Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Adventure-Building and The Ecology of Murder

This is a new painting I made for Demon City, click to enlarge it
The silver ant of the Sahara can survive about ten minutes in the mid-day sun. Platoons of them crawl up from their ant hills, skitter widely, searching fast, then, when prey's found--a beetle, a tiny lizard--teams quickly re-swarm and rush the corpse back.

Sometimes it's hard to drag the irregular corpses back over the rock and debris while time runs short in the killing sun, so they go hastily to work with their mandibles, sawing off legs and arms to make the dead thing easier to roll back to the nest.

Scale this drama up: If you were a detective and you came upon this scene after the fact what would you see? Arms and legs hastily chopped off, maybe drag-marks, no torso or head. 

You could reskin them as anything smaller than their victim--sun-sensitive albino cannibal children, packs of wild dogs afraid of detection. The point is, in their collective haste to get back where they came from they left a distinctive trail of limbs--and that's the first scene of your campaign.

To make a horror adventure you usually start with the horror--the murderer or monster--and game masters are used to thinking of horrors only in terms of their appearance and their abilities: it looks like this and it does that. In a classic adventure game you can often get away with it: yes, Mr Greenwood the green ooze has a life cycle but the main thing is it's eating your foot and then there's some other monster in the next room--in an investigation, which relies on squeezing every ounce of story-potential from a single monster, the horror needs an ecology.

It doesn't just have that strange look and strange power, it has specific methods--a niche, a consistent way of doing things. In an investigation, knowing the ecology doesn't just provide flavor or depth if needed--it generates the whole adventure. Before you begin, you run the horror through its horrible day and its more horrible night, and imagine what would be left behind--that's what the players then find, and must back-engineer the nature and location of the creature.

Buffalo Bill has his strangely skinned corpses (because he's making a suit out of women), the Murder at the Rue Morgue has ear-witnessing neighbors with conflicting reports of the murderer's language (because it was an orangutan), each of these opening clues comes not necessarily from what makes the horror horrible, but from what makes it itself.

Often this can involve the creature's weaknesses--the silver ants saw off those limbs not because they have some special ability to move their prey but because they don't, and they are hustling hard before the sun kills them. Imagine a creature that could only move in silence--the players might find identically slain corpses off lonely roads and in recording studios (which are soundproofed, yes, but how long before they make that connection?).

Nearly the entire plot of Get Out is just the slow revelation of a specific ecology, despite not starting with a murder. (Spoilers) The daughter brings unwitting but able-bodied black victims to the house, the parents auction off the victims to aging friends, and--aided by hypnosis and surgery--the brains of the villains end up in the bodies of the victims. The "house servants", rather than a rotting corpse, are the first clue.

There is no way to mechanize the process of inventing these ecologies: horror needs mystery, mystery needs the unknown and the unknown means you'll need to think up at least some details on your own. But you'll be surprised how much mystery and horror you can get out of a very simple ecology--grab one at random and try it:

The pitcher plant? It has a sweet nectar on the rim, but in order to get at it, insects inevitably slip down the inner walls and then slowly dissolve in the acidic pool at the bottom. Translate this to a horror scenario in the most literal terms and maybe we have an opening scene with an acid-scarred lunatic roving the streets, smelling like candy. Investigation might reveal a pattern of children who never came back from school, clustered around a warehouse district...

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Medical Suite

This is the first new painting for Demon City. Click to enlarge
For Demon City:

A thick unreality hangs over the Medical Suite, making it always feel bland. You remember: Nothing much happens or happened there, nothing much gets remembered but clipboards the tin skin of balloons.

Colors plays across the dark, you are hooked up to tubes waiting out your migraine forever. There's a toy piano for dogs in the Medical Suite, it's amusing--also: magazines.

Through the nice glass and over the unoccupied terrarium of the Medical Suite's central well, you can see the awesome parking lot.

Sometimes they have scones. They're dry. Your friends can visit you, but they have to have one on a shitty white plate.

A nurse might say "Thanks for coming back to the Medical Suite. We have a tube we can put through your neck and into your mom".

