Monday, December 24, 2012

Did You Know...

...Secret Santicore has its own blog?

I did not know that. Well it does.

Here it is.

Here is my favorite thing I found so far, from the Hansel and Gretel adventure...:

(insert macguffin npc’s here as needed)
1.goblin,kobold or other small humanoid
2.Stray orphan or mostly unwanted peasant child
3.Child of someone who has stuff, like a noble or a dwarven Boozelord
4.A busting fat piggy!
5. Halfling Minstrel
6. Sheep in a Dress

What is Secret Santicore you ask?

Oh everyone sends someone their requests for RPG material to a central someone and then that somebody mixes all the requests up and sends them out to the requesters, who then complete whatever task they get.

Here's last year's.


These things remind me I haven't read all the cool free stuff out there yet.

Does anyone have a One Page Dungeon from last year's One Page Dungeon contest they particularly liked? Leave a comment saying which one and, most importantly,  explaining why you liked it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Behind The Unappealing Cover Of This Dull Brown Module...

Currently working my way through Matt Finch's Spire of Iron and Crystal and Rob Conley's Scourge of the Demon Wolf. Maybe one day I'll get around to talking about them. Meantime here's my take on James Raggi's module God That Crawls.

 -The whole thing looks terribly professional. The basement aesthetic of LOTFP stuff from just a few years ago has been totally annihilated. There are still a few typos buried in there but what're you gonna do?

-That said, it's taken me this long to read it because it has possibly the worst cover in the history of RPGs. By no means poorly executed, I hasten to add, but radiantly lame anyway. It's a bunch of pilgrim-looking thanksgiving losers in brown walking beneath brown clouds toward a brown church. Pretty much every synonym for boring in the mostly very boring history of western painting and every single thing D&D adventurers go adventuring to get away from packed into one small rectangle. James: why on earth did you make Jason Rainville paint that?  Luckily: Jason's considerable technical chops are put to much better use on the Tales of the Scarecrow cover, so you can rip that off and glue it on here.

-So anyway, this plus the title The God That Crawls and the slimness of the volume suggests what you'll be getting is a very professional exercise in a single (Cthulhu-via-Carcosa-esque) monster against a backdrop of boring pilgrims.

-That impression is incorrect.

-Here's what you actually get:

A framing story of how a monster got in a place.

An explanation of how the villagers around it act.

A description of the monster and its schtick.

A dungeon with a nicely functional-looking map.

A lot of rooms with intriguingly weird things in them.

-Here's the best bit: these parts are written and presented in such a way that they can very easily be ripped out of this adventure without using any of the others.

You could easily...

...use the backstory without this specific dungeon or monster,
...use the villagers without the weird rooms and just have a simple horror one-shot,
...use the map and rooms without the main monster and its modus and just have a dungeon,
...use the backstory and modus for a different kind of monster,
...use the monster's schtick in a different dungeon,
...use the monster's schtick and all of this dungeon plus add stuff to make a bigger dungeon more interesting,
...use the room descriptions as a "list of weird rooms/items"*

Some dungeons you can't do this with because things are too interconnected: rooms and ideas rely for their functionality and significance on other rooms or the overall graphic and information design obscures which parts are cleanly detachable.

Now full disclosure. Not only was my copy of God free, but a team of amphibious caribou in black metal corpse paint haul a sackful of beer money from the far Finnish tundra and deposit it on my doorstep quarterly courtesy of the modules' author, so maybe I have no integrity and am lying to you all, but I tell you this: several things from this book are being copied from it into next week's adventure for my group as we speak, including the nifty map rooms and the fragmentary spellbook (which reads like a pulpified collaboration between JL Borges and Grant Morrison).

The overall tone does somewhat harken back to the rich weird dark vein James hit with his earlier thing  Death Frost Doom, though with an overlay of occasional gonzoness and researched pseudohistory that, for me,  alternates between intriguing and moodkilling. DFD--my favorite published one shot--was of a piece in a way you didn't really want to tear apart--this one is a bit more of grab bag.

