Monday, May 31, 2010

Super Hero Games

I am on the road and not near my computer, but I will make this quick:

Which do you like better: the Marvel Super Heroes RPG or the DC Heroes RPG (my question mark does not work) And why (question mark)

(Go ahead and talk about Champions or Villains and Vigilantes or Mutants and Masterminds or GURPS Supers or Wild Talents or whatever if you must but know now that none of that is pertinent to me at the moment for reasons I have no time to explain.)

Also: I already know about all these games, so you do not have to explain them, just say why you like them.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Crawling Opera

So I was in NYC for half a second, and saw my east coast people--and I ran a one-shot.

Despite some overlap, the games I play when I go to New York are a different crew--mostly guys (Mandy was there, and Vivid Vivka--over on the right, played her first game--Justine was gonna be there but was too jetlagged to roll).

Anyway, the idea for the one-shot is that there's these giant turtles.

Like, giant.

Their shells are taller than a cathedral and carved--by lizardmen--into enormous opera houses.

This is because the lizardmen love opera--the idea is that back in prehistory the Slaadi (or Slaads?Frog-demons, whatever?) had a war with the lizardmen. This went on and on and was, y'know, terrible and stuff, until the lizardmages developed this ritual whereby they learned to bind the Slaads by trapping them in ritualized performances that never end--the great, eternal, Crawling Operas.

The lizardmen are proud of their opera, and their turtle/opera houses roam far and wide, performing for anyone with an open mind, a taste for the lively arts, and 2 gp.

Now the lizardman opera is different from the Italian opera--it's a much more interactive and nonlinear and postmodern art form. So the operahouse is less like a music hall than it is like a maze, and the lines (if any) between what's actually happening and what's part of the opera are hard for unsophisticated mammalian outsiders to discern, and, basically, the point is: the chances of having to fight a giant centipede in a stairwell or accidentally falling through a trap-door into a stage/chamber where a pair of toad-demons are hurling ritual recitativos at each other while a crowd of overdressed lizardfolk look on, applaud, and cry for blood are much greater during lizardopera than in the kind of opera we're familiar with here on Earth Prime.

(Another thing: due to the ritual nature of the Opera, it must go on at all times no matter what, or else the Slaads will escape and annihilate the Material Plane.)

So the set-up for the one-shot is:

-The PCs start out all riding toward an opera.

-It turns out The Lizard King is visiting this particular opera.

-I secretly give each PC a little slip of paper telling them why s/he is visiting The Crawling Opera (ranging from to "Your assignment is to sign a treaty with the Lizard King" to "You love opera.") (Normally I wouldn't give PCs assignments like that, but hey, it's a one-shot. Everybody was ok with what they got, so I figured no foul.)

__________

So, anyway, they're in there and things are going ok. Fun is being had. The party confronts demons with the bodies of scantily-clad and pulchritudinous women and faces like giant leeches. The paladin falls in love with one and weeps silently in the corner while someone else chops her in half.

Then the PCs schmooze their way into the chambers of the Lizard King. The charisma rolls don't go down so well. The paladin decides the way to get the Lizard King on his side is to act really excited about the opera. Turns out the opera can end any number of ways:

"I have always yearned to see the ending with the Triumph of the Manbeast! Though I am told that ending often destroys the opera house and kills most of the spectators." Says the Lizard King (in a James Mason voice.)

"Oh, and how does that happen?"

"Well," says the Lizard King, his eyes lighting up and his scaled fingers twining and untwining in unseemly excitement, "in most iterations of the Opera, The Coming of the Manbeast is stymied by the machinations of The Hideous Pudding, or else is neutralized by The Bllllindheim."

The players, for some reason, find this synopsis humorous.

"The what?"

"A pudding?"

McCormick: "Whuh...wh...(pant)...what is a 'Blindheim'?"

"It's a toad demon so ugly that anyone who sees it goes blind."

This intelligence, too, is perceived as humorous.

"OMG THIS OPERA IS COMPLETELY FUCKED!!!!"

"Would..wuh...do you want to see a picture of The Blindheim?"

"You made a fucking picture?"

"It's in the book! It's a real D&D monster."

"Holy fuck."

"Oh my god. Oh my god."

After a cruel episode wherein we try to see how long McCormick can laugh continuously without dying by reminding him, while he's busy laughing about The Blindheim, about other things that make him laugh, like that part in Naked Gun when Leslie Nielson shreds a note and then eats it like spaghetti, with sauce, the party continues to tour The Opera in the company of the Lizard King.

After an unfortunate episode requiring me to remind everyone that it's the players' responsibility to check for traps, the PCs ended up gazing down onto the Hideous Pudding.

Vivid (whose secret piece of paper told her to slay the Lizard King) shoves the Lizard King into the Pudding. The lizard bodyguards attack and spectators, witnessing this brazen assassination attempt, stampede the party. McCormick (perhaps exhausted from wrestling with the complex subtleties of the Opera) dove into The Pudding to rescue the King.

Me: "Your armor is dissolving."

Steve: "Why didn't you just throw him a rope?"

McCormick: "Why don't you throw me a rope?"

Steve: "I'm fighting a lizardguard!"

Me: "The lizardman bites your ear."

Steve: "Can I hear?"

McCormick: "Is it dissolving my flesh?"

Matt: "I'm going to shoot the Lizard King with a poisoned arrow."

McCormick: "If you miss you'll hit me!"

Matt: "I have to kill the Lizard King!"

McCormick: "I have to save the Lizard King!"

Matt: "Well then I guess it's ok if I hit you."

Me: (roll roll) "One of the lizardmen just pushed you in, too, Matt."

McCormick: "I have decided that Vorn has forsaken me and now I'm going to try to drown Matt in the pudding."

Chris: "I want to cast a spell."

Me: "Which one?"

Chris: "Shilla..lel..this one."

Me: "Shillaleagh? Ok, your staff turns into an Irish stick that's magical."

McCormick begins to hyperventilate.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Carrion Crawlers Do Not Actually Want Our Women


Click here to see bigger.

So, to you, this thing is just a carrion crawler, the kind of thing you'd expect to see in any old dungeon.

However, to the girls, through the magic of this finely re-imagined mini plus having not grown up with a house full of TSR crap, this is...well who the fuck knows?

What is it? How dangerous is it? Will it tentacle-rape us?

That last one honestly hadn't occurred to me. Honest. I'm so used to carrion crawlers as an essentially motiveless, quietly discreet vermin that lives in the C section of the monster manual that it would never occur to me that one might be so uncouth. But, y'know, they don't know that.

Frankly, if I was an Alternately-Limbed American I might be a little upset at the blatant bigotry that assumes that just having tentacles puts you under suspicion of being a sexual deviant. These Japanese hentai-monsters are giving the rest of the community a bad name.

Also, as a male adult performer, I roundly despise these illegal aliens for coming to our planet and taking our jobs at the very time we need them most.

In mechanical notes, you'll see I gave Frankie an intelligence roll to see if she knew some monster lore. I figure you can give people who haven't been playing that long a roll to see if they know stuff that players who have long since memorized the monster manual would know. It's fair to know stuff other people don't because you've played more, I don't think it's fair to know things other people don't just because you've read the books. Unless what they think is more interesting than the truth.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Complicated Answer To The Question of What Level Rube NPCs Should Be

The 5th-level PCs are burgling someone's shop in the dead of night.

One fails her move silently roll and so here comes a thoroughly typical constable.

Now: is this some 0-level schmuck? Or a genuine obstacle?

The Old School has no single answer to what level average joes should be. Some would say that the PCs and their usual foes are special, and above such run-of-the-mill locals, and that's what 0-levels are for. Others--the authors of City-State of the Invincible Overlord, for example--would say that if just surviving and accumulating cash should give you treasure, then everybody should have levels.

Basically, I'd say it depends on your subgenre--is your game a Weird Tale, or is it Noirish?

I'll explain:

I am helping James Raggi edit the Referee's Guide for his upcoming Weird Fantasy game.

Also, I'm in middle-america today. In a hotel room.

Most of Raggi's Referee Guide is simply solid Old School DMing advice, but there are peculiarities, places where I notice his specific sensibilities emerging. Specifically his rules for setting-design as they relate to promoting The Weird.

Most of this town I'm in (town? it starts with a sign on a highway "Welcome to..." and goes until you hit another sign. "Zone" seems more like the word I want.) is flat expanses of grass bisected by straight 4-lane roads. Roads, grass, and trees--typical midwestern trees. Green. Other than that it is--so far as I can tell--entirely malls. The malls are 90% chain stores. If you've ever driven cross-country in a car (or live in a place like this) you'll know I am not exaggerating.

Raggi's conception of The Weird is built on a basic horror or classic Surrealist model--life is banal and quiet, and then The Weird emerges into it, and that's, essentially, the plot. The Weird itself is unquantifiable (Raggi has no standardized monsters, and advises against them) and untamable (Raggi consistently militates against--in both his book and his published adventures--magic-as-technology).

What's Weird in this town in Ohio I'm in is not anything that might be part of the town's description or anything apparent from the air or from driving through it or anything, as they say, on paper. What's Weird is what's hidden and personal. For example, at the mega-sized antique mall: This vintage Art Deco whiskey bottle I found in among the tea cozies that's shaped like a penguin with a screw-off head and a pattern of gold Pollock-drizzle over its see-through stomach that plays "How Dry I Am" as soon as you pull it off the shelf is weird, the pair of King George tax-stamped pre-Revolutionary War bone d6s I almost bought (until I realized how tedious I'd sound constantly saying "these are genuine pre-Revolutionary-War d6's" every time I lost initiative with them) is weird, the number of Nazi daggers and swastika flags lying casually around the place is weird.

In other words, the DM of this town has read Raggi's game.

Who hasn't? I'll tell you: whoever thought up New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo. etc.