You'll come back to your bed to a note saying "Don't worry your pretty little head about that focus on getting well within like your thoughts. PS we hate you signed the Medical Suite"

You'll begin to notice something's wrong, but by then the exits won't be where they were before.
It's not true that, in the Medical Suite, no-one cares. Everyone cares about everything: you, pencils, grandmothers, milk, Sesame Street murals.

Care is precisely and exactly evenly distributed. Let's get you in the best shape you can be in, also let's get this slightly creased paper cup in the best shape it can be in.

The Medical Suite is a Borgesian, encyclopedic project--it contains every single possible mistake you could make in generating a human. They're not proud but they are thorough.

They understand that they're failing you. But there are so many priorities.

They have a swimming pool in the Medical Suite. It is full of tears.

The doctors arrive with a high-pitched keening. They do their best. It's very bad.
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Friday, April 21, 2017

So This Art Collector Comes Over... Casa D&D With Porn Stars. He owns some of my stuff, he's been following my work for years.

He says he's bringing his kid, who's 10.

I'm like Do you want me to hide the pictures of naked women?

Nah, he says, He'll be fine.

During lunch at the restaurant that inspired Disneyland, I see why. This child has never seen anything but his phone.

Look: three floors! A giant artificial tree! Phone. A grand arte nouveau ballroom! Phone. A taxidermied bison! Phone. A Peacock! Phone.

He did look up for his chicken strips. Then he looked for an outlet.

I get it--I was a kid. There are games on that phone, and they looked fun.

So then we go back to the studio (this is what you get to call your apartment if you're an artist) and we're looking at paintings and talking and the kid is on his phone and the art collector's like "What are those books over there?"

Oh that's Maze of the Blue Medusa...

Art collector's like Whoa.

I explain how I made the original painting and then gave it to Patrick to decide what the little things in the rooms were and then we went back and rewrote it all to make it a playable dungeon and how it was on Vice's top books of the year and...

...and it becomes clear,  this art collector has rolled.

He's like to his son Hey, look at what this is...

And the kid is like, But Dad my phone.

And the collector's like But Son look D&D!

And they start asking D&D questions: Do I play every week? Who plays? What are the rules like? Do you have to be good at math?

And then I'm like...Hey, do you guys want to just play D&D right now?

So I ran a game of D&D for an art collector and his kid.

Collector got a pre-gen gladiator he named Cavity, the kid rolled up a fighter named YayDaddy! and was pretty excited to hear he could buy a wardog.

Kid completely forgot about his phone--he did ask if he could stick his finger into the dog's sphincter ("sphinx") so he could make him poo and throw it at the goblins, though. Real strategic thinker.

They almost died but had to go to a basketball game. Kid was like "So, do we get treasure?" and dad was like "Ok, so if you were us what would you have done different? Should we have un away from the goblins?"

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Oh The Early Days...

Broadly, two popular views attach to "The Early Days" of collective movements--games, musical fashions, art movements, stock-car racing, whatever: technological and cultural.

The popular technological point of view is nearly unanimous about The Early Days: they were a huge pain in the ass.

To get to the recording studio we used to have to walk three miles uphill in the snow both ways, we used to have to use saves vs death ray in order to decide if you touched the flytrap part of the plant, we tried to paint Jesus but didn't know perspective, before we played we used to have to wait for the internet to dial-up.

So much we know now was not known, so much was utterly avoidably inconvenient and often pointlessly unsafe. We are nearly always better off now.

The popular cultural view of movements is usually the opposite (sometimes, yes, because people who were there romanticize them and people who wish they could live to see new things be born--which is everyone--believe them). The popular idea is that movements explode creatively and then calcify over time.

While, yes, the Early Days were by definition embedded both in the past and actual human history and so therefore were more racist and sexist and homophobic than now, they were--leaving aside the things they shared with the entire rest of human activity in their era--a time which pointed to more freedom rather than less. Things In Those Early Days are regarded as wide-open, inspiring, full of potential and possibility.

