Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Hardest Core RPG Theory Post

In every stupid RPG design argument the side that's wrong has a powerful irrational fear of A, B, C, or D. Usually D.

Which is dumb, because you need it. And sufficiently good B can overcome any unfortunate D. And without sufficiently good B, your game's fucked anyway.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Next Drama Student Who Yells "Huzzah!" At Me Gets Ended

fairy, maiden, fairy, witch


-Throwing axes is fun. Throwing knives: also fun. Connie is pretty good at throwing axes.

-You're always hoping it'll be all Warhammer but then it ends up being kinda more Fleetwood Mac.

-Bard class is heavily over-represented.

-Also out in force: busty women of 40-55 years of age telling bawdy jokes. There is apparently a powerful powerful urge among southern Californian white women aged 40-55 years to wear boob-on-a-platter corsets and say stuff that would turn RPGnet green.

-Not one juggler.

-Also: no D&Dables in craft alley. Not anywhere. Like you could buy soap, tiny spring-powered wooden catapults, a wooden box shaped like a Japanese novel, but no dice or little castles. The closest they had was a few mangled mantlepiece pewter fairies, some notebooks which were bound so old-tymey they wouldn't lay flat. I remember the one in Maryland being different and having all kinds of antiquarian weirdoes but maybe I'm imagining things.

-The best thing was the least Renaissance thing:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

4 Cults Known To Be Active On The Northern Continent

The Cult of the Scarecrow believes that fear is the only gnosis.

Though they wear masks of burlap, their creed forbids them to build their own effigies or idols--they gather at night at the feet of scarecrows erected by unwitting farmers.
The Cult of the Scarred Coin lurks in many cities among the ranks of the deformed. It is said they worship chance and seek to pervert the law. Twins are sacred to them.
The Cult of the Black Manta is known both above and below the sea. It is said the Manta will devour the sun and dominate the earth. They teach the Gospel of Drowning.

They wear painted helmets carved from the skulls of sea animals.
The Cult of the God That Laughs is poorly understood, but it is by far the most dangerous. Its ranks are swelled by jugglers and lunatics.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Ok, maybe you can do something with this, right now I like it...

Let's pretend Immryr, capital of Melnibone, home of Elric, had stats. What would they be?

Strength: Melnibone isn't all that in terms of military might--it is on the decline. Still: they would put up some fight…. 6?

Intelligence: The libraries and scholarship of Immryr are world-class. No doubt. Perhaps none finer in the whole setting: 18.

Wisdom: How old and how spiritual is Immryr? Well very both, but maybe not the most ancient most hallowed place--that's probably some spooky ziggurat somewhere, so: 17.

Dexterity: I suggest a city's dexterity is its trade--and Immryr is in decline, but you can probably get most things there…13?

Constitution: How safe is Immryr? How much danger is it in? I'm gonna say a lot--Con 6.

Charisma: How beautiful is it? How much culture does it have? It is meant to be the most baroque and melancholically beautiful of cities, so….18.

Now let's look at the stats of its most famous inhabitant…
Pretty close to the city itself. (The stats in parenthesis are without Elric's sword.) People imply places. I bet The Shire's stats look a lot like Sam's and Lankhmar looks like the Mouser's.

Why bother to do this? Well truly decent tools for generating cities and places are thin on the ground and often require memorizing all new terms and ideas whereas NPC-generating tools are everywhere--why not parasitize them to make places as easy to handle as people? Describing cities as having the basic D&D stats lets you do all kinds of things, including:

-Make a random place on the fly using any NPC stats you might have lying around or a random NPC generator. (Roll 3d6 for each stat for Whatever Place Happens To Be Around The Corner, roll d20 for each stat for places that're supposed to be interesting by themselves.)

-Generate places of origin for your group's PCs using their own stats as a base. So if Gozar the dwarf has a high wisdom, you can, unless you've got a better idea, assume his hometown is a venerable temple city. You can grab some character sheets and start your campaign map with the places hidden inside these people. Thieves will tend to hail from trading (dextrous) cities, clerics from places with temples or long history, fighters from powerful nations, dwarves from stable (high Con) enclaves, etc.

-You can abstract questions people face in cities and settlements using the stats. Can anyone in Ghorsmakkia translate this? Roll the city's Int. Can you get Red Lotus powder? Roll Dex. Anybody got a problem they need solved? Roll Con and hope they fail (bad Con cities are fun cities). Is there any decent gambling? Roll Cha. Any magic healing? Roll Wis…etc.