Now, things are not unweird in large cities, but not Weird--at least not the way Raggi means it. There, the default pulp literary form is not the Weird Tale, but the Noir. "Noir" not necessarily as in blondes and .45s but "noir" in the sense that the city itself is a character, not a backdrop. The underlying assumption of noir is: everything is weird. Or at least exotic. Everything is some new kind of strange--telephone booths where people always get shot, bribeable doormen who've seen appalling things in every door, hotels whose signs practically proclaim "nothing savory ever happens here". And: The characters must use this exoticism to survive. Sam Spade must bribe the doormen and consult the pimp and shadow the hotel detective. The noir city is romanticized and exoticized, like a jungle, and its inhabitants must, like a jungle tribe, learn to use it against itself.

Noiry ideas extend to many genres that are not necessarily crime stories set in 20th-century cities through the idea of accumulating a density of exotic details that the characters can manipulate. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar is noiry, but so is Jack Vance (each place runs on weird rules carried out by weird characters to weird ends), so is William Burroughs, and so are all esoteric urban fantasies where the exoticism of the story is an extension of-, or merely an examination of-, the exoticism of the locale.

Weird Tales draw you from the normal inexorably toward One Central Weirdness (and then, often, kill you--otherwise the effect is diluted, like when you create a Call of Cthulhu character that survives so many adventures it can say "Oh, never mind that, that's just Shub-Niggurath.") Noirish Tales, on the other hand, have different weirdnesses going off in all kinds of directions. (And the noir protagonist is often so used to the weirdness s/he's tired of it. And that tiredness is part of the story.)
________

Point is: the Weird Tale as Raggi is writing it defines what's going to be exciting as forces opposing or alien to the human landscape the PCs normally inhabit, while the Noirish Tale defines the exciting as an exaggeration of the human landscape the PCs normally inhabit.

The Weird Tale is especially accomodating to: desolation, slow intimations of terror, sudden reversals.

The Noirish Tale is especially accomodating to: satire, expressionism, and post-modern confusions of all kinds.

(There are other options, of course. David Lynch and his imitators--and, I am told, Spanish writers of the esperpento school--frequently work a third position--one where everything in a seemingly familiar and detail-less landscape is a little strange. Twin Peaks would be weird even without Laura Palmer and Bob, Frank from Blue Velvet was just one of many freaks dotting Lumberton's landscape. The idea there was: what looks bland and calm is, not very far under the surface, all weird. In fact, its bland calmness is in itself weird. Unlike the Weird Tale, often this weirdness has nothing to do with the plot.)
_____

Anyway, back to our NPC constable--in a Weird Tale, this constable (and almost everyone else in the city) should be 0-level. And, not only that, but there should have been nothing worth stealing in that shop anyway. (Unless the GM has put The Central Weird in the shop, of course.) At any rate, it should all be over quickly so the PCs can get back to being slowly but inexorably sucked toward the Slumbering Central Weirdness.

If you prefer things to be Noirish, then the constable has levels--as does every bureaucrat, lunatic, and merchant in the city, and the PCs will have opened a can of worms by burgling that shop--no matter what level they're at. Because robbing shops and making getaways and hiding in alleys is the kind of thing they should be doing and spending time trying to figure how to do right, because the landscape itself is the enemy, and they are at war with it forever.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Snakes Are Books

Here's one: snakes are books.

Every serpent is a text. Certain people (and non-people) know how to read their scales.

As they grow, the animals revise and expand themselves until they die.

The most common and convenient method of reading a snake (among human ophdiobibliologists) is having it slither through an ivory serpent-reader--a sphere with ornately carved orifices and channels.

Unusually large specimens can be read with the use of specialized lenses.
(And here you thought that was just a Chinese puzzle ball.)

Those who know the spoken language of the Yuan-Ti know what snakes hiss. Each snake is hissing its name--the title of the book that it is.

Common snakes are usually fairly uninteresting works--garter snakes tend to be cookbooks, corn snakes are generally works of adventure fiction with cliche characters or too-convenient endings. Rarer breeds--100' anacondas, albino cobras--often contain long-forgotten secrets or comprise unique works of poetry or philosophy.

Since snakes are natural phenomena, and all books are, in one way or another, discussions of natural phenomena or its effects, snakes could be considered a continuous monologue that the world produces about itself. Thus the symbol: a serpent eating its own tail.

Giant snakes are typically encyclopedias or great multi-volume sagas representing the myths and theogonies of entire cultures.

Scholars disagree: the amphisbaena is either a palindrome or a work which reveals an entirely different (yet equally coherent) narrative when read backwards.

Nagas are linguistic texts, translating from the languages of snakes to the languages of humans.

The snakes growing from the heads of medusae are generally reference works and the medusaes themselves are often cataloguers--tending private libraries containing nothing but caged snakes,, selectively breeding exotic and daring new works.
The Librarians--known in the east as Yuan-Ti--also catalogue and breed works, though in a far less dilettantish and casual fashion--they believe that careful control of cross-species breeding can and will one day unveil a Great Glistening Book containing all the secrets of creation. Each Librarian is a visionary religious work attesting to the perfection of one or other path to the Great All-Serpent.

Mariliths contain terrible secrets and blasphemies.

It is said that beneath every great library in human civilization a cabal of wizard-scholars tends to a chained Lernean Hydra. They carefully transcribe and translate the information gleaned from the beast's skin before pruning off each head in turn and reading what grows in its place, thereby nurturing a constantly updated stream of knowledge.

Dragons are books of magic spells. Owing to the difficulty of reading them while alive, complete dragon hides will almost always fetch a higher price from the right sorcerer or alchemist than from any armorer.

Pseudodragons are helpful but incomplete summaries of the contents of their larger brethren.

______

I like this'cause it explains and rationalizes how every other monster is part snake, fits with ideas common to all kinds of cultures equating snakes with knowledge, and gives the party some pretty all-purpose adventure hooks, whether they want money, power, knowledge, or all three.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Asterisks on Today's 'Axe' Episode

I will be busy DMing when todays episode of I Hit It With My Axe goes up (noon Eastern I believe). But here are some notes in advance...

-Justine's character is really a half-orc wizard--the other half just happens to be medusa (not gorgon in D&D a gorgon is a goofy bull-monster, and this is D&D, not Greek mythology). Other than the turn-to-stone thing, all her stats are as-rolled during filming.

-Is having Justine be half-medusa unbalancing?

In theory: no. She's a lower level than everyone else, she can't use her gaze weapon if her friends are looking at her, and it doesn't work that well. Plus Justine's newer than everyone else so she doesn't really know what she's doing--in different hands it might've been devastating.

In practice: also no. Having now seen 3 sessions of Justine playing D&D, I can report back that, practically speaking, she spends no more time center-stage than anybody else. Plus Justine's not a dick, so she doesn't hog the spotlight.

-She explains how it went down pretty well, but in case anyone missed it: I basically said "If you want to do this, then you're the object of the quest and you're half-medusa, do what you want with that information. If you don't, you can just be anybody you want."

-Connie's D&D anxiety dream brings up a relevant point for new players--I touched on it here. Basically, social situations where you're expected to be creative are a lot more tense and meaningful for certain people (I want to say "women"--in my experience this usually applies to women--but I know men who also have this issue. I can think of two right now.) You might have some friends pretending they're too cool to play when really they're just afraid.

-The person occasionally in the background is Caroline Pierce. She's wil be guest-starring soon but was in town doing some movies and had nothing else to do so hung out and watched us tape. She plays a history teacher in our Cthulhu game.

-All the PCs except Kimberly are on the ground, and, though a lot of the sequences where people are grappling up the walls to the doorways have been cut out, they happened. ( In case you're wondering how people got around.)

-As Chris of Vaults of Nagoh pointed out, the goblin palace is based on the Forbidden City in Beijing. The girls don't get too far into it before deciding to try to assassinate the king for kicks and running back the way they came.

-The credits play over the sketch of the palace and some hit-locaiton sketches, designed to be used with this system. I only use it on special occasions. Fighting a hydra is always a special occasion.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Biology, Politics, and The Backwards Goblin Backstory

Why do the goblins in my campaign talk backwards?

It's simple evolution.

Our real-life perspective on neurobiology is predicated on the idea that humans evolved as the only intelligent life-form here on Earth. Our brains are basically wired to deal with avoiding, training, and preying upon dumber life forms.

However, what would evolution have cranked out if (like in most D&D worlds) we evolved next to other highly-intelligent, technology-and-language-using lifeforms and (like in most D&D worlds) the recorded history of civilized humanoids stretched back far longer than our real-world recorded history?

Well, we'd probably have all sorts of atavistic behavior patterns developed hundreds of thousands of years ago to help our primitive-but-still-civilized ancestors survive that are nothing but vestigial xenophobic weirdness now.

For example: Goblins--during, perhaps, their endless wars with the elves--developed a hormone which prevents them from ever telling the truth to another species. When Lighttouch Silverlegs interrogated Grungle Snumphungle at knifepoint and asked "Where doth thine catapults dwell?" Grungle had no choice but to say "Under a pile of carrots."

Of course, nowadays the goblins are more sophisticated and realize the value of both interspecies cooperation and occasionally telling the truth in order to more thoroughly deceive their enemies, but still, the verbal tic remains. Their biology--which served their species so well for so long--simply will not allow them to be honest with elves and people. Thus: they talk "backwards".
_________

As for why everything in the palace is on the ceiling, that's actually a whole other thing, and the answer is political rather than biological:

Despite having a king, the goblins are actually relatively democratic (teratocratic, I suppose, actually) for the middle ages, and refuse to let the king and his ministers leave the palace unless they actually do their job. So: all the palace ministers, guards, harem witches, etc. are bound to their own shadows--the shadows are, in turn, bound to the palace. An enchantment prevents the palace inhabitants from detaching from their shadows except on official business connected to running the goblin city's affairs.

So: they can only leave if they are carrying out a proclamation, legal decision, etc. Otherwise the government is essentially held hostage in the palace. Though it is, by goblin standards, a pretty nice place.

Putting everything on the ceiling makes it easy to spot intruders--anyone who doesn't belong in the palace isn't attached to their shadow and so can't walk on the ceiling.