Those Early Days at CBGBs when punk rock could be Tommy Ramone playing 16th notes on the drums as fast as was then thought possible or David Byrne just showing up and being weird in 4-4 time or Debbie Harry doing disco all wrong, Jackson Pollock spattering paint when it was new and dangerous and got him accused of being a communist, Buster Keaton making comedy when it could be all about his sad eyes.

The idea isn't that the content was necessarily better (Who would want punk rock without Leftover Crack? Nobody smart.) but that the vibe was, at least for those allowed in: cooperative yet also in exciting opposition to the old and oppressive, disruptive but creative, individualized but still collective, diverse and inspiring.
Looking back, there were several obvious technological problems with early games: having to look up to-hit bonuses on a chart was stupid and could be done with plusses, the saving throw business made no sense, etc. These made the games harder to play to no purpose.

People attracted to Old School Renaissance games and DIY D&D tend to see these technological problems as fairly minor, easy to fix or ignore, and are more interested in the creative atmosphere of the Early Days--or rather what we hope it was like. What we want is not to be like Arneson but to be in Arneson's position: inventing.

People who broad-brush hate OSR tend to congregate on forums and in cliques dedicated to obsessing over specific technological solutions. If you don't trust your group to build a story where your flights of fancy are important you can hang out on RPGnet or Story-Games with people who will recommend Dungeon World, if you don't trust your group to be tactically detailed and realistic enough you can hang out on the Gaming Den where they recommend Pathfinder or 3.5, if you don't trust your group to do anything right you can hang out on Something Awful where they recommend 4e, if you don't trust anyone but Gary Gygax there are pre-OSR forums dedicated to True Oldness for that, too.

These technological solutions work for these people. The mistake haters make is they think the part of the Early Days the OSR is  most excited about is the technological side, that we talk about Old School because we're excited about waiting for the dial-up to work. (There are also, of course, those who claim an attachment to old games comes from people yearning for the social order of the 1970s, which is a bit like saying if you like Mughal miniature painting it's because you yearn for an Islamic monarchy--but the people who say that are psychopaths and unreachable.) No. We get it: Death Ray saves are a pain in the ass, ascending AC is easier for most people than descending AC.

The old Caves of Chaos is a shit module, but the enthusiasm about "Hmmm...people want a module--an adventure in a book?-- That's a new thing--what new thing might you be able to put in it? What might they want in there? What could we do?" drips off the page--and that mindset fuels newer takes like the better presentation in Stonehell and the broader canvas in Veins of the Earth and the genuinely useful beginner advice in Broodmother Sky Fortress.

The old RPG folks could've sat and technologically refined post-napoleonic wargames forever until they had the Perfect Military Simulation One and the Playable In An Evening One and the Good For Children Ages 10-14 One and instead they invented a whole new thing and a zoo of things to support the whole new thing, in the process creating-, but also discovering-, all new problems to solve. They solved them wrong sometimes but that's not important because we're here now.

The actual Renaissance outdid the Greeks and Romans by taking the old Greek and Romans' ambitions to describe the world seriously while not accepting their description. Does the sun go around the Earth or the other way around? What happens if we mix this with that? How do you make a drawn face look like a face?

What's exciting about the old games isn't the answers they came up with, it's the questions they were asking.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Acupressure Mountains of Yoon-Suin

Found an old acupressure diagram while cleaning up Fort D&D With Porn Stars--the names sound exactly like things on a hex map. If you can't do anything with "Crooked Marsh", "Sea of Blood" or "Ear Gate", I can't help you.

There's 80 of them on the diagram I found, I added 20 from a list of acupuncture points to make an even hundred so you can roll some random places.