-It also might work for organizations in general--guilds, cults, etc. A trade organization within a city could easily have a higher dex than the city itself.

Let's take a look at some places….


Str 15
Int 18
Wis 16-17 (it's not Babylon or Jerusalem, but it's spooky)
Con 14 (in Guy Ritchie movies) 6
Dex 17
Cha 16

The Shire

Str 4
Int 8 (they got, like folklore about badgers and stuff)
Wis 9
Con 18 (safe as houses)
Dex 8-12? (they don't seem to lack for goods despite being isolated)
Cha 13 (they have like festivals and whatnot)

Maybe "rural halfling village" stats get rolled on 4d6-pick the lowest 3?


Str 18
Int 18
Wis 18
Con 3
Dex 18
Cha 18

This shows the limits of the system: Ptolus is purposefully designed as the main city in the setting--so everything interesting is there. However…if you broke up Ptolus by neighborhood you might get a more interesting array of stats.


Str 16
Int 17
Wis 16
Con 4
Dex 18
Cha 18

That's a little better--especially since refugees from Lankhmar can run off to Illthmar if they find themselves in need of that 10% of imaginable goods not available at home.

Place I just rolled up on 6d20:

Str 4
Int 18
Wis 18
Con 12
Dex 13
Cha 10

So clearly we have some kind of scholarly library or wizard tower built on an ancient site of power. It's usually safe despite having no political influence (Str 4) but once in a while there are raiders or the monks kill each other and it's not far off a main trade route. Nice.

Not sure if and how far this goes--(if you needed two armies to fight could you resolve it by giving each a class and making them first level and having them go at it? Tech level=armor class?)--but it's an idea.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Make More Adventures Like 'Forgive Us' By Kelvin Green

Somebody sent me Kelvin Green's 'Forgive Us' in the mail. So I looked at it. Then I decided:

I got no problem with people putting out short, simple, unexotic modules with classic set-ups. I even have no problem with people charging money for them. But, new rule: if you do that, you have to do it at least as well as Kelvin has done it here.

There are two kinds of RPG things worth getting:

A-ones with good ideas you couldn't have thought of yourself (or at least didn't think of)
B-ones that do a lot of work for you so you can concentrate on other things

…and both of these things have a common enemy:

C-worthless stock-element junk that lards up the book and gets in the way of finding the good stuff.

Kelvin Green's Forgive Us is a fantastic example of an adventure with a whole lotta B and zero C.

The three adventures included have simple set-ups. So simple I'm guessing they started life as Call of Cthulhu adventures rather than D&D ones: investigate, investigate, investigate CLAWS.

And none are mind-bendingly exotic: in the third one you find out about bad people (with perhaps a red herring or two), in the second you go to a spooky town (with a spooky twist), and the first and main adventure is an Aliens-style horrorcrawl with a few complications*.

Here's a typical spread from Forgive Us:
I said "typical" and I meant it: every page has some kind of illustration. And these clean, open, hand-drawn birds-eye-view maps are all over the first and main adventure--along with tons of actually useful whitespace that you can write notes in and all over.

Yeah, this is totally the opposite of what I did in Vornheim--that thing had almost no room for notes (I was trying to cram the ideas in)--but for this kind of adventure, it's perfect. 

Because why? Because these are the kind of adventures you can turn into anything you want in about 10 minutes:
They work as D&D adventures, they also work as modern-era Call of Cthulhu adventures, and they could all be translated to sci-fi just as easily, the first and third could be super-hero adventures with barely any work. (The second one is pretty much a creepy Star Trek episode.) The first one could be set on a pirate ship with absolutely no trouble.

And the design and illustrations help you do that customization: tons of room to circle the lantern and put "full of poison spiders" or "dog pig-headed orphan". And the writing is efficient, crisp, conversational, assumes you know what you're doing and avoids pointless blathering. And it's all in that nice hand-sized LOTFP format instead of the unwieldy magazine-size people who write short adventures are still tryna get away with in 2014.

Most published modules are simple ideas with a lotta photoshop and fan-fiction shoved in to make it look like it's worth more money than the bare ideas inside. And frankly: fuck all of them for that--it's an obnoxious way to try to add value to something--turning the illustrator, designer and cartographer into, essentially, make-up artists putting lipstick on your housecat. Try to extract an idea from those and you get put to sleep by the text. Try to take notes and you run into another crammed-in paragraph of backstory or a photoshop border or a slick glossy page you can't write on.