Most of this information is, incidentally, findable in one place or another in the campaign. But like any good sandbox, there's no guarantee anybody'll find it.

Who Is This?


Last time I drew something I couldn't identify and asked what it was, the answers y'all left were a lot of fun. Let's do it again.

Click the picture to make it bigger.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Real Goblin Palace

This is a sketch of the goblin palace the girls are exploring in the filmed campaign--a working palace dungeon (with shades of "Greater Crazy Wizard" dungeon) . It's pretty closely based on an actual historical palace--in order to make sure the rooms have whatever chamber-to-chamber logic one might reasonably expect. Most of these things are in there somewhere. Rooms in the goblin palace generally appear where their analogues are in the real-life model--I believe, for instance, that the fungus room appears where a formal garden in the real palace is.

Gold star for you if you can guess what building I ripped off.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What's THIS for...?(Village of Hommlet)

So I'm going to talk about the classic module Village of Hommlet. (Thanks for sending it, Troll & Toad.)

Mandy, hunting around for a module to run:

"I'm not going to read this--because it's called The Village of Hommlet."

Also, it has a ten-year-old in bellbottoms and a pink cape on the cover.

Now maybe Mandy is a soulless, decadent, Hollywood sophisticate but, seriously, I feel like the name of the place you're adventuring in should be at least as evocative as the name of real-life place you actually live in. Later modules err equally in the other direction, but there's quite a lot of nominolinguistic turf between "Village of Hommlet" on the one hand and "Doomcrusher Forge" that one might profitably ply.

Someone will no doubt bring up Metropolis and the City of Townsville and how they like the whole "stuff is comforting and normal and is then disrupted by horrible weirdness" paradigm, but I don't care, it's a dumb name. Especially because it tells the potential used-classic-module buyer nothing they need to know and is deceptive because the packaging is the only thing about the module that is dumb. So people who want dumb will be sorely disappointed.

My reviews here are written from the point of view of explaining what's actually usable in the thing--especially to people who've never read them before and have no nostalgic attachment to them--mainly because I myself personally find it hard to get this kind of information about game stuff.

Most reviews of modules I read are like "Oh, yeah, remember this? My party loved the giant hog-monster!" or "Full of (great stuff/total bullshit) (buy it!/avoid it like the plague)!"

The Village of Hommlet is particularly hard to find out anything genuinely useful about before you go hunting for a used copy. Here's what you can find: it's a sandbox. It's a town. It's called "The Village of Hommlet".

These are not lies.

(Here's something people often forget to mention: there's a dungeon in it. Not tiny, either--thirty-odd rooms.)

I can see how this is frustrating to the would-maybe-be-purchaser of this alleged-from-his/her-P.OV. classic module, especially since the packaging is so exquisitely uninspiring.

Anyway...

Substancewise, I'm going to be as fair and un-nostalgic and even-handed as I can and judge the Village of Hommlet according to the ranking system I laid out here. Only I'm going to be sort of lazy and general about it rather than counting the points because Village of Hommlet is actually pretty good and so gets lots of points and I'm not actually insane enough to go through it and add them all up.

Size

-You get one point for each thing described.

Village of Hommlet gets lots of points for things, especially considering how short it is. 16 pages plus maps and about 20 things per page--mostly places and NPCs.

Clarity at High Speed

-You lose that point if you tell me anything about it that could just as well have been randomized or made up on the spot by anybody with a brain, like: "the church doors are eleven feet high and made of oak."

Arguably maybe losing points here but not really. All the villagers have some meager savings and all these savings are squirreled away in some given location in their house or on their person. The locations are better than me having to make up a place for every wheelwright to hide his loot (what am I paying Gygax for, otherwise?), but the actual amounts aren't. 36 g.p. 12 s.p. Great, thanks! However, these amounts take up so little space that you lose no time because of them.

You lose a point if you explain the function of a thing when I already know what it does. Like if you say "the Cathedral of Chuckles is the center of the worship of the Great God Chuckles" you're wasting your space and my time.

The Village of Hommlet beats out nearly every major-publisher module I've ever seen in this regard, with Gygax clearly writing in his "this is a game for adults" phase here.

Although the entries are still written in paragraph form rather than (my preference) telegraph-esque code (Farmer. Cheese. Wife ugly.) so highlighting is necessary. Also, some non-primitive graphic design could've clarified things further, but that obviously wasn't going to happen. Not perfect, but very good on the efficiency front.

Map

-0 points if there's a map that's keyed with only numbers or letters referring to paragraphs spread out across the supplement. Five points if it's keyed with the names of places and/or some sort of distinctive shape telling you what something is just by looking at it. Twenty points if the spread with the map manages to both locate a place and encapsulate most of the important things I need to know about each location.

5 points for a workmanlike job on the map. Also, I'm tempted to include a bonus here since it's the whole Village and everything is keyed--every single place in the Village is on the map and every place on the map has info about it.

Character

-You gain a point for adding a descriptive detail that affects the style of the thing. That is: creates some sort of shift in the idea of the thing by its mere presence. For example: telling me the church is shaped like perfect sphere, or an antler, or is made entirely of leather, or is a monolithic grey streaked with long dark stains from centuries of rust and rain.

Not a lot of points for character in the Village of Hommlet. It's the standard D&D town, although maybe that's unfair since it's also The Standard D&D Town. The Inn of the Welcome Wench might garner a few character points for its name, and the mouth-watering food descriptions.

I'll also note here that there's a nice drawing of the exterior of the dungeon that actually gives the PCs an idea of where and how they could enter it and what that would entail and so is clear and detailed enough to count as more than just flavor-fluff and which is the kind of thing I always appreciate.

Adventure Fuel And Completeness

-You gain points for adding distinctive features to things that create playable depth --information, "adventure seeds", mini-challenges--to a thing you've created...

Well, everybody does have treasure--that's adventure fuel right there. The main events here are: some of the townspeople are spies for various factions and there's a dungeon. The spy/NPC thing is a pretty good bang-for-your buck in terms of small-details-generating-big-adventures, but there's not a lot of variety in the adventure hooks provided. Spies and suggestions to go to the dungeon (and the off-screen Temple of Elemental Evil) are mainly what you get here. Nothing terribly exotic, but all very self-contained, which is cool.

Style

Five points for each part of the basic premise of the city that is actually interesting. i.e. "The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire" would get 0 points, whereas ""The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire and is built entirely from the bones of slain foes" will get 5 points.

I'm sure I'll get flack for this, but I am awarding no points for this. There's a village, it's near a dungeon. Ok, congratulations, you're playing D&D. Your mileage may vary.

Subjectivity

Twenty points if the setting as a whole is actually interesting. Like Viriconium.

Neither gain nor lose points either way if it's just basically a medieval place.

You lose twenty points if it goes out of its way to be uninteresting, like Stamford, Connecticut.

Neither gain nor lose points here.

However
, I feel like the Village needs some bonus points for never ever being stupid. The town is described soup-to-nuts and has nothing stupid anywhere in it. Also: the dungeon is a few sessions worth of action and also has nothing stupid anywhere in it.

That is a truly unique situation for a published module. This is possibly simply because the VoH takes few aesthetic risks--it takes less chances, so it's going to be less likely for something to strike an off-chord. However, there's something to be said for a module whose beat is steady enough that the DM can add his/her own horribly dissonant notes without clashing with existing ones.

In other words, the VoH is the kind of thing that can be altered at will without fucking up any of its internal logic--which is nice.

The workmanlikeness of the setting is everywhere evident. It is a reliable piece of module-ation and I feel like there's something a little unfair about completely condemning it for not challenging fantasy-gaming tropes it, in itself, helped to define (village, wenches, ale, dungeon, giant spider, you die, etc.).

Value

Divide the number of points by the cost in U.S dollars of the setting.

This is a tough one: on the one hand, a used VoH costs, on average, about twice as much and has half as many pages as a comparable modern module.

On the other hand, that low page count is actually a blessing if you want value-for-time rather than value-for-money. There's no wading-through-padding here and the density of information-per-page means the module doesn't send you flipping page after page trying to find some information that may or may not be there. Most of the NPCs are taken care of in three lines of text.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Battle of Styrofoam Cup Bridge

So we had this siege.

The strategy played out thiswise:

Before the party even showed up at the fortress, the undead army (mostly outside the fortress) had managed to take the northernmost tower.

As you can see, the party took 300 of their 500 troops and placed them at the other end of the bridge connecting the rest of the fortress to the tower, joined those troops and began their attack there.

The girls had the remaining defenders (200) spread evenly out across the whole fortress. (Entrances to the fortress are picked out in pink. Those little mousetrappy things are catapults.)

So then the party started charging across the bridge, with their troops in tow.
___________
DMwise, the thing then is to figure: ok, assuming the party's doing this then what does the Death Knight or necromancer in charge on the other side do?

Obviously, the guys on the north tower defend themselves, and that's where most of the action the PCs could actually see takes place--the Battle of Styrofoam Cup Bridge.

Meanwhile however, we got the other 900 undead outside the fortress. What'll they do?

They could just let the tower guys try to hold the tower, if they do, great, if they don't, they can just stay on the ground and keep starving the inhabitants, but if the PCs realize the undead army's not moving then they can bring all their troops to bear on the north tower and the skeletons will probably lose that position pretty fast and all for nothing.

So the skeletons attack some of the castle entrances in order to draw off some of the defenders.
They go for the west gate because if they break through, then they pincer the party and the rest of the bridge attackers, and for the east gate because it's waaaay on the other end of the city/fortress, so it's hard to transfer troops over there.

Now attacking a castle isn't easy, as everybody knows, but the skeletons do have overwhelming odds--at least in the beginning. So while the PCs and their troop square off 300 to 100 up north, there's 450 skeletons on the east gate and 450 on the west gate--each facing less than 100 defenders (it took a while for the party to decide to hustle everybody over to the gates).

