less important, The true future of the art is in computers, and the true money also. Which is why Flying Buffalo has been trying hard for the last 4 years to get Coleco to come out with the computer version of T&T. Role playing games may be increasing in popularity and viability in England, but they are over the hill here.

On the possibility of a T&T Monster Manual:

Monsters! I think the Fiend Factory in White Dwarf is absolutely ridiculous! I'm against Monster Manuals! Bestiaries, yes, manuals, no! I'm enthralled and delighted when someone makes up a new monster and springs it on me in a game. I only encountered purple death hippos once, but it was great!

On trolls turning to stone when struck by sunlight:

Some do, some don't, At any rate, it isn't a permanent change. Trolls regenerate, so by the next night they would overcome the damage of being turned to stone and would gain mobility again. However, all my trolls tend to avoid direct sunlight, using a large parasol if necessary to go about by daylight.

On the lack of religion & clerics in T&T:

There has been a good deal of criticism of the lack of organised religion in the T&T rules, but I happen to believe that the world would be a lot better off without most of its organised religions, and that's the kind of place I wanted for my fantasy adventuring.

On whether you should design your own RPG:

Yes. The main pleasure of FRP is that of creation - creating a character, creating a world, creating a game system - it's all the same high. If you can create a better game system, more power to you! On the other hand, everyone should have at least one copy of Tunnels & Trolls, if only to give you an example of how it's done (or a bad example if you are a D&D person)! And no one should be afraid to try someone else's system. You may get some ideas!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The hell?

How the hell did I make it onto an RPG Motivational Poster?

You can't post NUTTIN on the Inter Net without some crazy dude making it into a motivational poster!

/me subscribes to Mutant Foursome now...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Art that Takes You Back To Another Time

Jeff Rients linked to Malcadon's deviantArt gallery. Mr. Malcadon is apparently illustrating the Gamma World retro-semi-clone Mutant Future.

Gamma World is the second RPG I ever owned (after Tunnels & Trolls) and has a special place in my heart, so I think Mutant Future is cool.

Malcadon's art is hard to classify. Because a lot of it is simple pencil sketchwork (sometimes even on blue lined paper! Now THAT takes me back to middle school) it has a very amateur, fan-art vibe to it, but if you go through the whole collection you'll see that behind the often amateurish look and adolescent glorying-in-violence-nakedness-and-weirdness is a good grasp of anatomy and proportion, perspective, composition, color, and all kinds of good art stuff. So there are layers here.

As a matter of historical fact, the original Gamma World never had this kind of DIY look -- it was largely slick-as-hell David Trampier inkwork. So putting Malcadon on illustration duty for Mutant Future isn't an accurate homage to Gamma World in particular, but it's very much an appropriate shout out to the late 70s. Malcadon's no Trampier (who is? Tramp was one-of-a-kind) but his work is often reminiscent of David C. Sutherland, for example.

(Note -- when I talk about "amateurish look" I'm trying to be descriptive, not judgmental. I'm talking about a style, not a level of skill. Just want to be extra clear on that.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Thank You Rondo

Thanks to a gift from Rondo, Mesmerator of the 65th Quadrant, I am now prepared, should I need to run Encounter Critical at any time.

Thank you Rondo!

Warrior and Wizard

Chris Goodwin is producing a retro-clone of The Fantasy Trip called Warrior and Wizard.

That is sweet. The Fantasy Trip was always an awesome, tight little system. A lot more in common with my beloved Tunnels & Trolls, say, than with D&D (though TFT is comparatively rules-heavy). It seemed a shame to me that TFT drank the Champions kool-aid and morphed into point-based GURPS.

Plus Wizard had the creepiest cover EVAR.

Apparently the first version, which I never saw, was not so obviously the product of a bad drug trip.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Player's Handbook Demon Moonlighting

I was reading an old Dilbert book yesterday and ran across this strip.

Is it just me or is that the first edition AD&D player's handbook cover demon?

Brow ridges, horns, mouth shape, teeth, nose, arm position...

(Hotlinking to Grognardia's copy of the image here... it's all on Blogger's servers, right?...)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Ed (moi) now has a deviantArt account. Not much there yet.

And Adam Black just got one too! Much more stuff there.

UPDATE: I just added 38 more images. Yow!

Did I mention Joe has a dA account too? :)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"I Don't Speak Dragon"

This post contains spoilers for The Keep on the Shadowfell, though not many. Consider yourself warned.

The other night I ran my second game of D&D 4. I'm running The Keep on the Shadowfell, with some changes. The big thing is that I'm scaling the encounters down in power a bit since I only have 4 players. The first game I ran I did not lower the encounter levels and it was rough. It was just the kobold ambush encounters, but they were overly harsh.

The characters are:

Bram, human wizard; Lyssa, eladrin cleric of Corellon; Ander, dragonborn rogue, found as a hatchling by halflings and raised by them; and Ivy, human fighter.

I used the "missing mentor" hook and personalized it by saying that Douven, the mentor, was Bram's uncle, and that his aunt Greta wanted Bram and his friends to find her husband. They went to Winterhaven, encountered the aforementioned kobolds and befriended some locals, most notably Valthrun the sage.

Ander, the dragonborn rogue really got to shine this time around.

The group were heading to the dragon burial site that Uncle Douven was thought to have gone to. Once at the location, they heard many voices, and Ander snuck up to the site. It was a group of human thugs led by a gnome.

