Monday, December 21, 2015

How To Write 10,000 Pages of Gibberish

For someone running an ongoing campaign, free game stuff should feel like free candy. Oh I have to run an adventure next week--oh look, what's this in the mail? I'll just take this vanilla and add some sprinkles and...

But no. Too often game stuff is literally worse than useless--the time you spend reading it is more time than it could take to make something up that was equally good.

Although I've harped on this for years, it still amazes me that you can get like a 60-page RPG supplement called something totally up your alley and juicy like "Spider Queens of the Devil Maze" and flip through it for ten seconds and then not only turn away in disgust, but be 100% sure you were justified in doing that. And that this is normal.

Going through all this WOTC and TSR stuff I'm definitely amazed and almost impressed how few genuinely gameable ideas manage to get communicated in these texts.

How do they do it? I went through and tried to figure out the most important bits:

1. Pretend a standard monster in a standard room is an encounter worth paying for.

This is the biggest one by far: Yes, it is fun to fight an ogre in a room, but it is not fun to pay to be told that there's an ogre in a room, especially not for 8 paragraphs. The idea that an ogre can be in a room is logically implied by the ogre being in the Monster Manual, which you probably already own.

If I am actually paying for it--the environment should be complex, the creature should be complex or both.

Of course, many fine products include encounters which are a standard creature in an environment, but they do this without sucking because they avoid making mistake #2...

2. Write out mundane or obvious details, so it takes forever to tell you there's a standard monster in a standard room.

The length of an encounter's description should be-, and rarely is-, proportional to its depth. For example.

Another example, from Waterdeep: High-HD skeletons that can cause darkness, riding on skeletal horses attack in a darkened wood. They try to capture someone you're chilling with and bring them to the bad guy.

That is literally everything you need to know about that encounter. It's a spooky encounter, totally legit--it takes a whole fucking page for the author to get across what I wrote in two sentences.

3. Pretend reskinning a monster is worth paying for

This is more an issue with independently produced content than with WOTC and TSR: making the orc throwing axes into a cyborg clown throwing pies with exactly the same stats and vulnerabilities isn't actually doing a hell of a lot. The creature still is dealt with, tactically, the same, and still requires the same kind of thinking to defeat. New things should be new.

4. Don't let the art do any of the heavy lifting

Lots of RPGs have bad art and that's not news, but the more heartbreaking issue here is how the art so rarely provides the module writer any help. Things that could be explained with art are instead explained with words. Or worse--both, wasting time and space.

"It looks like this" beats boxed text. A diagram of what's in a room when it's searched is better than 3 pages describing it.

Kelvin Green's Forgive Us is a great and rare example of a module where the visuals actually help the writer get across details that would've taken paragraphs to explain otherwise.

5. Be squeamish about adding special rules and tables

Unique situations are rarely set apart with special rules, tables or procedures, generally out of some misguided attempt to present the system as capable of anything as-is.

If you're using a module and you, by definition, have the book right there in front of you then you're not creating any new inconvenience by introducing a one-time-alteration in how things work. The GM's already looking at it.

There's also a related problem where unique effects are described as stacked (but unalterable) piles of standard spells. So instead of just going "magic won't work here" they go "There is an anti-magic spell whose radius has been altered with an alter-radius spell to encompass only the room and which has a permanency spell on it and...".

6. Use boxed text.

Some people defend boxed text on the grounds that that it teaches newbies how to describe things. The problem is:

-That only explains why there should be one instance of boxed text at the beginning of the book, not why there should be dozens all over it.

-It teaches GMs to read stuff out of a book, which lesson is 1000 times more bad than the lesson of how to describe things is good. I'd rather have a GM go "It's a fucking room" spontaneously than give a 300-word description from a book.

-It ruins a perfectly good opportunity to have a picture of something rather than a generic image of a palace guard looking mustachey.

7. Include lots of standard magic items.

Magic items should be weird and have disadvantages, every second spent describing one that isn't like that is pages we don't need. Even if they weren't utter shit, they're already in the DMG.