The odds are still pretty decent for the defenders, but you have to take into account the fact that arrowfire isn't especially effective against skeletons and other bony undead.
So anyway, up on the north bridge, the party is more-or-less kicking asses and taking names. Mandy and a helpful carrion crawler (long story) blocked up the middle of the bridge, Kimberly ordered the archers up onto the styrofoam cups so the skeletons couldn't sneak around and leap cup to cup, and Connie figured out that the floating tattery guy can only be hit by magic weapons.

On the other fronts, though, I'm rolling dice and the skeletons are making steady progress at the gates. They rolled surprisingly well.

After a few rounds, the invaders were charging into the east tower, (there was fighting in the stairwells) so the girls decided to pull all their east side forces back to the base of the bridge (there's a blue circle there) so the skeletons would be out in the open and they could shoot at them with the catapult. (Not sure how the people who live in the city felt about that move, but oh well, that's what happens when you put PCs in charge. Goddamn drifters, no respect for property rights.)

Here are some casualty markers Reaper sent us:
So the thing is--all goes well for our heroes as far as what's in front of them--but things are looking distinctly gruesome everywhere else.

Time is a big issue in this kind of fight--a combat round is 6 seconds in-game. But the idea of the PCs getting updates from the other fronts every 6 seconds is preposterous. (And they can't see the others very well.) On the other hand, a combat round is about a half-hour real-time of moving and deciding and rolling (twice that when Frankie is playing) so if you limit the arriving update couriers to, say, one a game-minute, that's still basically one update per session (I limit full-on rolling on the battle of styrofoam cup bridge to the party and anyone immediately ordered by them--mostly only folks who can fit on the bridge, so it's only about 10-12 pairs of enemies per round.)

At that rate the strategy element in the rest of the fortress is so slow that it's invisible to the PCs., which means it's barely part of the game. I split the difference on the side of "easy" vs. realism at one update every 4 rounds.
Everybody's been pretty busy the last 3 weeks (every porn parody on earth--including Batman xxx--has decided they need to hire KK since she won Best Actress) so we haven't played in a couple weeks.

Nobody knows exactly what that boss skeleton in the armor on the horse is up to. He's been hanging back. Find out soon though, I figure.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Alphabetical Monster Thing Available As A .pdf...

...you must be shitting me. No fucking way.

The whole thing is available right here in friendly HTML, with no download bullshit, no file-size issues, no compatibility issues, no waiting around to flip to the next page. Seriously, you want a pdf? When you hear music you like do you go "That was awesome, but can I get it on wax cylinder?" Plus the originals have all the peoples' comments with their ideas about monsters, many of which were brilliant even if I never did get around to saying it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

My Relationship With The Z Monster Is Complex

All the monsters-Z.

If your name starts with "Z", you quickly learn in school what an unlikely and unpopular letter it is. Do all children identify with the first letter of their first names? Do Davids feel for "D"s and Steves feel for "S"s? It was obscurely depressing to learn, when I was 8 or whatever, in The Phantom Tollbooth, that the reason nobody used "Z" was it didn't taste very good.

Anyway...

Zombie

There's only one "Z" monster--and, like the name "Zak", zombies became popular in the last decade. They are, in many ways, a symbol of that decade, and, like all popular monsters, a symbol of what people at that time feared in other people. So I wrote about them when discussing the Zeroes in my last book:

In movies, zombies were the most popular monster. They are unusual, among monsters, for being inferior to their victims and winning only by weight of numbers, and for having no brains, but wanting to eat them.

Night of the Living Dead is a really good movie, so is that one where they're in a shopping mall but man oh man am I sick of zombies. I think I'll be ready to hear about them sometime around 2020.
_____

In hopefully unrelated news, Frank Frazetta died today. Considering the recent weirdness with his family and his illness and his possibly going and fucking up his old paintings, this may not be the worst news (he hasn't been all there, apparently, for years) but it is a good time to remember that he was very very good, and did things with lush color and movement that no other artist ever had before, in any genre or at any time, and that it was worth having all those dead-eyed, sallow skinned, constipated, overrated Italian Renaissance painters and fiddly, brown-obsessed 19th century Orientalists if it meant that one day the bloodline would result in Frazetta. He was the Muad'Dib of the main Western line of painting and, along with Vermeer and Velasquez, is one of the few things that justifies its existence.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Y Monsters? Why not?

All the monsters--Y.

Like "x", "y" is a lonely letter, with only 2 monsters. Soon I'll have to actually think before writing blog entries again.

On the other hand, all Y monsters are all good. Not even "D" can say that.

Yeti


The proper image, if you can find a way to evoke it in the players, is the wampa--not the toy with the hugging arms but the way it looked and seemed on the screen when you were a kid--when Luke first wakes up--long-haired like an Afghan hound, bent over, devil-horned, but human enough that the word "cannibalistic" still seems to apply. Until he Forced that lightsaber into his hand, that was a horror movie--maybe the first one most of us ever saw.

Like a mummy, the monster has to be detached from it's cartoony associations (and various cartoony names) in order to imagine how frightening and believable a goatmanbeardevil hidden in an ice cave really is if you're trapped alone in a landmarkless wilderness.

Yuan-ti

These snake men work, how could they not? Snake-anythings work.

I don't like the South American/South East Asian associations of the name, as it suggests--in a D&D context--that they come from far away. I prefer the idea--like in Conan--that they come from the same place, but an earlier time. In my campaign, they're called Librarians--for reasons I'll explain in some post in the future.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The X Monsters

All the monsters--X.

It doesn't make sense that a word would start with "X"--so, by extension, the "x" monsters are artificial, alien things that make no sense.

Xag-Ya & Xeg-Yi

These Monster Manual 2 beasts are magic living matter/anti-matter balls with tentacles. Not as stupid as they could be, not as full-on freakish as the Xorn.

They're a little abstract for my taste, though the comments for these posts have included so many good monster ideas that I bet one of you out there has thought of a nice spin on the Gygax-anagram monsters so I'm gonna sit back and see what y'all have to say in this case.

Xorn

The Xorn is so weird and makes so little sense that you have to give it props just for that-- it comes from the elemental plane of earth to here to mug people for their precious minerals. Implying:

A) Things like gold and rubies are hard to find on the Elemental Plane of Earth, and

B) It can't just use its move-through-stone power to collect them itself.

Plus it "moves its molecules" around plus it's called a "xorn" plus it looks like a stone Humpty Dumpty with a nose-arm and a mouth on the top of it's head. Seriously, someone was like "Hey, there's a monster in the Manual for every letter but X--let's take drugs until we think of something!"

Friday, May 7, 2010

Voices

We played Call of Cthulhu the other day--in the default '20s, and in London and a cruise to London--so that means I had to do a lot of voices. Luckily, I have a lot of voices.

You've probably heard the Goblin--which is just a slightly-lower-pitched munchkin, really--it's achieved by making the tongue as wide as possible and pulling it to the back of the top teeth. The words have to be articulated mostly by the lips.

The Gollum, in contrast, is accomplished by compacting the tongue, laying it on the bottom of the mouth, and pulling it as far back as possible.

Widening the tongue, flattening it on the bottom of your mouth, and pulling it as far back as possible gives you a sort of Orc, or at least a grumbly sort of monster.

(All of this is accompanied by some mysterious movements back in the larynx which are harder to describe. The best I can say is that high voices seem to involve pulling things in your neck higher up and lower voices involves pushing them lower down.)

With most accents, I'm a decent mimic just after I've heard the voice--which is a cruel thing to be good at, since it means you're best at copying someone while they're standing right in front of you. (With a non-foreign voice it's much harder--I'm not really imitating the voice--that's very hard--I'm imitating the accent, which is enough for those who don't share the accent. Imitating a voice well enough that people with the same accent like it is rare freakshow talent.)

The trick isn't really getting the accent, it's remembering the accent. This is easy with people you've heard talk a lot--I was taught for a semester by the Indian photographer Raghubir Singh
and, after he died, one of his (American) friends (another photography teacher) kept insisting I do his voice whenever we talked because, she insisted, it made her miss him less--which was strange because Raghubir and I despised each other and most of my Ragubhir routine consisted of making fun of how he discussed photography using tennis analogies.

Another one I've got fairly down is whatever kind of British accent the writer Martin Amis has--I've heard him a lot in interviews and readings--and I can do a decent rip of one of my close friends' Spanish accent--though if you've never heard him it just sort of sounds like an unplaceably generic Eurovoice with lisps and extra e's before any s-word.

For most others, I need a "trigger" phrase--something I can say that tells me where all the parts of the mouth go. Examples:

For the Irish, I use the phrase "Ian Alistair McKenzie" from the name of an addressee in an old UPS or FedEx ad commercial. One "Ian Alistair McKenzie" and I can be convincingly Irish to the non-Irish for days at a time.

For the Cockney, I use the phrase "This is King's Cross"--an actual quote from an actual cabbie in actual London that I actually had said to me.

For the West Indian I use "'Dere no a creme for dat" another actual quote from an actual Londoner said to me in a cosmetics shop. It still needs some work, as my Jamaican tends to slide (bizarrely) into my Irish if I talk long enough. It doesn't come up much in D&D though.

My Liverpool is just Ringo saying "I'm just a chap from Liverpool" in an old commercial from the '80s for credit cards or some shit. (The other Beatles are easy once you've got that--John is that with your eyes half-closed and longer O's, Paul is that but moving your head back and forth and more excitable, George is that but lower and bored.)

Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, or anybody from Python is cake, but they're so extreme that it ends up just sounding like the NPC is Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, or The Minister of Silly Walks, so for a more generic British voice I use whoever it is that says "The Tale of Sir Robin".

I find a softened Johnny Rotten works ok for Melniboneans and White Elves, despite the fact that, classwise, it makes no sense.

For the Japanese, I just need to remember hearing a kid in Tokyo say his favorite band was "Arrannashid" and then having him write it down and so seeing he was saying "Rancid." Though I fear that on bad days I just sound like the Trade Guild.

For the German (the non-funny German, for the funny German I just do Colonel Klink like everyone else) I use my friend Werner saying "It's kind of weird." But I drift out of it very fast if I'm not in Germany. And when I am in Germany it insults the Germans, so it's tough. I can do Schwarzeneggar, Hans and Franz and Rainier Wolfcastle well enough to tell them apart, but I kind of hate that voice so I avoid it.