(I had decided to remove the guardian drakes and add more human rabble.)

Ander was on fire with his stealth and athletics, sneaking and sliding down the slope into the burial site, but he stepped on a large dry branch, giving himself away. The jumpy gnome shot at him with his crossbow, a warning shot. Things were looking bad for Ander. A fairly large group of club wielding thugs surrounded him. Then he started to shovel the BS.

He told them that he was on a pilgrimage to visit the grave of one of his ancestral dragons. The thing is, Ander's bluff score is pretty crappy, +1. But, he pulled off a great roll and the gnome was not insightful enough to see through Ander's lies.

Ander knelt down next to the grave and began chanting in draconic. Bram, the wizard, knows draconic (Ander determined during his bluff that the gnome did not know the language by saying something to him in draconic and the gnome giving him a blank look). Ander began covertly telling Bram how many opponents they had, how they were armed, etc. Brilliant! Bram then used the Ghost Sound cantrip to relay this info to Ivy, who then whispered it to Lyssa.

Lyssa, our high perception eladrin, heard the gnome tell one of the thugs to kill this chanting fool so they could clean out (they had found what they were looking for), so Ivy shot the gnome with her short bow and all hell broke loose

It was cool and tense with Ander surrounded by thugs trying to bluff. The whole time he had a shuriken hidden in his hand, just waiting to throw it. In fact, once the shit went down, in one turn, he unleased his acid breath, killing two of the humans and using the shuriken to kill another with a throat shot.

The halfling slinger. who had been hidden the whole time finally revealed herself and started raining sling stones down on the adventurers. She did quite a bit of damage, and eventually escaped unscathed. Now I have a foe that might be back someday to try and get revenge on the group.

The gnome was shot a few times by Ivy, then Bram unleashed his Flaming Sphere, frying him. Lyssa finally finished him off with her Lance of Faith while he tried to escape.

Uncle Douven was rescued and the group has a few clues about the Cult of Orcus and the rift of the Shadowfell, but first they have been asked by Lord Padraig of Winterhaven to help stamp out their kobold problems, which is where they will start next time around.

All in all, I think this session went better than the first one. The first time out, I was trying to juggle and teach the rules, and rushed through things to get to encounters. This time I took it slower, had a lot more interaction with NPC's. Also, lowering the difficulty of the encounter helped a bit. The PCs still were taking some serious damage, but it wasn't completely overwhelming.

I'm really looking forward to the next game.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Roger That!

This makes me want Danger Patrol even more than I already did.

Friday, July 04, 2008

OD&D as the Gom Jabbar

Geez, I've been really digging the whole "retro-roleplaying," back-to-Old-School-OD&D movement, but if it encourages this sort of shit, if that's the attitude that people involved bring to the table, count me out.

It's like a bad parody of a Frank Herbert character.

Holding up old school OD&D as some kind of paragon of deep creative human activity, for the few true humans among us, who rise above all the rest (he didn't quite get around to using the word "sheeple") and shun mere "fun" because we want to work HARD for our gaming DAMMIT! FUN IS FOR THE WEAK AND FEEBLE OF SOUUUULLLLLLLLL


Via Retro Roleplaying, who linked it mostly approvingly, via various google searches on Labyrinth Lord and Swords and Wizardry.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Grognardia on Player's Handbook Covers

Grognardia has begun a series on the history of art in D&D with discussions of three Player's Handbook covers: understandably, for a blog called Grognardia (but I think he justifies this assessment cogently), he considers the AD&D PHB cover the Best Cover Ever; he moves on to the revised cover of the same book, which came out I guess in 1983? -- and moves on to the 2nd Edition cover.

I was never a real grognard in the sense that I played old school D&D for any extended period of time; I played Tunnels & Trolls. However, I did own the AD&D books, and I had friends who played D&D who I played with sometimes. And I guess I bought mine pretty early and so did my friends, because the oldest AD&D art is what I associate with AD&D. I couldn't have told you what was even on the "revised cover" AD&D players' handbook, and 2nd edition D&D -- well, I was never a big D&D fan to begin with, and by the time 2nd edition came out I was playing other things.

So not out of loyal old-school grognardism, but just from being out of touch, my mental idea of what D&D is is extremely old school (but not ultimately super-old school, because while I owned a copy of white-box OD&D, I bought it as a curiosity, not because I knew anybody who played it).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Ancient Roman D20 for sale, $18,000 - Boing Boing


Kevin Andrew Murphy sez, "I knew that Lady Puabi of Ur had d4s for the game boards found in her tomb, but it turns out the Romans had d20s and a nice green glass one is currently up for sale at Christie's. Only $17,925, for the gamer who has everything."

[From Ancient Roman D20 for sale, $18,000 - Boing Boing]

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

We lost Erick. :(

Erick Wujcik Passes Quietly

Beloved role-playing game designer, Erick Wujcik, passed away Saturday evening, June 7, 2008. He died from complications related to pancreatic and liver cancer. Kathryn Kozora, his sweetheart of over 30 years, and other loved ones were at his side.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Grognard's Challenge -- Ed's Answer Sheet and Results

Answers here.

Holy crap, the majority of my educated guesses were correct, giving me a final score of 41 out of 50.

Diagnosis: "40-49 I suspect you're probably wearing D&D underoos right now. For God's sake, put on some pants!"

Wrong answers marked below with the Sign of FAIL.