-People think of Raggi and think "things that will kill you for touching them". I'm starting to notice another theme: he's interested in effects that only matter in campaign play. Like a lot of the tricks and curses won't necessarily make a difference right there in the dungeon trying to solve that dungeon's problems, but will change the nature of the campaign going forward--luck mechanics, stat changes, attracting unwanted attention, etc.

-Also: I hack everything. But as-is and uncannibalized it still looks like it'd run pretty decent, barring any kind of logistical hangups buried in the map that I haven't discovered. I'd put it up there in Challenge of the Frog Idol territory.

*(You also get what I strongly suspect is a pixelbitch puzzle for history obsessives, but solving it's not essential to understanding or surviving the adventure.)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chainmail Bikinis And Parkinson's Law

Why is sexism in the game world blamed on pictures and games instead of things like economics, power dynamics, unequal distribution of decision-making power, hiring practices, Cold War era education priorities, history, and other far-ranging systemic stuff?

(Or substitute, say, "is sexism in the game world" for "are mass shootings".)

Short answer is:

People are stupid and are more confident and excited about having opinions on simple things than complicated things.

Longer answer:

Parkinson's Law of Triviality


First mentioned in Cyril Northcote Parkinson's 1957 book Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration,[3] which has subsequently seen many editions, the concept was presented as a corollary of his broader "Parkinson's law" spoof of management. He dramatizes this "law of triviality" with the example of a committee's deliberations on an atomic reactor, contrasting it to deliberations on a bicycle shed. As he put it: "The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved."[3] A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualize a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.[4]

And for those of you hoping this was about Keith Parkinson...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Getting The Hobbit Review Out Of The Way. Very Minor Spoilers.

Script by Monty Python and (Jedi-era) George Lucas, art direction by Brian Froud and John Blanche.

The hardest part, in general, about the Jackson Hobbit was always going to be selling the dwarves as both Jim Hensonishly ridiculous and action movie heroic at the same time. The movie's over and I'm still not sure which it went--or will go. Time Bandits may have done that trick better.

The most important part, locally, was always going to be selling The Riddle Scene because it is arguably the best written and well-pitched and unarguably the most important scene in the entire LOTR business. And they did that unequivocally. Good job.

The cinematic karma Jackson earned by removing Tom Bombadil from the Rings movies was entirely undone by the decision to double down on Jar Jar B I mean Radagast the Brown. He nearly tanked the entire movie.

As in Fellowship, another challenge is to keep the audience awake through the rural cliches until you're past Rivendell and it's crappily historyless retired hippie fantasy pseudo art-nouveau woodwork. After that: smooth sailing, more or less.

Evoking the dwarves as a kind of diaspora trying to get home worked in the script, and kind of pulls some kind of complex underhanded re-interpretation of Wagner's subterranean untermensch dwarves that someone could probably write a paper about.

Tolkien is at his best when he is at his most Fairy Tale and Jackson is at his best when he is at his most Metal. So the most successful parts of their collaboration is when it's a little of both. Right in D&D territory, in other words.

I think the Pale Orc was inspired by John Cassady's redesign of Drax The Destroyer. The number of people who understand that sentence on earth is very small, and the number who care is, I'm sure, even smaller, and the amount of space thoughts like that take up in my head is enormous.

The Lord of the Rings movies felt like mid-level D&D, this feels even more like D&D and more low level. It's all about desperation, improvisation, redundant skillsets, fear, luck, jokes, running away and equipment.

Here is a genuinely unusual thing about this movie--and I do not know if it is because we have seen the sequels already or because Tolkien's characters are just thick with history or because the script goes to such lengths to evoke that history or just because so much of it is so goddamn D&D and I play so much of it, but I kept thinking a thing I have never thought during any movie before: these guys are gonna have such great stories to tell when they get out of this.

Oh and man was this ever a warbox. I loved how the goblin king wrote a letter to the orc warlord.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Warbox

Consider Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings interpreted as things that happened during a wilderness crawl.

The PCs can go wherever they want and do whatever they want, but they're going to have random encounters, right?