For French, I use the name "Lemme Caution" as pronounced in Alphaville.

Russian is Yakoff Smirnov saying "Een Sovyet Yoonion," but Russian tough-guys are harder, and my Russian-tough-guy tends to slide right into my Henry Kissinger unless I remember someone my friend Dave once got in a fight in a bar saying "I am not afraid off you, it was not for your police, I would hit you." but then that actually slides into a soup of Eastern European accents I heard when I made a movie in Spain.

Nordic accents are hard--I lived in Denmark for a month, and not one of them sounded a bit like the Swedish chef--they all had learned English from the BBC and had what sounds to an American like a merely slightly hesitant and less crisp British newscaster accent. Any attempt to do a more "Nordic" sounding accent just descends into Swedish Chef. How D&D vikings should sound is beyond me--I usually just say Fuck It and go for some sort of Rider of Rohan Melange.

For American children, I remember my little brother used to pronounce "Are you thirsty?" as "Aw you sauce D?"

Many of my American accents are weird, since, arguably, I actually have some of them and it's more a question of getting into the emotional mindset that goes with the accent then remembering a phrase. My native DC-area accent (best exemplified by Omar on The Wire) is a kind of Southern-plus-what-most-people-think-of-as-"black" an it's sometimes how I actually sound when I get angry, and it's actually hard for me to do it unless I'm actually making threats. The key component is a sort of constant oscillation between incredulity at what the other person is saying and confident indifference to whether they believe what you're saying. "I'on'even care, I tell you what, you wanna believe the motherfucker, you believe the motherfucker. I'm'onna sit back and drink mah motherfucka' applejuice. Be right here if you neeme."

Most of the Americans don't come up in RPGs I play, though, so whatever.

Like in "Axe" Episode 2, I don't always like doing female voices--if you do them funny, it's funny, and if you're a guy and manage to nail it and don't do them funny, it can be even funnier--and sometimes there's enough funny business going on that you don't want more funny. Sometimes.

But anyway I have some good ones:

For the female New York Jewish, I use my aunt saying "She went from Poe-lind ta Choina! She was at Hu-RO-shima!" (Long story. Not sure it's true.) and "Theya's no excuse fuh that kyna behaveyuh." and, simply, "For her" pronounced as "Fuh huh."

For the south, I use "hotter'n Georgia asphalt" as pronounced by Laura Dern in Wild at Heart.

For Female Russian (ironically better than my male Russian), I can do my friend Vera saying "I would like some wudka, and a cookie."

For the female French I use the phrase "Je n'aime pas les tunnels" from, I think, the movie "Night On Earth".

For what I assume is upper middle British I use "I'm Catty Kay for the BBC".

For the upper class British I use Margaret Thatcher saying "Let's have a party! Acid party! Rave! Rave! Rave! Murder." as sampled in the song "Maggie's Last Party".

W Monsters

All the monsters--W. W monsters are all trying to be badass. Some succeed.


Wasp, giant

I have the same problem with the giant wasp as I do with the giant owl,--making it bigger doesn't exaggerate what's scary about it--a giant fly is grosser when it's big, a giant spider can catch you in its web or its jaws when it's big, a giant mantis can decapitate you if its big.

A wasp? You're afraid that a wasp will sting you. Making it big doesn't automatically make it more poisonous.

Water Weird

A water weird is obviously way better than a water elemental--but why? Well there's the name for one, there's the picture for two--the idea of the weird simply being an existing body of water like in a well or a pool that starts taking a shape is way spookier than a big wave with eyes.

Is there anything else to it? The water weird seems to be a bit more about trickery or deception whereas the water elemental seems to be just about brute force. We already knew that waves were out to get us.

Weasel, giant

The thing that puts a giant weasel head and shoulders above all other stupid monsters (including the giant beaver) is that there is no word in the English language that's funnier.

Nothing is funnier than a weasel. As I think Dave Barry pointed out you can replace any word in any weasel with the word weasel and it's instantly funny. Watch: I'm sorry but your one eyed daughter with down syndrome has cancer of the giant weasel. If you're going to be stupid go full on. "They will attack until destroyed."

We filmed an episode of "Axe" today. We had our first on-air fatality. (Guess who! Find out in a month and a half.) To my intense pleasure, she immediately rolled up a new character with a pet weasel.

Whale

"The latter will occasionally attack humans (killer whales will always do so), and all forms of whales are very dangerous if molested."

Molested?

The best thing ever said about whales outside Moby Dick was "We took swords with us, swimming one handed, to fight off whales."--from Grendel by John Gardner--which is a really great book and anyone who's into D&D, existentialism and modernist literature should read it. So I guess I'm saying me and Mandy should read it and maybe nobody else.

Wight

Another one of these: if you're a veteran player it means "level drain" if you're not it means a colour spelled wrong.

If we're constructing a game from the ground-up would there be a point to the wight? I think the niche untaken would be as a kind of "civilized" undead that has a little bit more of the common addict about it than the vampire. The vampire's connotations of blasphemousness and aristocracy preclude it seeming like a total junkie in a medieval context and the zombie's mindlessness makes it lack the pathos of a living thing reduced to something less than it was. That is, the wight appears in cities like an ordinary homeless person only slightly pale--then it grabs you and kisses you and you get dumber.

Will -O-(The) Wisp

This monster (monster doesn't seem exactly the right word) derives from a spontaneous light phenomenon noticed in swamps worldwide that science is as-yet still unable to explain.

One Irish theory holds that someone named Jack made a deal with the devil to pay his bar tab, then tricked Satan into climbing a tree, then carved a cross into the tree so Satan couldn't get down. This upset Satan so he cursed Jack to wander the earth with only one light to guide him which Jack then stuck into a gourd. While I have never used a Will-O -isp in a game I will say that Jack sounds like a seriously awesome PC. Any god that wouldn't let him into heaven probably isn't worth worshipping. There's probably a Pogues song about him.

Wind Walker

More invisible creatures from the elemental plane of boring.

This is the name they give the invisible stalker at the New Age get-in-touch-with-your-inner-fuck-camping-retreat. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYhe612xdQ0


Wolf

Wolves? Definitely.

So then: Regular Wolves? Dire wolves? Worgs? Winter Wolves? Or all four? Seeing as how my whole campaign is in and endless winter we'll need wolves. I feel like I really only wanna use one. Regular wolves are a necessity, I suppose, since every fifth npc has the word "wulf" in their last name somewhere. Plus there's already werewolves--I'm gonna resist the marvel comics-esque urge to create endless variations on something just because it's cool.

Wolverine

Speaking of which...

The wolverine as listed actually has more hit dice than a wolf. Anyway the wolverine seems like a good utility monster if, say, the PCs are asleep in the middle of the wilderness and you need something to sneak up and eat all of their food. Any similarity between what I just typed and the situation prevailing circa episode 14 of I Hit It With My Axe is strictly coincidental.

Wraith

Wraith is a much better word than "wight" and aside from that it's much more of an immaterial undead like a ghost.

I already talked about how "spectre" was way creepier than "ghost", more disturbing and subtle. Wraith, I think, is likewise better and--luckily for the wraith--for a slightly different reason.

A wraith sounds definitely evil while spectre just seems terrifying and unnatural. Anything called a "wraith" is definitely out to get you. Also, while "specter" summons a psychological horror a "wraith" is something with a spooky cloak. This is important because it would be beneath a spectre's dignity to go galavanting around slumming with skeletons and death knights and other corporeals in an undead army, whereas the wraith fits right in.


Wyvern

See Dragon

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Don't Tell Us Where The Prison Is

The farther we get along in the series, the less the Escapist argued with me--episode 8 gets us into the "Axe" episodes where the Escapist took the tapes I gave them and didn't complain at all or make me change anything. We'd agreed about where the good stuff in the show was going to come from and didn't have to ship the footage back and forth re-cutting from both sides.

(These were cut months ago, but, knowing people, I'm sure the haters on the boards who like the newer episodes will assume they get better because we're responding to their whining. "Make tha sho gooder!""Yes sir!")

-It's the first with Justine Joli flying in from New York to play. Though I've probably said it before and it's probably in the video there always seems to be profound confusion on this point so I'll say it again: Justine is new and this is her first game. The other girls are not new.

-Also in the category of I would-have-thought-it-was-obvious-but-experience-teaches-otherwise the action in-game here begins just as the last Sasha-guest-star-episode ends. That is, just after the girls have discovered the Goblin Palace.

-I handwaved Sasha's character's disappearance--as you do--though, since this game has a rotating cast of guest stars and so I know that people will be disappearing at intervals I suppose next time I might think up a slightly more elegant way to do it. I don't just want to kill them off though, you never know when people will be back.

-Click here to see bigger.



-The mushrooms and their effects were derived from a table made by Lee Reynoldson for the Fungus Forest on megadungeon.net--I actually didn't intend to include anybody's stuff but mine in this episode but the Goblin Palace was written up long before the show existed and it wasn't until I started editing that I realized Lee's invention had made it into the filmed game. James Mal helped me track him down and pay him for his contribution so it's all good there.

The cosmetic similarity between Satine's blue wood elf and the protagonists of a recent Ferngullylike science fiction film is strictly accidental and unfortunate.

--The mug Justine is drinking from says "Maybe I want to look cheap." Mandy's mom got it for her. Should be the motto for the whole show..

-"Disgusting grub monster."

Anyone wondering why my descriptive style as a GM is so minimal would do well to examine this short sequence. All I say is "this sort of disgusting grub monster" and I get an immediate and visceral eeeeew from the party.

Maybe this is a D&D principal: describe the thing until you get the reaction that tells you you've described the thing and then move on. I have managed so far to avoid hearing withering "yeah yeah we get it"s from both Kimberly and Mandy throughout my GMing career despite hearing them almost weekly from one or the other of them in ordinary life.