1) : C

2) : C (guess, 2nd guess: A)

3: B

4: C

5: C

6: A

7: E

8: D

9: C (a guess, having ruled out A and B, and probably D and E)

10: B (I first thought A, but wasn't A in module B2?)

11: C (total guess) FAIL

12: E (total guess) FAIL

13: A

14: D

15: A (total guess) FAIL

16: A (total guess) FAIL

17: D

18: A

19: E (mostly a guess)

20: C

21: D

22: C (ruling out E and D, all the rest seem unlikely, Jorune seems too late, EPT seems slightly too early, but the genre is close to correct... let's say C) FAIL

23: C (total guess)

24: C

25 : D (total guess) FAIL

26: E

27: E (educated guess) FAIL

28: C

29: B

30: C

31: E (I said A at first but something is nagging at me telling me it's E, despite the relative publication dates of the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements)

32: B

33: E (vague memory/mostly a guess)

34: C (mostly guess, after ruling out some of 'em) FAIL

35: B

36: D (guess)

37: B

38: D

39: D (mostly guess)

40: D

41: C (mostly guess)

42: A

43: E (nigh-total guess) FAIL

44: B (semi-guess)

45: E (mostly guess)

46: C (ruling out A, B, and D)

47: D (Guess, after ruling out B, C, and E)

48: C

49: E

50: D

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Grognards' Challenge

If you've been a gamer for more of your life than you've *not* been a gamer, you MUST take Jeff Rients' trivia challenge.

Of the 50, I'm 100% certain of my answers to 28 of them, have reasonable guesses for 9 of them, and am completely in the dark on the remaining 13.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ruzalia and the Prince of Ardova: A Tale of Ribaldry, and Intrigue

Went to Okemos again to visit Joe, and the first order of business was to find out what happens next with Ruzalia.

I was going to use consciously improv'ed GMing again, as I had last time. Having enjoyed Play Unsafe, I had gone one step further and had bought a copy of Keith Johnstone's Impro, the Bible of improvisational theater, and Graham's main source for Play Unsafe. I was about halfway through Impro at the time, having just read the part about narrative structure.

This is an important part for me -- the idea that you can make stories whole by a two-movement process; first, spinning out ideas, then, connecting all the dots you've painted. Expansion and contraction, opening and closing, to a point of literal closure.

I had no idea what was going to happen this time; I'd tossed around some vague ideas in my head but none of them made it into the game.

So what happened?

We very much wanted this adventure to happen in a city. Ruzalia is kind of a Gray Mouser-esque figure in some ways, and we wanted to put her back in that environment; also, the rules of TSOY make it very hard on an isolated character -- it's impossible to refresh your attribute pools without human contact, and that was killing her last time. (Nearly literally killing her.) So this one was going to be about people.

Joe brought to the table the idea that she'd paid for a few months at a tavern called the Dancing Goat (its signboard: a satyr leaping) with the loot from the tower in the last adventure, and was taking it easy. He also had the idea that she would be exercising her storytelling skill, and that she was going to use it to impress a woman in the audience, whom she had identified as a magician -- establishing a relationship with her, so that she would have someone to teach her three-corner-magic Secrets in the future. (It turns out Ruzalia is bisexual. Hey, why not?)

At some point in this process I threw out the following:

- A group of bearded, burly men in the corner, led by an older guy, always talk politics. They always shut up when certain people come into the tavern -- the pattern of who they shut up for is not yet clear to Ruzalia.

- A young guy named Benido, who's reasonably good on the guitar, accompanies Ruzalia when she's storytelling. (Uninvited.) He's got a pretty obvious crush on her.

- The mage is named Ilona, and seems rich and well-dressed. She's blonde, which is unusual except for amongst the nobles in Maldor, but she doesn't quite look like a typical Maldoran noble; something foreign about her features.

Ruzalia's tale is something she composed herself, the Ribald Tale of the Prince of Durillo. Durillo is a principality just to the north of Ardova, and a political rival. Ardovans have a rivalry with Durillans, and a low opinion of their morals and habits, comparable to England's rivalry with France. (And vice versa, of course.) The Ribald Tale is worthy of Chaucer, and dwells unflatteringly on the Prince's predilection for well-endowed goblins.

The tale is well received, and Ruzalia joins Ilona at her table, bringing some Ammenite rice wine, and gets to know her. It turns out that Ruzalia's description of the Prince of Durillo is pretty accurate... and Ilona is a former lover of his! [Aggressive and improbable reincorporation on my part. Sue me.] Ilona had grown tired of his increasingly perverse habits, and fled Durillo.

Ilona is receptive to Ruzalia's advances, but insists she has other business tonight -- at the palace. Ruzalia manages to make her forget her other business [successful Savoir-Faire roll], and they retire to Ruzalia's room, where their newfound friendship proves quite exhausting. And Ilona proves quite vocal. (Everybody in the Dancing Goat is going to be looking at Ruzalia a little oddly from now on...)

The next morning, Ilona leaves Ruzalia a bracelet with her signet on it, telling her that it will get her into the Palace if she wishes to visit. Then Ilona leaves for the Ardovan palace, an errand which she says she cannot delay any longer.

OK, what have we got out there now? 1. Ilona and her newfound affection for Ruzalia, 2. Ilona's urgent journey to the palace, and her history in Durillo, 3. the old burly guys in the corner talking politics, 4. Benido, 5. Signet jewelry gets you admission to the palace in Ardova.