As Black Vulmea points out here, random encounters don't have to mean the story thus generated is random.

If you think of these two stories, who are the Hobbits and Lannisters randomly encountering as they try to get from here to there? Not loose bears and trolls, mostly, but other people. Forces on patrol, emanations of various political entities.

By constantly encountering all these interested parties, the opportunity to take part in the big drama is there and it forms part of the atmosphere even if what the PCs mostly do is ignore it. The events of the setting and powers in it become part of it in a way where they're not just waiting for the PCs to come near them.

Right now the campaign I'm running has a war going on, and the PC stuff happens sort of "underneath" it. The game is all between the raindrops of the war.

So this is my idea for the Warbox (or...Politicrawl?) basically: map an area and its encounters not in the classic AD&D way in terms of climate--winter wolves in the north, tigers in the plains, etc--but in terms of the distance the PCs are from the power centers.

This can work on any scale, so long as you want the PCs encounters to be mostly with intelligent species with motives.

I drew up this slightly abstracted map of my campaign's important places...
click to enlarge
The red dots represent the center of various powers relative to each other. They also represent encounters with whoever is the Big Boss of that place (exactly how is described in a second). So like the red dot at the center of Nornrik represents an encounter with the Frost Giant Queens of that city but also shows about how far that city is from Vornheim (count the squares, 30 miles each).

The dark blue is a river or sea between continents, it's not to scale.

Each concentric color around the center represents an encounter related to that power center, like so:
The boss is whoever's in charge, the lieutenants are anyone in the ruling class of that city, the soldiers are the fighting forces (duh), the citizens are a catch-all for any kind of people who live in that place and the epiphenomena are mostly just traces of that group or things it's responsible for.

Like if we're mapping epiphenomena of the Goblin Empire it might be a few mutant pigs from the goblin alchemists running free or a crashed goblin juggernaut. If we're talking about epiphenomena of a small barbarian tribe we might say it's a looted caravan or a cairn proclaiming the awesomeness of said tribe.

This is a quick list I made for Nornrik, the white elf city, though it occurs to me with only a little tweak it could apply to most of the powers on this map:
click to enlarge
Now, here's the part I like:

See where there's that block labelled 1-9?
Dead in the middle of that 1-9 block at 5--center that on wherever the PCs are at any given point.

So wherever the PCs are on the big map at the top, you draw or just imagine a little square around it with 9 blocks like that. Imagine it labelled like a phone dial.

Roll a d10 if encounters are common, d12 if they're less common, roll a d20 if they only happen about half the time.

On a result of 1-9, there's an encounter. Which encounter?

Well it says, right there on the map. In the case of the example above with the square on the upper right edge there 1-3 is no color it's a wilderness encounter, 4-6 and 9 are blue so it's an encounter with an epiphenomenon, if it's 7 or 8 that's green so it's a citizen or servant encounter, if it's above that there's no encounter.

The next day (or however often you're checking) you move the PCs one square closer to their goal, imagine the box redrawn around their current position and roll again. The encounters come right off the map.

The concentric circles don't represent where stuff actually is, they're just a handy way of charting what kind of encounters are likely where. As you get closer to the power centers, encounters with more powerful NPCs become more likely. You skirt the edges, you don't have to worry so much.

Another nice thing is this method of charting/mapping means you can place a likelihood of an encounter on the map without placing an actual encounter or writing a new chart.

Like: let's say the goblins of Gaxen Kane moved their army over to the river. You just draw a yellow line parallel to the river somewhere. Now every time the PCs are in that area, there's a 1 in 3 chance of running into the goblin army--but you didn't have to calculate percentages or add any notes or deicde their precise location, just get out a highlighter...

You could also do this:

You collapse all the  tables like this for a more mixed population.