I think the Cthulhu rule would be something different: either describe the thing until you get the barest flicker of recognition or describe the thing until you get the reaction and then keep describing it and keep describing it and keep describing it until the players are just dying to do something about it.

-The upside down rooms predated me reading the tesseract articles in Best of Dragon. It's probably best that the Goblin Palace didn't have tesseracts--keeping track of everybodys position without fridge magnets glued to the bottom of the minis was weird enough by itself.

-"Funguses" is a word, anybody who says it isn't doesn't have Google.

Because of this I've spent years of my life explaining that "octopuses" is a perfectly acceptable plural of "octopus" because "octopus" is Greek, not Latin, so "octopi" isn't particularly correct and if you want to be all etymological about it then it'd be "octopodes". I would have a sense of humor about it if people didn't assume you were stupid just because they think they know more about plural nouns than you.

It is very hard not to despise people.

-They're making an awful lot of noise in the Palace but still not attracting any guards--there's actually a reason for that. Explained next episode.

-The footage underneath the credits is Mandy walking Justine through character generation, if you look carefully you'll notice Justine isn't wearing any pants. She doesn't wear any pants for the first 3 or 4 episodes she's in and nobody mentions it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On The Theory of GMing--I mean War

Why write about GMing? You have to learn by experience and no plan survives contact with the enemy, right?

I'm with Clausewitz:

"Theory is instituted that each person in succession may not have to go through the same labour of clearing the ground and toiling through it, but may find the thing in order, and light admitted on it. It should educate the mind of the future leader in war, or rather guide him in his self-instruction, but not accompany him to the field of battle: just as a sensible tutor forms and enlightens the opening mind of a youth without, therefore, keeping him in leading strings all through his life.

"If maxims and rules result of themselves from the considerations which theory institutes, if the truth concretes itself in that form of crystal, then theory will not oppose this natural law of the mind; it will rather, if the arch ends in such a keystone, bring it prominently out; but it does this only in order to satisfy the philosophical law of reason, in order to show distinctly the point to which the lines all converge, not in order to form out of it an algebraical formula for the battle-field: for even these maxims and rules also are more to determine in the reflecting mind the leading outline of its habitual movements, than to serve as landmarks indicating to it the way in the act of execution."

-On War,
Carl Von Clausewitz

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chokers And Chandlers

"Let's see what this thing does."

The object in question is something simple and unassuming--a spinning wheel or a harmonica--and the day is bright and sunny.

If a sandbox D&Der says "let's see what this thing does," the phrase might not mean anything to whoever's listening, and even if using the spinning wheel does lead to a 3/4 party kill and the remaining players reversing alignment and/or gender, those words--"Let's see what that this thing does"--will only take on significance retroactively.

If, on the other hand, a Call of Cthulhu player says "Let's see what this thing does" you can hear the mood music and the crackling of thunder already--sunny day or no. The very set-up of the game is a kind of foreshadowing.

This isn't just because Call of Cthulhu is a horror game and therefore has the atmosphere of horror. It's also because Call of Cthulhu usually takes the dramatic form of a horror movie or thriller. All paths sooner or later lead to doom. The players know that and they know they are inviting trouble by playing that harmonica.

This gives all CoC dialogue, even the most banal--especially the most banal--a second significance.

"Your uncle seems to've had a terribly vivid imagination, Chauncey!"

"Leave me alone, I want to watch the birds eat."

In this way, Call of Cthulhu not only (like all role-playing games) allows acting, it automatically deepens it--even without trying. The more you can "act" (in this case, largely a matter of pretending to not know whatever you do know about the Lovecraft mythos and the fact that this game tends to end in tragedy and madness) the more fun this double-meaning is. "I don't trust this cheese, Lady Crustingham". In effect, the Call of Cthulhu player is both a participant and a knowing observer.

This isn't true in most sandboxes because what loads your Cthulhu PC's words with meaning is the intimation on the part of all players that certain future events will occur. Of course, the whole point of sandbox D&D is you have very little intimation of of what sort of future events will occur.

Duh. They're different games, with different roads to fun. Anyway...


The Rewards of Acting When You Already Know The Plot

Consideration: In effect, if certain elements of your characters' future fate are sketched out, and everyone at the table knows it, then there is an automatic extra reward for role-playing in the sense of "acting"--you get a "double effect" every time you role-play. Not only does everyone get whatever aesthetic pleasure there is from hearing a character say "Ho ho! They'll only let us go to the party if we stay for drinks and a lecture? I guess we'll just have to live dangerously, Pubblemayer!" you also get the aesthetic reward of knowing that that party is probably a cult meeting and the drinks are probably drugged and so that remark is a little funnier.

I could draw the obvious parallel to another genre: porn. Improvising porn dialogue (which--shocking I know--is often how we do it) is fun because, likewise, whatever you say is automatically given a second significance by what everyone knows is about to occur--"Where'd you put the melons, Cecilia?"

In a sandbox game, this isn't automatically so. If you say something your character "would" say, the players get the pleasure of acting in character and thereby contributing to creating the characters, and that--depending on how future events play out--might be all you get. You could step on a rusty caltrop and die for no reason 3 seconds later. If you act bold it might pay off, it might not, if you act sneaky it might pay off, it might not. No-one knows precisely what genre they're in (except, broadly, "adventure") and that's part of the fun and the challenge. It's a different kind of fun.

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Point being it is the intimation that future events of a certain character will definitely occur that creates these kinds of double entendres in role-playing.

The intimation that future events of a certain character will definitely occur is also one of the elements that can turn a game into a railroad.

Now DIY D&Ders are often to be found howling (rightly so) against railroads. This is why we like sandboxes--it's almost impossible to railroad someone if they have total freedom of action. Good, problem solved. We just do location-based adventures and we can be sure we're never, ever railroading.

I think, however, it's important to realize that there's quite a lot of territory between the total sandbox and the total railroad and some of that territory allows for unique aesthetic effects (such as the double-meaning) unavailable at the other extremes and I would like to try to help create a way to talk about plot construction in a more detailed way than just having people argue about whether a given published adventure or type of campaign "is a railroad" or not. So here it is...


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CHOKERS:

It'll be helpful to nail down the kinds of techniques that can lead to railroading. Basically, railroading usually proceeds from excessive and continuous use of certain GMing techniques which are, in themselves, harmless.

These techniques are techniques designed to limit the PCs options in a given situation, and I'm going to call them "chokers". Chokers can be good, for example: An adventure including a trick room where the PCs can't talk is not a railroad. The problem comes when chokers are used to elicit specific courses of action from the PCs for a decent chunk of a session or for whatever the group thinks of as too long to be fun.

Here are the chokers--if you think of any others, let me know, but make sure your choker doesn't fit into one of these categories--(for example the Interfering NPC is not so much a choker as a device capable of providing other chokers for the GM at will.)

Limiting Resources: Basically, this means creating a situation in the game where the PCs can't get their hands on things or people or abilities that they normally would in order to solve a problem. Nearly all RPG scenarios involve limiting resources in one way or another. A problem (like a riddle, for instance) with only one or two possible solutions is a kind of limited resources. Limiting resources or solutions so much that only GM-approved solutions to a problem are possible ("...the only way to break the curse is to..." etc.) is not, alone, railroading, but it can lead to it if combined with other restrictions.

Limiting Information: The PCs are only given enough information to make one course of action plausible. The familiar example is an investigation-type plot. If there's only one clue and it suggests only one possible course of action, this can turn into railroading. Again, like limiting resources, limiting information is a part of nearly all RPGs.

Unanticipatable Events: The PCs are affected by an event they could not have foreseen. Maybe they have to then deal with it, maybe it just affects them in some way indefinitely. Note that if the PCs could reasonably have foreseen and prepared for or avoided the event but didn't it's not a choker. A trap that might be detected isn't a choker. A trap that the PCs have no option but to fall into is.

Anticipated Uncontrollable Event: "It all goes down on the 16th!" What goes down? If the PCs don't know and can't know, or know but can't do anything about it, yet still know it's important, then it's an Anticipated Uncontrollable Event. They know something important will occur but have no way of addressing it. This can create a sense of (obviously) anticipation and it can generate excitement or mystery, but it can also make whatever the PCs are themselves doing seem irrelevant since they have no idea how or whether it'll have anything to do with this obviously important other thing the GM is going to all this trouble to let them know about.

Mind Control: Because of magic, science, insanity, brain damage or the like, the player loses control of his/her actions temporarily and the GM gets to tell them how they behave. Note that in some cases there's a fine line here: a player who is suddenly informed s/he is a kleptomaniac or a servant of an evil necromancer may actually welcome the opportunity to change personalities for a while and not see it as a restraint at all. In cases like that, the question of whether the PC enjoys and finds things to do in the new role or basically just has to grudgingly do things s/he would rather not can affect how much of this choker someone can take before it's perceived as railroading.

Unique Reward: There's something cool which the PCs can only get through a given GM-presented course of action. Presenting PCs in a game of AD&D with the prospect of lots of x.p. isn't using this choker, since there are other sources of xp, presenting the PCs with the prospect of attaining some specific artifact or relic is. Thanks to Menace 3 Society for bringing up this choker in the comments.

The next 4 chokers are worse than the above chokers--that is, they're less often justifiable and will lead to players feeling railroaded more often...

Nullification: The PCs take an action that they know should, by rights, lead to another event further down the line in the scenario working out differently. The GM, in order to preserve his or her idea of the scenario, thinks up--after the fact--a reason that the event still happens pretty much the same way despite the PCs' action.

Example--The PCs are going to fight Superman, they get some kryptonite, it turns out Superman is wearing a radiation suit that day.

In order for this to be nullification, the PCs have to know or suspect that the future event is coming. If they don't it's just, essentially, an unanticipatable event (i.e. the PCs run away from the monster that the DM planted a secret bomb on, so the DM puts the bomb on some other monster in a different adventure somewhere else). Now unanticipatable events are chokers, too, but this difference matters because nullification is the worst kind of choker, and is rarely, if ever, justifiable.