1, Letting Go
2, Great Abyss
3, Fish Border 

4, Crooked Point
5, Outer Arm Bone
6, Welcoming Perfume
7, Four Whites
8, Facial Beauty
9, Jaw Chariot
10, Breast Window
11, Breast Root
12, Calf's Nose
13, Three Mile Point
14, Severe Mouth
15, Three Yin Crossing
16, Shady Side of the Mountain
17, Sea of Blood
18, Rushing Door
19, Abdominal sorrow
20, Spirit Gate
21, Heavenly Appearance
22, Listening Place
23, Eyes Bright
24, Drilling Bamboo
25, Penetrate Heaven
26, Heavenly Pillar
27, Lung Associated
28, Sea of Vitality
29, Sacral Points
30, Vital Diaphragm
31, Womb and Vitals
32, Joining the Valley
33, Commanding Activity
34, Commanding Middle
35, Supporting Mountain
36, High Mountains
37, Calm Sleep
38, Reaching Inside
39, Veering Passage
40, Bubbling Spring
41, Bigger Stream
42, Blazing Valley
43, Illuminated Sea
44, Nourishing valley
45, Elegant Mansion
46, Crooked Marsh
47, Intermediary
48, Inner Gate
49, Big Mound
50, Active Pond
51, Outer Gate
52, Shoulder Meeting Point
53, Heavenly Rejuvenation
54, Wind Screen 

55, Ear Gate
56, Gates of Consciousness
57, Shoulder Well
58, Middle of a  Person
59, Jumping Circle
60, Sunny Side of the Mountain
61, Wilderness Mount
62, Above tears 

63, Bigger Rushing
64, Crooked Spring
65, Gate Origin
66, Sea of Energy
67, Center of Power
68, Heaven Rushing Out
69, Sea of Tranquility
70, Wind Mansion
71, Posterior Summit
72, One Hundred Meeting Point
73, Anterior Summit
74, Third Eye Point
75, Ding Chuan
76, Grandfather Grandson
77, Heavenly Pond
78, Window of Heaven
79, Reunion of Hearing
80, Travel Between
81, Saliva Container
82, Lateral Spring
83, Jade Rotator
84, Violet Palace
85, Crooked Bone
86, Mutism Gate
87, Gate of the Ordering
88, Gnawed Channel
89, Mound of Ruins
90, Suspended Bell
91, Five Pivots
92, Brain Hollow
93, Window of the Eye
94, Head Governor of Tears
95, Crook of the Temple
96, Suspended Skull
97, Pupil Crevice
98, Dispersing Luo River
99, Palace of Toil
100, Abode of Consciousness of Potentials

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Our Barbarian is Pet of the Month

Charlotte Stokely was a wizard...

...but then The Black Metal Amazons of the Devoured Land cut her arms off.

Then she was a Sea Elf wizard...

...and Chameleon Women mutilated her with their machetes...

Then she was a Sea Elf druid...

...and a blob dissolved her and she rolled up a barbarian... she's Penthouse Pet of the Month for May 2017... good luck with that, Stokes.
This is actually true.

Click to enlarge and see how Penthouse thinks Stokes is "The Total Package" because she's funny, likes football, got a full scholarship to Florida U and "participates in a weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaign".

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Fudging Talk

This is basically how I'd write it in any core RPG book:

Have you been fudging?

I don't know whether you've been fudging AND you don't have to tell me. If you really don't know what it is, I'll tell you: it's when a die result tells you to do one thing in the game and instead you do a different thing.

Now it's traditional at this point to tell you either one of two things:

-Don't ever fudge in this house! We have provided you all the tools to have fun and you don't need to go having extracurricular deviant fun by messing with the rules we gave you. Follow the rules and you will receive the exact amount of fun that is your due and such due which is appropriate to your players.

-Hey, you fudged? That's, like, cool, little pal. If the story is going to come out better if you fudge, go ahead and do it. Fudge all over the table.

Like most traditional RPG advice, these are both terrible--ok, well not terrible but poorly thought out.

The first piece of advice is just straight-up inaccurate: there is literally no game in the history of RPGs which has not been profitably fudged by some group somewhere.

The second piece of advice is just lazy, and leaves the GM with questions: If the rules don't always apply, why are we following them ever? What's the point? Is there a downside?