Kelvin's done the opposite: he's taken set-ups anyone can use and spread them out so that a GM can easily get as much out of them as possible as quickly as possible and customize them without any muss or fuss. It's less a traditional module than something halfway between a module and a helpful notebook for writing your own module.

If you're gonna sell people a tool of convenience: make it fucking convenient. Nice job.
*SPOILER about what I like best about it (highlight to read):: What clinched this one for me as classic is the opposing NPC party. Fighting Aliens for treasure? Ok. Fighting Aliens for treasure through a well-designed, detailed tunnel complex? Better. Fighting Aliens for treasure through a well-designed, detailed tunnel complex with competing NPCs trying to do the same thing? So many cool things you could do with that.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

You Can't Do That.

One thing about the GM is: they know more about the scenario than the player.

I mean: the player might know more about the equipment they're carrying, but the GM could just ask. The player can't ask "What's behind the next door?"

So anyway, when the player thinks up something and goes "Ok, I'm gonna tie a string to the sword and whip it around my head, and decapitate everyone" or something else clever and the GM says "No" the GM is saying many things with that "No" but one is:

I know this scenario, I know where the treasure is and I know where the monsters are and I know: even if I deny you this, there are still many ways to beat the situation. I am challenging you to think of another one.

It is like in one of those riddles where you can ask yes or no questions. Each 'No' is saying "You thought of something but it won't work" but it's also saying "Try harder. Think more".

'No' is a disastrous thing to say if your game is about a power fantasy, but it's the engine of solution-driven adventures, and games based on the fun of challenging the players to think.

And if the GM says 'no' to too many things, or the GM never has any yesses except the ones s/he expects, then that GM is a bad GM and you get rid of them. Stop electing them to that job.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Space Marines Are The Opposite of Hello Kitty

(or A Biological Homage To Space Marines)

(with awesome Space Marine drawings by Dark Mechanic)

Tom Middenmurk and False Patrick and I were talking about the design of Space Marine miniatures...

I think the key thing about space marines is not simply masculine signifiers (which all kinds of different designs could be said to have in different ways) but the idea of movement as masculinized and, much more importantly Adultified. The emphasis is not on muscles and how muscles move but on the transition between (often muscled) shapes met at joints.

Compare, for example, a Warhammer troll to The Hulk…

The troll has far more distension at the limbs, because the idea is we have to imagine, with this tiny miniature, how one muscle would move against the next. Imagine strapping pencils to your fingertips--suddenly each movement of your hand is more dramatic. The marine has the same principle: compare the marine to the storm trooper--the shoulder pads don't just make the guys big they theatricalize every arm movement--those pads would move when the guy did anything: reach for a grenade, open a pack, even walk.

The pre-eminent real-life example here would be the silverback gorilla. Hulking, hunched, utilitarian but also a display of utilitarianness. The gorilla squats like a parked truck. Potential energy. Mass waiting for something to be massive at.
Look at all the parts that are less important in the marine than in a normal figure: the neck, the chest, the crotch, the thighs. These areas are the transition areas--socket areas. They aren't the parts that do things out in the world.

And the medieval aesthetic is an important component of this: medieval european armor does not (unlike the samurai's skirted armor and ballooning pants) hide movement, it dramatizes it, it is, in many senses an exo--skeleton--the strangeness of the skeleton re-iterated inside out--to emphasize each gorillaish gesture.

I find it, in general, helpful to try to think of the opposite of what I'm thinking of. What's the opposite of the Marine's movement? Hello Kitty's movement. Her head is huge, her limbs are underdetailed and basically afterthoughts.

Her movement is implausible and underexaggerated--it's hard to picture those limbs doing most things limbs do (to see what distortions have to be done in order to put that anatomy into action, look at Vince on Rex the Runt).
Her face expresses something but, more importantly, is just hugely a face. Like a road sign "I am a living organism, feel for me". Whereas, of course the marine's head, even when revealed, is tiny--consciousness and life are the marine's control center: interior, not to be advertised.
What is her aspect? Not just feminine, (and barely feminine) but, more importantly, babyish and neonate. Tom no doubt knows (see "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse") that "cuteness" is basically about helplessness  not femininity per se . So the Marine is less hypermasculine as hyperadult  hyper utilitarian hyper self-reliant hyper- moving hyper verb (and hyper male adult only secondarily)  . What would hyperfemale adult look like? ...

These extremes do not go unnoticed and, as usual, the idea of reconciling them is too delicious, aesthetically, for some to resist:
Notice how it instantly stops having the aspect we associate with either anatomy? It's just some lumpen third thing.