It's important also to note that, unlike limiting resources or information, nullification occurs after the fact of the PC's action. If the GM can hold up her notes and go "See, right here: Superman--in his radiation suit--is in room 6b, fixing the Orgulator from 6am-7:30pm." then that's just limited resources and limited info--which are chokers, too, but not quite as bad as nullification. Why not as bad? Because the PCs will at least be able to see that the reason that the GM stymied their plan was because she out-thought them ahead of time. Which feels more fair.

It'd feel yet more fair if the PCs had a way they could've known that--like if they had scouted ahead or checked Superman's calendar, which was hanging on the wall in the room they just went through--"April 12th--fix Orgulator--Get new rad suit first!".

Nudging: The PCs "should" take some action, notice some clue, make some choice, etc. They aren't doing it. Someone or something comes along and points them in the "right" direction. Nudging is bad because if the idea is that the PCs need to do A in order for B to happen and they don't do A, then they've failed and there should be consequences--otherwise the players aren't really being challenged and there was no point in putting the clue, choice, etc in there in the first place. At least in-game. (Obviously you could rig it so the PCs don't get xp if they don't notice your clue on their own, but that still means their actions had no effect on the story.)

Another reason nudging is bad is it has the possibility of eliminating interesting alternate solutions before the PCs have time to think of them.

Pointing By Punishing: A kind of nudging. The scenario is constructed such that the PCs "should" take some action, notice some clue, make some choice, etc. They aren't doing it. There are consequences such that leaving the vital thing ignored or left undone makes things harder for the PCs and tells them that they should've done the thing.

For example: if nobody realizes they have to stop Orbach The Despised, then everything metal in a 20 mile radius slowly begins to rust. Pointing By Punishing lets the PCs know what they should've done, but also makes the thing they're supposed to accomplish harder--that way the PCs get a second chance, but there's still consequences to their actions. It's a choker, but it's preferable to straight nudging.

Nursing: Similar to nudging, except it's usually about combat or some other character-skill-based (rather than choice-based) thing--that is, fighting or rolling or otherwise doing something involving chance and tactics. There's a challenge to the PCs. The PCs fail or are going to, so the GM invents (or prepares in advance) some plot device that helps them out so they can win and the plot can keep rolling along.

Nursing essentially makes it so that the PC's failing has no in-game consequences. Essentially, it's a form of nullification except that sometimes the PCs actually like it.

The theory is that even if the players want to be nursed, eventually they'll get bored and frustrated in the long run if there's no consequences to their failures. I don't know if that's necessarily always true (someone should take a poll), but I do know that the GM will get frustrated and bored if there's no consequences to the PC's failures, since the story becomes predictable.

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So those are all the techniques I could think of that could lead to railroading.

Now I'm gonna take a look at the different kinds of adventure structures you can set up, and how railroading might appear in them. I'm gonna start with the kinds of campaigns that have the most freedom (the least chance of railroading) and move to the ones that have the least freedom (and, therefore, the most chance of railroading).

Ok...
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NONTRADITIONAL, SUPER-OPEN GAMES


It's probably impossible to get railroaded in these kinds of game except maybe in some whiny psychsocial way, they are...

Total Improv/ Brainstorming "Game"

A bunch of people sit around and, with no rules or formal agreement, dream up a story and take parts in it. (Note that many more structured games often begin this way, especially with really experienced players who are trying to think up something new to do.)


Common Law Game + Common Law Story

A bunch of people sit around and draw up rules for a game before or while playing it (one possibility is the way it's described here), then play the game following these rules, with everyone contributing to the story both in and out of character.

(The next two types of games are, dependng on the levers and dials, of varying, but relatively high--levels of player freedom)

Certain Story Games, Like 'Shock', For Instance

A bunch of people contribute plot and/or setting elements according to a given rule scheme, and play characters in the game. The players also have an ability to affect things in the game out-of-character once the games already started.

Common-Law Rules Within An Otherwise Traditional RPG Set-Up

This is a game with a game master and all that and a fixed setting, but the actual rules are made up by the group as they go along, like this.

Certain Other Story Games

A bunch of people contribute plot and/or setting elements according to a given rule scheme, and play characters in the game. However, the players don't have the ability to affect things in the game out-of-character once the game's already started. There's no GM.

Sandboxes

Now we come to the more familiar types of games in D&D. Railroading can happen, in extreme situations, here.

Extreme Sandbox

This has, for the most part, a traditional RPG set-up. GM and players playing PCs. The PCs can go anywhere (and there are lots of meaningfully different places to go) and do anything their characters could according to common sense and the rules. The villains act mostly like traps--they don't make their own schemes at all, and will not proactively do anything creative or involved that might affect the PCs other than, basically, fight them if they show up. No natural disasters or other world-affecting events occur unless triggered by the PCs.

Any kind of dungeon that is mostly traps and/or animal-level monsters is like this. If there are intelligent NPCs but their behavior is somehow randomized rather than intelligent DM-inflected scheming, then you're still in Extreme Sandbox territory--point is, the DM 's ability to shape events even through the NPCs is limited.

The only way you could possibly get railroaded in a game like this is if there were extremely limited resources or limited information in the initial conditions, or if you slip down into some area of the sandbox that it takes a long time to get out of which is full of automatic nudges, nurses, resource limiters, etc.

PC prep is important here--if PCs are given the opportunity to prep before going somewhere, it's hard for them to be railroaded.

(The next two, depending on the dials and switches, are at approximately equal levels of player freedom.)

Sandbox With Triggerable NPCs or Plot Events

As the Extreme Sandbox except the PCs can "activate" an NPC by choosing to interact with him/her and thereby place that NPC in a position to affect the plot in the way an intelligent, thinking, proactive person would. The PCs can also trigger events which have the ability to alter the plot (or create a plot)--like, say, if they steal a certain gem then children all over the gameworld starting eating their parents.

There's a thin line here: In Raggi's Death Frost Doom, for instance , the players can inadvertently wake thousands of corpses from their slumber--if the DM treats these undead as the kind of monsters that'll get in the way for a bit and then disperse after a session or two, it's an Extreme Sandbox, if the DM keeps the skeletons around but randomizes the movements of the army of undead, then it's still an Extreme Sandbox. If the DM decides when and where the skeletons go for some time thereafter in order to spice up the game (as I myself have done) then we've moved at into a genuine Triggered Plot Event.

It's possible for a DM to use the thus-triggered NPC or event to then start forcing all kinds of actions onto the PCs, so, technically, the possibility of railroading begins here. Once an NPC is unleashed, all chokers become possible.

Clockwork Simulation

As the Extreme Simulation, except the world has natural disasters and intelligent NPCs that (theoretically even when off-screen) do things which the PCs may or may not, depending on their own actions and perhaps some probability tables, intersect with. To be a 'perfect' clockwork simulation, all the NPCs must be directed by the GM strictly on a "What would this person actually do" basis and never ever ever on a "What would be interesting for this person to do right now" basis. Whether a totally clockwork sandbox would be desirable or even possible is another question, but it's here as a sort of platonic marker on the freedom scale. It's certainly possible to have a fun game by going for it.

Basically, this would be a sandbox that attempts to act as much as possible like a real world.

Again. as soon as a sufficiently powerful (and intelligent) NPC takes interest in the PCs, all chokers become possible.

Sandbox With Interested Forces

As the Clockwork Simulation except some NPC, force of nature, or other entity is definitely and unavoidably going to act on one or more of the PCs or has been designed specifically so that their interests overlap or are in competition. However, this force does not necessarily demand events unfold in any given way.

For example: in episode 2 of I Hit It With My Axe the medusa and the city guards want the party to take on a mission, and threaten them if they don't, but the PCs can still remain alive and have adventures if they just fight the medusa and guards or just run away, or take the mission and then say screw it once they're outside the city gates and go do something else., .

In order to fit here, the PCs should be able to deal with these interested forces in many different ways (not all of which are obvious to the DM)--including violating the "rules" of the genre (e.g. the investigators saying "Who cares who murdered the monk?", deciding to let the tsunami crush the city and just move, deciding to train a giraffe to fetch the coin from the haunted well., etc.) and still have a satisfying game.

(This, incidentally, may be why sandbox D&D so often goes gonzo--the wacky solution is often the only one that the DM hasn't thought of. Letting the players do whatever works pretty much encourages gonzo. Which is awesome.)

SANDBOXES WITH IMPOSED PLOT ELEMENTS:

The danger of railroading begins here in earnest, however, so does the ability for the DM to create a plot or to create a game existing consistently in a specific mood/genre. You can't, for instance decide to do a noir detective story or a horror story or a thriller on purpose without going into this zone.

Sandbox With Unanticipatable Events

As any of the sandboxes above, except the DM proactively introduces distinct events into the PCs' lives. This "event" has to be more than just introducing a NPC, trap, or monster that the PCs can immediately dispatch if they play their cards right (or be dispatched by if they play their cards wrong), it has to be an encounter which leads to a predetermined end. For example, the DM decides that the encounter with the rust monster will destroy the paladin's +5 sword or the pickpocket will get the dwarf's healing potion and secretly replace it with a gender-switching potion no matter what else happens, and then arranges things so that occurs.

This can be ok--like an adventure where the PCs will be shrunk down to the size of peanuts before entering the lizard king's palace is not necessarily nothing but a boring railroad. However, I would argue that an adventure where the PCs ended up shrunk down to the size of peanuts before entering the lizard king's palace because they went and opened the wrong drawer is slightly more fun for everyone because that way the PCs know that what happened was the result of their own curiousity (or whatever) and the GM isn't sure whether s/he's running a shrunken adventure or not until it actually happens. However, that's a minor quibble--particularly if you just finished having a really fun shrunken adventure...

How railroady this feels depends on whether these events prevent the PCs from doing the kinds of things that they individually, are playing RPGs in order to do.