Here's a good idea someone had: Huge Ruined Scott had a kingdom where the crown was (unknown to anyone) a Helm of Opposite Alignment. So it explained why all the General Ulysses S Grants turned into President Ulysses S Grants and the murder-hungry coup-leaders turned into even-keeled moderates. That's worth paying for. A +3 spear super isn't.

8. Makes sure the game-specific cosmology is always lazily written.

As soon as anything interacts with a god in a D&D module, everyone falls asleep. Pages and pages of description just basically amount to "Here are the parts of pop Protestantism that are in this adventure". The God of Murder is not going to go easier on you because you murdered 8 orcs the day before, the Goddess of Light is just nice, she doesn't actually care more about the PC carrying a torch than the one casting Darkness, the goblins do not wear masks in church for fear of their terrible goblin god knowing their faces.

Love or hate Vancian magic, its paraphernalia--the scrolls, books, wizard schools--are lovingly and (relatively) creatively described in D&D. Clerics and anyone interacting with them just get these interchangeable cultures. Priests are good or bad, churches are vaguer versions of real history, rituals take only time and mcguffins.

9. Make monsters that are just hit point bags a lot of surface complexity is generated by things which have no real effect. Like this party is three hobgoblins and three goblins but this one's four goblins. It doesn't fucking matter because there are no playable cultural or biological differences encoded into these creatures.

WOTC tried to give different hit-point-bag monsters different tactics and die mechanics, but they never had anything to do with a different essential conception of the creature, so in the end the connection between a hobgoblin and their way of hitting you was just arbitrary. The orcs mob you the hobgoblins hit and run. Sure, whatever.

10. ...and make sure they all have statblocks

Statblocks take up way too much space in everything. There are whole games that wouldn't amount to more than a handful of pages if it wasn't for the fact "A horse is faster than a person and has more hit points" is technically expressed in a different way in their game than it is in D&D. A statblock is a tool of convenience, it is not a new idea.

Unless an enemy has nonstandard powers, its playable stats can fit in two lines, in any game, maximum.

11. Structure it as either railroad or 100% location-based, include no other options described in any detail

Ideally, modules should be the perfect place for experienced writer/GMs to give examples of how to simultaneously prep complex and structurally sophisticated content while also allowing players freedom and flexibility about how to proceed. There should be flowcharts or diagrams or if/thens. And...there isn't.

Location-based adventures (nonlinear dungeons with branching paths, hexcrawls) are great because they provide structure for you. Cool. But what if you have, say, one intelligent NPC who escapes the party and starts making plans? Then you have to move beyond the pure location-based adventure. But then the only other kind of adventure typically presented is the event-based railroad--which amputates any discussion of how to structure an adventure. You just follow the breadcrumbs.

So if you are reading anything other than a location-based adventure you have to ignore half the text as it's just advice on how to railroad the players back to the event chain.

So one of the few things a module might actually be good for, they hardly ever do. It's crazy that after 30 years of horror and investigative game modules I had to write out how Hunter/Hunted works on a goddamn blog.

12. Make sure your information and graphic design sucks.



So what's left in a standard module when you scrape out all the pork cracklins? Here's the first 6 pages of TSR's Wonders of Lankhmar:

Adventure one: Each of the five-fingers of a five-fingered magic item is hidden in a different place. The NPC who initially brings a single piece to you is secretly commissioned by those who owned the piece to kill you once all 5 pieces are discovered.

Adventure two: The target you are supposed to arrest then offers you double to arrest your patron.

Neither of those is revolutionary genius but those are both ideas worth paying for--produce 20 more of them and you've got yourself a whole page worth of content a decent human being would be able to sleep with themselves at night after pawning off on someone. Better yet, take one of those ideas and flesh out the details with other ideas that themselves are interesting (make the NPC who commissions the party interesting, make the target interesting, make the locations they live in interesting, stop using fucking "guard dogs 2hd"), so that instead of just a page full of adventure seeds, you get something worth like $11.95 or whatever.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Useful 2015 Stuff

Hey, it's coming up on the end of the year. Bye, year.