1 Temple 
2 Wagon
3 Statue 
4 Graveyard
5 Citizen elf
6 Servant elf
7 Fighter elf
8 Ranger elf
9 Wizard elf
10 Cleric elf
11 Castle servant/aristocrat elf
12 Boss elf/Frost Giant Queen 

And so basically blue squares roll a d4 on this chart, green roll a d6 on this chart, yellow roll a d8, orange roll a d10, red roll a d12.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Spaceship Cards, Retroclone Guide, Hexcrawl Format Advice & The Safety Dance


Now these I saw at the drug store for like cheap.95 and it's 2 decks of cards all made of Star Wars vehicles. Each card is a different vehicle, so that's 104.

1-I did not know there were 104 Star Wars vehicles

2-I did not know there were so many you could get 52 good guy ones and 52 bad guy ones (and there are, I looked)

3-And this is not meant as an RPG product but it is pretty much perfect if you end up needing random vehicles in a sci fi game. Like: trash-heap planet, scavenged-vehicle racing, starcrawl like "What is that coming toward us"etc.

Stuff someone's stocking.


List of D&D retroclones and what they are retrocloning.

Fun and confusing genealogical chart of the same, (last I looked, 13th Age was not yet on there as a descendant of 4e D&D). It's a bigger and downloadable version of this:



Now this, this'

Check it out.

Ah,, don't ever change.


Jack of Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque was asking what was so special about the Carcosa format, so...

I feel like I've said this before, but...for those who don't know, here is a page of the Carcosa hex key. Things I love about this format you can see here:

1. Each hex is keyed, so even if what they put in there is lame, you can write something in
2. References to other hexes both exist (essential to make a hexthing worthwhile) & are in another color
3. LOTS of space in the margins to write in your own stuff
4. Stats and descriptions are minimized so you can take in the whole hex at about the speed you'd read a fortune cookie in-game

Things I love about this format that you cannot see here:

1. It's the ideal size for a game reference book--slightly larger than a paperback novel, slightly smaller than a hardback one.
2. It has a map in an obvious place (the endpapers) that is easy to read and find and everything is on that map
3. It's a book, not a pdf, so it's easy and convenient to write stuff in.

None of this is rocket science, but few people have managed to do it. The bar for hex products is low low low.


5. PS, I think there's still space on Thursday for Warlords of Vornheim over Google+ so sign up. If that link doesn't work, write to me and ask to be added.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jeff Could GM This In A Cave With A Box Of Scraps

Glasses guy: "Honestly, it's impossible."
Jeff Bridges: "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a bunch of scraps!"
Glasses guy: "Well, I'm sorry. I'm not Tony Stark."

I feel like in one or other way, I see this conversation about RPGs every day. Only it's not about building an arc reactor or flying robot armor with repulsor rays and a personal forcefield, it's about some new thing that someone's decided is impossible in RPGs. And you replace "Tony Stark" with "Dave Arneson" or "Ed Greenwood " or somebody.

Things I've heard, off the top of my head, called "impossible" in games:

-Having a satisfying game where the life or death of the PC is the only thing at stake

-Running a superhero game for people uninterested in power fantasies

-Get maximum tension in a game while players keep wisecracking

-Running Dark Heresy as written

-Having the orc babies in Keep On The Borderlands not strike everyone at the table as a metaphor for racial genocide

-Running a character-focused story while PC death is a real and constant possibility

-Creating a game based on any real past historical era without creating a mockery of the people who suffered in those eras

I get it, you're not Tony Stark. But some people are, so never say never.


What we're really talking about is not things that are impossible but things that make running a game (maybe) harder.

Sometimes things that are hard are worth it. Like: Moby Dick is about the history of whaling and (and this is harder) about some kind of man-whale conflict and (and this is even harder) funny.

When you knowingly do stuff that's hard because you think there'll be a payoff that's called Getting Ambitious.

So if you're just jawing about games on the internet and you say Never you should probably just kill your weirdly dogmatic self now, but what about in other contexts?

In designing games, do you design around what's possible to do or what the typical GM can do?

That is probably a question with more meat on it.

GM advice is, by definition, aimed at people who you think might not know the specific thing you are advising them on, so that could plausibly be aimed at the "typical GM".

But what about the rules?