If the player loves acting and doing voices above everything else, then an endless stream of unavoidable unfortunate events might be just what the doctor ordered to give their player something to chew the scenery about. If the player enjoys plotting and scheming against the DM, then a bunch of out-of-nowhere events which keep interrupting her while she's trying to build her Invincible Squash Golem are a problem. If the player enjoys solving mysteries, then having every solution but one be a dead end might be frustrating, if the player involves solving puzzles on the other hand, having every solution but one be a dead end might be exactly the kind of challenge s/he wants.

Sandbox That Changes By Itself

As the Clockwork Simulation above, except the GM (or whoever wrote the scenario) knows things are going to happen which will fundamentally alter the setting in ways that will matter to the PCs. Basically a big unanticipated event that affects the whole sandbox. Since a Sandbox That Changes By Itself is not yet a full-blown Plotted Adventure, these changes do not necessarily require the PCs to do any specific thing, they just require them to do things in a different way from now on. That is, they change the realities on the ground. A cataclysmic earthquake that affects the whole gameworld is an example.

Sandbox With Miscellaneous GM Intervention

This is arguably the most common sort of sandbox--it's an open game where pretty much any of the things in the above five categories can happen and occasionally do. The GM can introduce interested NPCs, decide there'll be disasters, impose events by fiat, and generally muck about in the machinery.

Again, the danger here isn't any one thing, it's simply taking care that whatever sandcastles they PCs are building in the sandbox get as much (or more) chance to actually amount to something and change the shape of the game as ideas introduced after the game's started by the DM. Sandboxes depend on the PCs having information about their surroundings. Keeping the sandbox a sandbox means that whatever the GM does to the game or gameworld, this information must, for the most part, continually to actually matter and be usable by the PCs.

Plots Requiring Use of The Sandbox

The PCs don't get to do whatever they want, they have a problem to solve. The DM (or scenario) formulates this problem such that having an adventure at all requires trying to solve it. However, the problem is long-term and open enough that the PCs can pretty much pick and choose how exactly to go about solving it and they have any resources of the entire gameworld that they can get their hands on at their disposal.

A simple and relatively "closed" form would be the Epic Sandbox, a more open form would be the scavenger hunt sandbox, and a middle form would be the Preparation Adventure--an adventure where the PCs have a given amount of time before a certain climactic confrontation takes place and they have to do as much as they can between the beginning of the adventure and that confrontation to prepare for it or otherwise tilt the odds in their favor. In order for it to work the PCs will need lts ofinformation about what's around. Like: you have five days before twelve far-flung evil wizards converge on the city and you also have tons of vital information on where all twelve of them live and the layouts of their homes, go.
Plot Requiring Use of the Sandbox With Miscellaneous Occasional Chokers

From the point of view of Gandalf and Aragorn, this was what most of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was. Timetables, NPC Hobbits randomly doing or undoing your bidding, various interested parties interfering, having to use hard-won gameworld information to solve The Big Problem.

This points up one way to throw in DM-generated plot stuff without ruining the PCs' sense of freedom--spread the DM interventions way out over time.

PLOTTED ADVENTURES/NON-SANDBOXES:


Small World
Something's going on, the PCs have to address it or die (or otherwise be rendered not-playing). Only certain tactics can be used, either because of limited information (like in an investigation--no use questioning anyone unless they had something to do with the crime) or limited resources (stuck in a shopping mall when the zombies attack, wake up in a dungeon with all your stuff missing, etc.).

In this kind of plot, there are no DM-imposed events or interfering NPCs after the initial set-up, it's just, in a sense, a very small sandbox--either because the PCs have very little information about the world to use or because their access to the world is physically limited. There's no danger of this being a railroad unless the only solutions possible are ones the DM has already conceived of, in which case, see Unipuzzle, below.

The Raymond Chandler


This is a typical noir or Cthulhu set-up. Another example is The Big Lebowski. Lots of unanticipatable events., basically. The PCs are trying to do something, and then someone interferes pretty much out of the blue (as far as the PCs know at the time) and creates a new problem, and then while the PCs are trying to solve that problem (or the original one still) there's another and another and another until the PCs basically realize that Unexpected External Events which they have no capacity to prepare for are pretty much a feature of the landscape around here.

Is this a railroad? Not always.

If the PCs have the ability to influence events outside themselves in ways the GM didn't anticipate, then it's possible to escape the railroad. "Outside themselves" is an important phrase here: in pretty much every game, PC's know their decisions can affect whether their fellow PCs live or die or solve the problems or don't--so that's not a test of railroading. The test is whether their responses to the problems are capable of creating unanticipated changes in the nature of the conflict itself.

If the GM has to think about what the PCs did and then meaningfully change the plot to reflect that--and the PCs can see that change, and see that it was a result fo what they did, the railroad tracks are gone. It's true that Lebowski's rug got peed on by DM fiat, but his troubles really began when he decided to talk to the other Lebowski about it. And he knew it.

In other words, this kind of event-heavy plot can avoid being a railroad if all these unexpected events are shaped by the GM to reflect actions the PCs have taken and if they don't push the PCs ineluctably toward some events whose important lineaments are predetermined.

The quibble here is the word "important". If, no matter what the PCs do, they're going to end up fighting the villain alone in unarmed combat on a moonless night on top of the Empire State Building, there's some railroading going on. If PC actions can change it so they fight the villain on top of a zeppelin with a swordfish (in a way UNanticipated when the scenario was conceived), then it's not a railroad. But there are obviously shades of grey in between. If it's hand-to-hand combat on a moonless night in a dark alley is that a meaningful difference? When has the change become "meaningful"?

My plan would be: overdo it. Every time the PCs make a decision, find a way to make the next event reflect it, even if you don't have to. This is harder than sticking to the plan and requires quick thinking, but it's also more fun for everybody involved.

I don't think it's that hard to run a railroad-free Lebowski adventure--however, what is hard is to publish one. The problem is: a published scenario has to anticipate player actions, and the longer the scenario is, the further into the future the scenario writer has to project the game events. Unless the scenario is endlessly filled with stuff like "make up something clever to happen here depending on how the PCs dealt with things so far" then someone writing a 20-session event-driven campaign for commercial publication pretty much has to assume the GM will railroad by nudging or nullifying in oredr to spit out a continuus stream of encounters. People with published scenarios need to learn to improvise if they want to get around this.

Waiting For Godot

Basically a plot consistently hinging on Anticipated Uncontrollable events--someone or something over which the PCs have no control must show up on its own and do things in order for the adventure to end and the PCs know it.

If you were playing R2-D2 and every other character in Star Wars was an NPC, Star Wars would be this kind of adventure. If you were in the middle of playing an adventure module you knew was called "The Coming of Glorp" and your PC hadn't heard anything about Glorp yet, that would also be this kind of adventure. There's more going on than you can encompass.

One of the big problems with this situation is that because the PCs know they'll never possess all the keys to solving the situation himself/herself, they aren't sure how fully they need to engage the gameworld. In a Preparation Adventure, if you don't do it, clearly nobody else will, in the Waiting For Godot, the PC doesn't have to truly examine or grapple with the world in detail because there's always the possibility someone or something else will shape events for him/her.

This is pretty much a railroad no matter what. Something has to happen and the PCs have no known way to hasten it happening. They don't know what to do to prepare, either. All they know is they have to pretend to be interested in whatever their immediate task is until the DM makes it actually happen.

The best, and perhaps only, way to make this good, is to use it as a source of tension and mood. It begins! Beware! Soon! This tension won't last long, however, so it's best not to let it drag.

UniPuzzle


As Small World above, except the resources are so limited that it effectively actually limits the solutions to any problems to a few things the GM's obviously already thought up and provided for (as in a video game) and is waiting for the PCs to figure out.

Examples: there's only one suspect that actually knows anything and only one way of approaching him/her that'll work or there's a puzzle door with only one or two solutions, and this suspect or puzzle door in turn points to one specific room with only one specific clue which in turn points to one specific device that can be used in only one way to take the PCs to...and on and on for the length of a whole session.

Contrary to what you might believe from hearing discussions about railroading, players do a lot of things during an RPG besides sit around and try to find a plot. A party that does a lot of inter-party dialogue and role-playing, or really enjoys combat, or is enjoying the snacks, etc., can probably handle a day of UniPuzzle without bucking, but it will probably begin to feel like a railroad if it goes on much longer than that. If the UniPuzzle also manages to prevent the players from doing the non-plot-problem solving things they like to do (talk in-character, hit monsters, etc.) then their patience will be even more limited, since, in effect, there really will be nothing to do but jump through hoops.

Personally, as a GM, I avoid writing this stuff, since I really don't like sitting around waiting to see if the PCs manage to learn to think like me, but as a player I don't mind running through this kind of scenario once in a while, since I think it's fun to try to figure out what whoever wrote the thing was thinking.

The Gauntlet

There's a fight. Winning automatically leads to a clue, the clue points unambiguously to a new encounter, which means you fight. If you survive, you'll automatically find another unambiguous clue, which leads ineluctably to another encounter, etc.

The only meaningful choices you have are what tactics to use in the fight, what to talk about between fights, and whether to keep playing or not. You either have no access to the outside world or the fight is concocted in such a way that nothing from the outside world could possibly help you. Again, a party that enjoys just being a party (dialogue, rolling dice, etc.) can probably tolerate this for a session before it feels like a railroad.

Essentially identical to a UniPuzzle.

UniPuzzle or Gauntlet + Unanticipatable Events

Like one of the adventures described above, except in addition to being made to jump through hoops, the PCs also get interfered with at intervals by events they themselves did not initiate. Whether this is automatically any more of a railroad than the UniPuzzle, or Gauntlet is arguable, but it easily has the potential to be a good deal more confusing and frustrating, since the PCs are not only trying to figure out what's on the GMs mind, they also have to stop in the middle of doing that to think about what else is on the GM's mind.

Nurse/Nudge/Nullify

There are things to do, if the PCs don't do them, someone or something will do it for them. If they make a choice that isn't planned for, it's somehow nullified.

These always suck unless the players consistently think of it as a point of pride to try to surpass obstacles in the scenario before the GM does it for them. Even then I think they still suck, from the point of view of the GM who wants to be surprised.