Wow. Lots on the table. Will it all be pulled together by the end of the adventure? That's how the story-improv'ing works. Expand then contract; create then reincorporate. Right now we're just creating.

With all this over we had kind of a quiet spot. Nothing impelling immediate action. Ilona was gone; the Dancing Goat was very quiet. Ruzalia took the day off to recover from the previous strenuous night. That evening she noticed that the guys in the corner who talk politics weren't there at all. That was the first time she'd seen that happen. Odd. And now that she remembered, they'd shut up when Ilona was there.

The next day, OK, enough lazing around. Time for Ruzalia to do normal Ruzalia things, whatever those are.

Well, she's a treasure hunter by trade. So she went to Ardova's market district, to Antiquarians' Corner, to talk to the old antiquities traders she sells treasure to, and buys treasure-maps from. She asks her best customer, Maimonides, about the guys in the corner of the Dancing Goat, the ones who talk politics. He recognizes them by their descriptions. The older man who seemed to be the leader is Aramón, a former captain of the palace and city guard. The others are all former guardsmen, who had been removed from service at one time or another.

Hm. Perhaps sinister chaps. Plotting revenge for being let go?

Ruzalia considers paying a visit to the palace, using Ilona's signet bracelet.... or at least scouting out a part of town she's basically never been to.

Soon we find her in the more noble sections of town. This is Maldor, so we don't have gleaming marble buildings in perfect condition; the difference between the rich center of Ardova and the poor outskirts is that in the rich center, the glorious buildings have been crudely repaired wherever they are blasted and broken, whereas in the poor section they're just inhabited the way they are or else torn down for building stones, which are used to make smaller, rough buildings.

She finds herself sticking out a bit, in this part of town, in her lower-class clothes, and realizes she'll never make it into the palace dressed that way. She's still fairly well heeled after her last adventure, so she decides to upgrade her wardrobe. She finds a dress shop and convinces/pays a very surprised and skeptical tailor to make a dress immediately... And she walks out of the shop resplendent in finery. [New element: noble dress, and blending in vs sticking out]

Which gets her into trouble. One of the city guards from this part of town was following her before she entered the shop, and watched till she left, and he lays hands on her and accuses her of the crime of dressing above her station.

He himself has hands laid on him from behind -- It's Aramón! Aramón is not someone you mess with, he's built like Brain Blessed, and intimidates the guard into leaving Ruzalia along. She casts a divination on him to find out his general disposition.... and gets the answer "Protective," which surprises her. [Reincorporation: Aramón]

He walks Ruzalia back to the Dancing Goat and they confide in each other. She finds out that he and his little coterie are all royal guards who have been fired, one by one, after being accused falsely of various crimes by agents of the Chamberlain (never trust a Chamberlain!). Aramón has taken it upon himself to keep informed about the politics inside the Palace, trying to find out what's going on. Hence the discussions about politics all the time. They have clammed up whenever anyone who had, or seemed to have, palace connections, and whom they didn't trust, appeared.

Anyway, one by one their informants within the palace have shut up or been expelled, they're in the dark about what's going on in the palace, and they've become increasingly certain that a coup is in the works. (They're all loyal to the Prince, who's young and not necessarily very wise, but a good guy by their standards.) At first they thought that Ilona might be involved, perhaps as part of a plot from Durillo, which is why they'd clammed up around her and not shown up the next day, but some frenzied intelligence-gathering on their part was able to rule that out. Now they have no eyes, ears, or mouthpiece inside the Palace, and they wish to get a warning to the Prince.

Aramón and Ruzalia having joined the rest of the group, he asks Ruzalia, hesitantly, if she would be able to get in touch with Ilona, and perhaps get a message to the prince through her. She agrees to try... for a price. (She's got the Key of Glittering Gold and is getting hooked on the feel of fine clothes.) The men agree to her price and pay it beforehand, give her a scroll with a blank seal with the message inside, and she sets off for the palace.

[OK, threads are beginning to be drawn together. We're closing in. We've accounted for the men in the tavern talking politics, and connected them to the Palace, and given them an interest in Ruzalia, and flipped them over from menacing to benevolent.]

Getting into the palace is fairly easy. She shows a butler the token, and he takes her to a room where she waits for a few minutes. He comes back quickly and looks extremely awkward and embarrassed, and leads her deep into the palace, and opens a door for her and stands aside. Inside she finds the Prince of Ardova himself, and Ilona embracing him... both naked, in a bath.

And Ilona invites her to join them.

[OK, we now see that Ilona's got something of a prince fetish, and while the Prince of Durillo might have been a bit too out there for her, she's making herself quite at home with the Prince of Ardova... reincorporation: Ilona as an ardent devotee of pleasure; debauched nobles]

"Business before pleasure, I'm afraid," says Ruzalia, and she explains her mission and gives the prince the scroll. He breaks the seal, reads the contents, and turns white. He's connected the dots between what's in the scroll and what he's seen in the court lately and has concluded this is going down tonight, that he is possibly minutes away from assassination.