I have seen designers (Gygax on Mythus) design a game around the worst GM they could imagine. ("Idiot-proof")

I have seen designers (Gygax and Arneson on OD&D) design a game around the best GMs they could imagine. ("Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. ")

I have seen designers (2e) design a game around every single kind of GM in existence simultaneously.

I have seen designers (most indie games) design a game around an imagined "average GM".

I designed Vornheim mostly around me and I usually enjoy stuff that people design around themselves.

Assuming, in a product, that your audience isn't people like you is always a much more complex business. And more complexly motivated. It can be done well--like with the Red Box or with the LOTFP intro book. But it's tricky.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Warlords of Vornheim Is Really Fun To GM

(Redundant history lesson part you can skip)

Satine Phoenix, our recently resurrected rogue, is in Time Magazine talking about D&D this week and that's a keen transitiom because this D&D story starts with her.

Because a year and a half ago, she told me "Have you seen Google +? It's got free multiperson videochat on there!"

So then we started playing games.

Then the gentleman known in gaming circles as Calithena had this idea and he told me and Jeff:

Why not use these hangout games like the old games at the very beginning of the RPG hobby, when players carried their characters from game to game, wherever they could find a dungeon master?

So we got together and talked about it and I came up with a stupid acronym and FLAILSNAILS was born.

So people started running campaigns on G+--oftent he same worlds they were running at home--and characters have been traveling from dungeon to dungeon and GM to GM (and ruleset to ruleset) for a year and a half/

It's been fun. A couple personal favorite FLAILSNAILS moments:

-A whole party getting killed captured in Arcadayn's Castle Amber game and then sending out the call across Google+ on a Sunday morning to get together an all star team of PCs from all over the world to come rescue them (successful).

-Playing a dungeon in Ckutalik's Tekumel game and seeing a dead adventurer, then using Speak With Dead to talk to the dead PC from his real-life game in Texas and ask him where the traps were.

So FLAILSNAILS is one fun thing.

(End of history lesson.)

A second fun thing was that Deathmaze player-vs-player game I ran the other day.

I have no idea how much it resembled actual early D&D or Chainmail but it certainly seemed like every theoretically boring element of the early version of the game suddenly made more sense than it ever had in that format. All those 10x10 rooms with nothing but one monster and one treasure...

Putting a few simple elements together with players out to kill each other resulted in a frantically complex and exciting game without even trying.

-Didn't need a lot of rules because players knew the GM was making it up as he went along and trying to be fair.

-Didn't need complex tricks or traps in the dungeon because the enemies themselves and the crowdedness of the dungeon made each encounter complex in itself.

-Didn't need varied "moves" for PCs because directly attacking someone was only one of a few things you could do and was always a crapshoot no matter who you were.

-Only being able to use an effect/spell once was fine because it made a huge difference overall.

-Fighters' slightly better hit points and to hit bonus kept them in a fight consistently a few rounds longer than a thief and modified their tactics in obvious ways.

-Simply having items lying there alone in a room made sense and was useful. You grab it and move to the next room as soon as possible.

-Ranges didn't matter because range is always "across the room".

-Didn't need monsters or NPCs because the players were the monsters and NPCs.

-Sketchy room descriptions encouraged desperate characters to ask questions about the rooms when they were running out of ideas but let the room just be a room when they were feeling ok and moving fast at the start of the game.

-And mapping was fun and exciting because it could keep you alive nearly every round

In other words: I got a lot of interaction and intercoonectedness out of very little prep. Kind of the holy grail of GMing.


So then after the second Deathmaze game I stuck the two together:
player-vs-player plus experienced FLAILSNAILS PCs in Warlords of Vornheim.

And, man was it fun.

No prep. Just map and set the PCs loose in two teams...

First round:

Ian hauls out a catapult from behind a building to attack Joe.

Joe's PC, who has picked up 5 levels in three different classes over the past year, fireballs Ian. 

Ian survives, the catapult makes its save, and Ian rolls a natural 20 to hit Joe with it. 42 points of damage. Joe's long lived PC is gone, instantly.

And that's the first round.

It was like playing Magic: The Gathering with all the insane magic items GMs have been handing out to their players in different campaigns all year long. I counter your flaming sword from with....dragonscale armor!