Well, yes, there is a downside: if you fudge enough then they will realize that certain outcomes--like dying in an early scene if they're not cautious, or escaping enemies even though the plot seems to want you to be captured for a scene or two--are off the table. This means they don't have to try as hard or think as hard as they would if the odds of things happening were what they were used to from using the rules all day. It's like telling the players that they only have to try to make the best choices sometimes. And that makes for a less nerve-wracking--and therefore less exciting--game. There are people who like a game that doesn't make them worry all the time--nothing I have written is for them.

Well what's the good advice then?

First, some clarifications:

No RPG Book is Gospel

This ruleset is very likely not ideally suited to your group's ambitions, just as the items of my game group's wardrobe is very likely not suited to your group's various frames. These rules are a starting point for people who believe their ambitions for a game might be similar to ours--and any RPG author who claims different is stupid or lying to make money off you. Despise them.

This book isn't infallible, it's just the closest I could get to infallible for the version of the game I want to play. That means I might've made a mistake but--even more likely--I probably made a rule that works for the game I want to play but not quite for the game you want to play.

This is to be expected, as humans are different. If you're constantly finding RPG rulesets perfect for your ambitions you're probably a really boring person.

So point is: some rules might not work the way you need them to.

Fudging Isn't The Same As Making A New Rule

Fudging is different than making a new rule (or "Making a Ruling" as we sometimes say).

Making a ruling is: you see a rule is not working for how you want to run the game. You decide to change it, you tell everyone at the table you're changing it (if they are the kind of players who care). You make sure they're all ok with that (if not, don't change it. You need consensus.). You then make a new rule which is better for your group than the one I wrote and use that rule forever after or at least until it fails and you go through the process all over again.

Fudging is just ignoring a rule's demands on the spot, but re-using it after that.

Fudging Isn't the Same As Ignoring A Convenient Randomizer's Result

If there's a table for an NPC's name, and you roll on it and don't like the name you got and pick another--that's not fudging. The NPC name table isn't really a "rule" --it's a tool you use to help think up ideas. The players are not relying on that table to make their own decisions, they may not even know that table exists.

Fudging happens when the rules which determine the way the gameworld actually works are suspended after making a contribution.

(A lot of people ask about random encounters. The question is: is the random encounter table you're rolling on merely the most convenient one to hand--there to provide ideas--or was it specially designed to describe the actual ecology of the area? If, in the Abyss, it's established you have a 1% chance of encountering Demogorgon and the players are in the Abyss, then when you roll that result, Demogorgon better show up. Otherwise you're fudging. If you just used the Abyss table because the players wandered into a summoning circle and you didn't have that area prepared and needed an idea, that's not fudging that's deciding the randomizer you used gave you a result that doesn't interest you.)

So What's The Good Advice?

Treat fudging like declaring bankruptcy: try hard not to, but if you really feel have to, learn something so you don't have to do it ever again.

Fudging means that either:

A-You invoked a rule when it wasn't appropriate and realized too late
B-I wrote the rule wrong for that situation
C-You wrote the rule wrong for that situation

If, for example, you have someone roll on their maxxed-out Local Knowledge and it turns out they don't know what street they live on, that probably means A. You made a mistake--feel bad about yourself, fudge, move on, try to have more discretion in the future about when a task is hard enough to require a roll.

If you have an 8 year old PC from Siberia with 2 Knowledge and they roll high enough to instantly know how to field-strip a WW2 Mendoza 7 rifle and nobody at the table can think of a reason why that makes sense on the spot without feeling the whole game is implausible and so taking it less seriously then maybe my Firearms rule is not detailed enough for the game you want to play and you should change it for next time. (Personally I'd be like "Ok, Olav's grandfather owned a gun-shop and made him strip antique rifles on the cinder-block furniture in the basement and hit him on the head with a ruler if he did it wrong. Cool." but maybe your childhood was less depressing than mine.)

Either way: fudging should be as rare as you can possibly make it, but if it happens, treat it as an opportunity to fine-tune either the way you roll or the tools you use to roll with.
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Punch, or at least irritate, Nazis.The Patreon for my game Demon City is here.