He, Ilona, and Ruzalia quickly plan an escape. They need disguises... Ilona summons the uncomfortable butler from outside the door and explains that they need two maidservants' uniforms and one manservant's, to fit the three of them. She explains that they're going to play a game that they play in Durillo, called "The Naughty Footman," and that they'll need at least an hour undisturbed to do so. The butler reaches epic levels of flusteredness but obeys. [Reincorporation: debauchery among nobles, especially in Durillo; clothes allowing one to blend in or not]

Ruzalia has the clever idea that Ilona use the Living Morph Secret to switch genders between Ilona and the Prince, since either would be recognized in the palace as themselves. She obliges, and soon Ruzalia, the Prince(ess) and Ilona the Footman are escaping the palace at great speed, Ruzalia greatly regretful that she has left her new dress behind!

They make it back to the Dancing Goat, and Ruzalia dresses in some of her old clothes and provides Ilona with one of her tunics... But she's got no men's clothes for the Prince... Till she slips downstairs and gets Benido, who is about the Prince's size, to bring over a change of clothes -- "Ssh! I'll explain later!"

[We've reincorporated Benido! Yay!]

Once they're all dressed again they come downstairs to meet Aramón and his men. The Prince embraces Aramón and they all pledge loyalty to the Prince. He declares them the new, true, and rightful Royal Guard and everyone races back to the Palace, and basically the prince invades his own palace.

They begin securing the palace, sorting the guards swiftly into the ones they trust and the ones they've stripped of their weapons and armor and sent packing. Ruzalia and Ilona think this is going too slow... they exchange glances and slip off to find the Chamberlain themselves!

They find their way to his rooms and only have to disable one guard on the way... [Following Play Unsafe's suggestion: "don't put gratuitous obstacles in the way of success just because things are happening too quickly... Let the players succeed, and play out what happens when they succeed"] They find the Chamberlain in a council-chamber, with two guards of his own. He's a man in his late 40s, looking like something between the Evil Prince and the Evil Count from Princess Bride.

Ilona attacks the guards with flaming hands while Ruzalia takes on the Chamberlain in a bare-knuckle brawl, which is the final battle of the adventure (using TSOY's Bringing Down The Pain rules). She wins. :)

In the denoument, she is offered a Title (Lady Ruzalia) but turns it down; she is instead given an Honor, awarded the name of Defender of Ardova for her efforts, and a sigil-jewel of her own is carved, giving her access to the palace should she choose to return. Oh, and she's richly rewarded in glittering gold. The Chamberlain is tried for treason and no doubt executed; Aramón is restored to his position as captain of the royal guard.

[And all the pieces are brought together. Well, I could have brought Maimonides into it a little more; he was kind of a turning point, where the adventure had started to leave her behind but she found her way back into it by means of learning from him who Aramón and company were. It would have been even better if I'd found a way of getting him back into things but to be honest I'd forgotten about him completely by the end.]

In Impro, Keith Johnstone says that many writers make the mistake of looking forward when they're stuck; they should be looking back at what they've already done to find out where they're going; this is advice which is also reflected in the Story chapter of Play Unsafe. It works!

I kept a page of very quick notes on everything that had happened, and whenever I was unsure where to take things next, I scanned over what we already had for ideas on where to go.

I did kind of a lot of plotting; set the direction for the adventure in many ways, which might have come across as railroading if it had been done beforehand, but, Joe will correct me if I'm wrong, I think that since everything I did grew out of things that he initiated, one way or another, and I didn't come to the game with an agenda of where I wanted it to go, any railroading effect was negated.

I mean, if he hadn't brought in Ilona and the Ribald Tale of the Prince of Durillo, which happened in the first minutes of the game, what would be left of the adventure? Everything grew out of the interaction of those story elements with the group of men in the corner talking politics, which I'd spun into existence out of nowhere at the very beginning as well.

So I'm definitely digging this improv-GMing thing. Hats off to Graham for getting me into this stuff. I've never GMed as much as I might like, because I never prepare anything I'm really enthusiastic about. This is fun.

It'll work better with some roleplaying games than others, of course. It'd be difficult to improv up a well-made Champions villain, for example.... careful construction is kind of the point of that. And even with TSOY I had to make allowances -- you're supposed to give experience points for the players participating in certain Key Scenes, which the GM comes up with beforehand. Well, I hadn't come up with anything beforehand, so I had to decide as they happened which scenes were awesome enough that they ought to be Key.

But I enjoyed this game even more than the last one, and the last one was pretty fun. It's still kind of amazing to me that I didn't know any of this was going to happen before it started taking shape during the game, and yet it hangs together into a unified story.

Good times.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Local Comic Shop Guy Shot

UPDATE: People are raising money to help out.

Friends of a comic-book store owner shot in an apparent robbery said they can't understand why the shop would be a target.

David Pirkola is in critical but stable condition in a local hospital, said Stephen Jahner, who owns Apparitions Comics and Books with Pirkola.

"People open comic stores because they love comics and are lucky if they can make a living," Jahner said. "It's not like we ever have a lot of cash in the store. It's just unbelievable."

Kentwood police said a man entered the store at 2757 Ridgemoor Drive SE around 7 p.m. and demanded money, shot Pirkola and fled.

Jahner said Saturday he has known Pirkola for decades.

"He's just a sweet guy, one of the nicest people you'll ever meet," he said. "He's the kind of guy you want watching your back."