But way more than that, there was this great level of incidental detail and history you got from bringing all these characters together from all these different worlds.

There's a warhorse and it's from somewhere and it has a name and it's done stuff and there's a magic cat and it's from somewhere else and it does something else and there's a guy with a laser and the laser's from somewhere else and the PCs know each other from doing this and doing that all over the world(s). There was wyvern poison from Castle Nicodemus and armor from Castle Zagyg and godawful monty haul crap from TSR modules and probably even some stuff from one of my dungeons. I think Jason's guy got shot with a gun he gave someone as treasure...

(I didn't have to invent any monsters or traps to run this game but I did have to use 3 different rulebooks from 3 different games plus someone had to call another GM midgame to figure out what their chaos venom did. )

And a lot of the "story" isn't just in the games but between them. Everyone constantly playing makes this weird kind of community of PCs...

+Trent B I think we have a classic "Power Trio" if we add in Manning. Sort of like "Star Trek" if Spock was a heroic-evil murder elf.

ZachM5:34 AM

This sounds like a hilarious and great idea.

Trent B5:35 AM

I uh... I love the interactions between our dudes... Manning is evil but pretending to be good, malice is good but pretending to be evil, and ward is good but keeps working toward evil ends.

Being a little loose with 'evil', but it sounds more dramatic than 'selfish'.

Trent B5:36 AM

Also I'm not comfortable with 'power trio'. Sounds too much like we need to wear uniforms. Colourful uniforms.

Trent B5:37 AM

Ok fine. Lets wear uniforms.

Zach M5:47 AM (edited)

The really unanswerable question is: what fools could possibly be brave enough to fight us?

Trent B5:50 AM

I think Manning and Ward share the honour of being the worst jousters in the multiverse....

So I guess, to answer your question, anyone with a horse.

Joe6:22 AM

Oh wow. Just read the actual rules. I thought it was a murdermaze variant but its flailsnails! Sir the Fist is back! 

I think in every single RPG a big part of the fun is everyone playing gets to write part of a story and then just gets to sit back and watch it finish writing itself. I've never seen that happen as efficiently as tonight.

People who make narrative games often talk about trying to make a game feel like a great movie.

This kind of extended, overlapping, centreless story with a million characters thing FLAILSNAILS does is making the G+ universe feel like a TV series. A really good one. On HBO. That you can't shut up about.

I would like to declare Malice Aforethought--Cutthroat, Wyvernsbane, Slayer of the Eye Tyrant, Strategos of the Mauve Legion and Lord of Murder--the undefeated heavyweight champion of Warlords of Vornheim and the FLAILSNAILS universe.

Thanks to my fellow Lords of Murder. I couldn't have done it without your characters, your next characters, your characters after that and the zombies my cat made out of them. You were a true asset to the team, and essential in the victory we've all won.

Warlords of Vornheim, look out: we're in the top spot right now. Vorn's city lies undefended before our chaos horde, and we're gonna run things just how we like. Stay out of our way.

You've been warned.
Kelvin Green's profile photo


Joe 9:11 PM
until thursday motherfucker!
jason 9:17 PM

You only beat me due to your cowardly hiding in the shadows. I fought like a true man and you fought like a sneaky show hiding terrorist. Depending upon waves and waves of commie sympathizers. Socialists like yourself are always looking for handouts and you had lots of back up. Gimmli and I fought to the end while you used your evil minions to lay siege upon true patriots, you jerkhole. You only defeated the Sir The FIST OF JUSTICE by a cowardly attack. As Teddy Roosevelt as my witness I will make sure this treacherous and unsanctimoniousness will be remembered.

I have seen true evil and its name is assassin.

Zak Smith9:29 PM (edited)Edit
The Council of Vornheim insists the Civil Defense Subcontracting Office is doing "a heck of a job"

If only they'd stop fucking up my setting--they're almost as bad as my players at home. Don't these people know I'm trying to sell books here?  

Sign up.

Or, better yet, run a game so I can play.