[From Friend: Comic store owner critically hurt in shooting - Latest News - The Grand Rapids Press -]

That's where I buy Knights of the Dinner Table and PvP every month. There are few places I can think of less likely for a robbery an shooting. I heard about this late Friday night in the news and I still can't believe it. Dave's a totally nice guy. Robbing a comic book store? Robbing Dave's comic book store? And shooting? And now Dave's in the hospital in critical condition for a gunshot wound? It's terrible and it doesn't make any sense.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ruzalia by James West

A few weeks ago I contacted James West (author of The Pool and The Questing Beast, as well as an artist for Trollbabe and The Shadow of Yesterday) about doing a commission for me of my character, Ruzalia, from The Shadow of Yesterday game that Ed's been running. Man, did he come through!James has got some great new stuff out there. Here's a sampling of it:

Zoa Space Fantasy: A kick ass space/fantasy comic.

The Wizards of Ur: This a blog that James does with several other like-minded artist, where they share art and other interesting stuff.

Blood Red Comics: WARNING: This site is not work safe. A gallery of swords and sorcery women. Also linked from this site, is his "grab bag sale." Basically you give him some cash and he sends you a random piece of art from the site. So far I've gotten these ones:

Sword Maiden and the Beast
Howzit Going

So yeah, cool stuff. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's Like When Weird Al Mocks Your Song

A threshold has been crossed. For the first time in the history of the comic, Knights of the Dinner Table characters have been depicted playing a Forge-Forged, indie RPG -- to wit, John Harper's Agon, which was reviewed in their monthly indie RPG review column.

Damn. Indie RPGs have arrived.

Congratulations, John Harper.

Of course it's the Black Hands playing it. That little dysfunctional family is at each other's throats no matter what they play. :)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Nostalgia: TFOS

While digging through my game closet tonight, I stumbled across my three different editions of Teenagers From Outer Space. Man, that game really brings back some memories. It was one of the first games I ever played with Ed way back in 1987. 1987? Man, I feel old...

Tucked away inside the first edition were a bunch of characters, so I thought it'd be cool to scan some of the drawings Ed did back then and post them. I hope you don't mind Ed.We have, from, left to right: Mikrontin (Mike) Benizok (played by me), Jamison B. Zwuulii (played by Glenn), and Marvin Thpthpthpthpthp (played by Kev). Marvin had the best Trait ever: Scarf w/o Barf. Ed, I can't remember, did he get naked when he got big?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

MLWM Boing Boinged!

My Life With Master: "As seminal to RPGs as Frankenstein was for literature" - Boing Boing:
Boing Boing posted a link to a short review of My Life With Master by Greg Costikyan.

This is up there with Slashdotting TSOY, IMHO.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Ruzalia [TSoY]

Here is a drawing of Ruzalia, my character from The Shadow of Yesterday game that Ed ran, and previously blogged about. Ed did the drawing, I did the digital coloring.

I Played The Shadow of Yesterday.

I got to play TSoY today. Actually I ran a game of it. I was over at Joe's for the day, and we'd been talking about playing it for a few weeks. He'd made a character named Ruzalia, who's a treasure hunter and adventuress with a little knowledge of three-corner magic.

There were a couple of "will this work? How will this work?" issues. First off we wanted to try out TSoY, which we never had before, and get used to the rules. Second off, well, I'd bought Play Unsafe a month or so ago, and I wanted to try improv-ing the GMing, consciously using the techniques he suggested. If I could do that, if I could make a good game of it, I thought, I could start doing a lot more GMing, and worrying about it a lot less.

It was a smashing success, from my point of view.

Here's the story, a bit of an overview:

Ruzalia had bought a map to a ruined tower from back before the Skyfire, in Old Maldor. Odd, because as far as she could tell nobody knew of such a thing and it's not the sort of thing one would miss. Perhaps it'd been destroyed. She took a roundabout way to get there to avoid the skirmishing bands of ratkin and the local baron's roving bands of warriors, fighting the ratkin and goblins of the area and raiding villages in the other baronies...

She found out quickly why the tower was unknown. In the time of the Skyfire the earth had cracked open and a chunk of it settled deep down, making a canyon, taking the tower with it. Now the top of the tall tower was below the level of the land around it, in a deep rift.

The minaret glowed strangely in the moonlight as she made her way down to it... she broke into it and found that it had a central open shaft under the minaret, with rooms all around it and stairways leading up... she went from room to room, lifting valuables as she went, and realize on the way up this was a wizard's tower. The very top level, under the glowing dome, was one huge laboratory surrounding the central open shaft, with a catwalk leading to a circular platform in the center of the shaft, like something out of Star Wars. But with a magic circle inscribed on the platform. A wizard's tower, untouched for 300 years, since the skyfire!

She started investigating the lab, and amongst the many wizardly accoutrements, she found... an orrery. Then she noticed something strange... if this orrery were made before the skyfire, before the creation of the moon, and untouched since then in a deserted tower.... Why did it have a globe to represent the moon? ... a globe which looked like it was newer than the rest of the mechanism?

She gazed at the central globe, a complete map of the world of Near -- knowledge that had perished, or at least become obsolete, since the time of darkness... She was seeing something the knowledge of which was beyond the greatest scholars of this age. She looked at the far side, away from Maldor... and it had been defaced, a great hole beaten or burned into the metal globe.

OK, it's going to take forever telling the tale at this pace. Soon she heard someone coming, she hid, that someone was a wizard-robed fellow who went and started meditating in the central platform, contemplating the glowing dome... She cast Know Capabilities to find out his greatest skill/ability... and it was... dah dah DUN.... PAST LIVES. Yep. He was an elf. Oh shit. (Elves in TSOY can be rat bastards. Even at their best they're kind of like Vulcans but less huggable, if you get my drift.)

Soon she met Tantalus, who lived or at least worked here, and who was apparently quite mad. It emerged that he had converted the dome of the tower almost completely to opal, through the power of meditating on it, and he believed that once it was complete, cosmic, world-spanning power would be his. (Nonsense, right?) He was at first peremptory, and then when he learned she was a magician, well, he tried to be charming, with limited success. It was clear he valued his privacy utterly, and wanted to make sure nobody else would disturb him. When he took her hand she divined his mind, and found that -- unsurprisingly to her -- since he had established that she alone knew the location of the tower, he was going to kill her.

And so began the fight. She used Scrapping, and he used an ancient Elven martial art involving joint locking and takedowns, an Elven Jiu-Jitsu or Aikido, if you will. Here we went nuts with the game system, Bringing Down The Pain, and both he and Ruzalia got torn the hell up with Harm. Joe spent Ruzalia's Vigor pool much too quickly and was left with no resources, and honestly because I didn't have much perspective on it I set Tantalus's stats way too high to give her a reasonable chance at him.

He got her to the central platform and tied hand and foot, and made ready to sacrifice her under the glowing opal dome, at the moment the moon was perfectly overhead (as indicated by the orrery). She started at him again, fighting bound hand and foot, trying to kick him off the platform (which would have been awesome if she'd pulled it off wouldn't it?). Another hard fight (Bringing Down the Pain) ensued, with both of them getting harmed even worse, but he prevailed, knocking her head against the stone platform and knocking her out... just as the orrery ticked past the critical moment at which he had wanted to kill her. Drat!

She awoke naked, suspended from the ceiling, in a cage in the laboratory, with Tantalus off meditating again in the center, doing his thing. Presumably until it was another propitious moment for sacrifice.

Her escaped involved some wit and some luck. There were an unusual number of rats about just now... there had been rats before, it had come up before in the game, but there were a lot of them. She befriended a couple by sharing with them the crusts of bread that she had been left in the cage.

Not long after that... the rats brought friends. Ratkin! Ratkin had entered the tower! And it was their rat friends she'd befriended! On the strength of that she got them to open the cage, all the while signaling them to be quiet. She whispered to them about the terrible danger posed by the elf who was currently an inert, meditating form lying under the dome... and snatched back her clothes and boots and knives from the ratkin who had grabbed them and were about to try them on...

More and more ratkin were showing up through the door, and none were heeding her advice to GET THE HELL OUT before the elf snapped out of his trance... they were far too interested in the many, many shiny things the laboratory held! So she ran down the stairs herself...

Passing ratkin after ratkin heading up the stairs. It turned out one of the ratkin skirmishing bands had followed her here, by tracking and by scent -- remember those ratkin bands? -- and had decided to despoil the tower themselves... dozens.... a hundred perhaps? She shoved past them all as she heard a fight break out up in the lab, ratkin squealing, Tantalus cursing....

She got out of the tower and headed for the hills as the dome on the tower glowed bright, flickered, and cracked... pieces collapsing into the tower... ruined... taking the top floors of the tower with it.

She high tailed it to the city she'd last stayed in, Ardova, hoping to cash in on what she had managed to loot from the tower before things had gone so far south... As the rest of the treasures of the tower were distributed amongst all the Ratkin in this corner of Maldor, little by little, in a thousand little skirmishes...

And Tantalus? What of Tantalus? Well.... Perhaps he's still about. You can't kill a named NPC in TSoY outside of a Bringing Down the Pain contest, and Ruzalia definitely did not kill him in any such contest....

So I'm going to be writing up a proper character (NPC) sheet for Tantalus soon.

Not a bad little game for improv, I thought.

You know how much of that I'd made up beforehand?

I had the idea of a ruin sunk deep in a chasm in the ground, from the time of the Sky Fire.

That's it. The rest was developed in play.

Probably the biggest moment where things started to really fill in for me as a GM was when I described the Orrery (it seemed a natural thing to find in a wizard's lab) and had the idea that it had been modified to include the moon. It was only then that I decided the tower must still be inhabited, and only shortly thereafter that I decided its inhabitant was an elf.

The whole thing with the dome came from my describing the tower for the first time, thinking of it as something Roger Dean might paint... that blue glow became important to the story only later on when I brought Tantalus into it.

I played Tantalus following some of the suggestions on "status" in the Play Unsafe book.

I also took care to reincorporate as much as possible; bring things back in that had come in before, especially to provide answers to mysteries or problems.

Why is the elf here? Well, because of the blue glowing minaret I'd described before.

Why didn't he kill her when he got the chance? Because of the aforementioned orrery -- he wanted to time her death precisely for ritual purposes.

How could she escape from the cage? Well, the rats I'd mentioned before as being in the tower were some help, and the ratkin I'd mentioned as being in the area, at the very beginning of the game, became a huge part of it, which bookended the story perfectly; ratkin on the way in, ratkin on the way out.

All together it made a good, reasonably coherent story out of the whole thing.

That's enough for now. I'm up too late writing this. That wasn't every single thing that happened in the story but it's a good overview, especially from the point of view of the improvisational process.

My verdict: The Shadow of Yesterday is fun and playable. The World of Near is pretty interesting. And Graham's ideas in Play Unsafe are really helpful for straight up improv-ing a good game from next to nothing.

I'd feel confident improv-ing games in the future. Because honestly, this was a much better story than I could have come up with by planning it. Everything fit perfectly in a way that I don't think it would have if I'd sat there plotting it all out beforehand. There's great power in improvisational GMing, and I want to do more of it.

And Ruzalia's a pretty cool character, and I did a couple drawings of her to Joe's description after the game.

Rock on.

Time to sleep now.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

I played a game!

I played Star Wars (D6 -- there can be only one) tonight, with about a bazillion people.


10:00 PM - everybody's shown up by now.
10:30 PM - by now everyone has characters done (most of us had made them a week before)
11:45 PM - people are done socializing and being the dorks we are and the game actually begins. Scene is set. Background is given. Mission is set out. We decide how to tackle it.
12:30 or so AM - First encounter: bunch of stormtroopers show up and we start a combat. (Well, technically I started the combat, by refusing to actually hide as opposed to taking cover but keeping my gun out and aimed at them as they came down the stairs...)
2:00 AM -- combat ends with an AT-ST coming in as backup and dropping gas canisters into the area, after we beat the stuffing out of the stormtroopers, so we run away. Out of game time; skill points are handed out.

I played as maximally combat-monstered a character as I could -- a bounty hunter, with maximal blaster skill for a starting character (6D). But I never actually hit anybody in combat, at all.

Once it was because of a really bad roll, but after that it was mostly just that I went after all the stormtroopers in initiative order (which doesn't change from round to round), and I kept getting stunned-for-the-rest-of-the-round every combat round before I got a chance to act. (Once by a grenade thrown by a fellow player that he didn't throw far enough, the rest of the time by the stormtroopers.)

Sometimes when you're doing the indie game thing you get all nostalgic for traditional games, but stuff like that is a little reminder of why people decided to try to reach out in different directions.

For all that, I had a lot of fun just being with the guys and playing. I'm really glad I did it, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Being in a room with a bunch of people you like, rolling dice and imagining things is fun, even if your character can't actually do the things he's supposed to be really good at, and you accomplish very little throughout the course of the evening...

But traditional RPGs definitely have their downsides.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Unmasking the "Christian Wright"?

Christian Wright's Games Review Weblog, to which the redoubtable Paul Czege pointed me, is a remarkable site. It would seem to be a series of reviews of games written by an American Fundamentalist Christian gamer, on a quest to warn the world against immoral, corrupt games, and champion morally upright games.

There are some mighty strange things about this blog though...

First, there is the odd coincidence that while the author betrays no particular familiarity with the indie games scene, two of the six games he reviews are indie favorites.

Second, there is a rather improbable story about how he got roped into playing My Life With Master (only to quit partway through, full of righteous indignation). And the review of My LIfe With Master taken as a whole conveys a very complete picture of the scope, rules, and purpose of the game, despite the fact that Mr. Wright's personal views on it are completely off the mark. By reading the story of Mr. Wright's encounter with the other players you actually get a complete review of the game, almost as if through the literary device of the unreliable narrator.

Third, there seems to be a strange obsession with English culture:

[RE: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay] It seems also to be a trait of English roleplaying games to present the world in as dark and horrible way as possible. It seems to me to be a common theme in English games that even good must be painted in dark shades...

[RE: SLA Industries] It is quite obviously English in origin, having the stamp of anti-Americanism that seems to be considered ‘cool’ on the other side of the ocean.
So we have a narrator who is an American Fundamentalist gamer who keeps commenting with distaste on English taste. I don't know about you, but I don't know of any American Fundamentalists who think of England as especially decadent. Or who think of England much at all.

Fourthly, despite his being an American gamer who is disgusted with all things English, he uses quotation marks like the English do -- single quotes, not double -- and he uses English spellings and words like "behaviour," "colour," "realise" and even "whilst."

Finally, and most importantly, his writing contains some moments of comedy gold which could never be unintentional -- with regards to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay --

In terms of the characters you can play, there are many positive choices in the game: demon slayer, friar (a mendicant monk who dedicates his life to God), knight, priest and witch hunter to name the more obvious ones. Then there are career choices which are either morally suspect or simply repugnant: Wizard, outlaw, thief, assassin, grave robber and scientific scholar.
Oh yes, positive choices such as demon slayer, friar, knight, priest and.... witch hunter! (rimshot ) or morally suspect and repugnant people like wizards, outlaws, thieves, assassins, grave robbers and.... scientific scholars! (rimshot)

Once the parody becomes obvious it gets kind of fun. The narrator loves Dogs in the Vineyard but doesn't at all understand the moral ambiguity involved; he loves Hunter the Reckoning without realizing that the hunters are supposed to be creepy. He disapproves of SLA industries, while directing you pruriently to the naughty pictures on page 171. He explains the "scenes of reaching out in love to the villagers" rules in My Life With Master, while explaining that he never asked for one himself because it offended against his sense of the proper role of the GM. And he suggests you avoid directly exposing yourself to the works of the 'writer' (note Brit single quotes) H P Lovecraft (note Brit tendency not to put periods -- er, full stops -- after the initials) -- as if Lovecraft's own works were a Necronomicon of sorts.

And of course his name is Christian Wright.

So we've deduced that the author is a Brit, probably English, indie games nerd who also enjoys horror like Call of Cthulhu and SLA Industries.

The game's afoot! Suggestions, insinuations, or confessions as to who is behind the mask of Christian Wright are encouraged in comments. Dissemination of this challenge to more widely-read gamer blogs is even more encouraged.