The most popular and plussed posts of any year are usually the ones like this one about leaving the Escapist  that people visit because they matter outside the RPG-o-sphere and people plus because they want to show support for the position. But rather than rehash the year in game drama I figured I'd focus on stuff from the past year you can use in games.

First up, the interviews I did this year went over pretty well. If you haven't read them I tried to ask some questions I hadn't heard answered before:

  • Here's Stacy from Contessa ("When I thought for sure I was going to give it up, something amazing happened.")
  • James from LOTFP ("The decisions characters make in horror movies are more interesting to see and think about than the decisions characters make in action movies.")
  • Rey and Grey from the Break! RPG ("I took the name from an old joke my friends and I made about the Guilty Gear video games: ‘The game works because everyone is broken.’")
  • ...and Kenneth Hite ("So yeah, if you play a game I wrote set in the 1930s and come away more racist or sexist or Freudian or fascist or Stalinist, yes I think it's your fault, not mine or even Stalin's.")
In the practical gameables there's:

Vrokk, The Goblin Market, and other entriesabout details of the gameworld I'm using are all gathered under the "campaign" tag here.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The D&D Characters The X-Men Would Play

Cyclops plays a human cleric and never admits that he wanted to play a paladin but never managed to roll the stats needed back when Beast used to run AD&D and now he's just sort of settled into the role.

Colossus has been playing the same paladin since like the first time they met the Shi'ar and it secretly kills Cyclops because he makes it look really fun. Also Peter draws his character and cosplays his character and people give him his-character-related gifts for his birthday.

Kitty Pryde plays a halfling ranger or druid, just whatever gets her the animal companion fastest in that system, ok?

Storm wouldn't play for like years but then during the Blue-Team/Gold-Team era she was reconnecting with a lot of things and shyly was like "Hey can I play?" and now has this sorceress she is SUUUUPER protective of. Black Panther was baffled at first but has played a few sessions because people don't say no to Storm and now he's like one of those Batman tactical-thief types p.s. also never say "Batman" around T'Challa he will just excuse himself because he'd love to keep playing but there's matters of state, peace out mutants, enjoy your game. Storm would never roll her eyes in mixed company but she does kind of look briefly up at the ceiling when this happens and says it's ok she'll catch up with him later.

Psylocke plays an assassin and, yeah, seems to be working out some issues.

Iceman wants to play Vampire but plays D&D because that's ok, sure. Halfling fighter.

Cannonball plays a human fighter named Arthinius.

Jubilee plays that kind of thief that likes to backstab but is always forgetting to actually sneak first and is the kind of player that is the best reason they called it "rogue" in later editions but the X-Men don't use that term even when they play 5e (which Havok really wanted to try) because it would be confusing.

Illyana Rasputin would have been told by Colossus about the battle princess class because Colossus lurks OSR blogs and she really kind of wants to play one and the DM will let her but plays a tiefling wizard out of this kind of scary sense of hard-bitten Russian realism.

Havok uncomplicatedly plays an elf ranger and loves it. He is always texting like "When are we playing, guys?""Are we playing this week?""Are we going to that Con? It'd be funny we could cosplay as ourselves, you guys, wouldn't that be funny?". Sometimes Polaris comes along but nobody can remember where she left her character sheet so they keep having to make a new character for her every time.

Warlock wanted to play a lantern. In the beginning people tried to explain that equipment was a separate section but then they were like fuck it, sure guy, you're a lantern. He died and his new character is High Hard Boots.

Dazzler plays a half-elf multiclass fighter/wizard and does that thing where she completely goes off-goal and starts improvising intense motivations for her character but people are like actually this makes the game more fun, I'll roll with it.

"Hey Longshot, we're playing D&D!"
"Really??? I was going to go just to the pet store and watch frogs jump. But that sounds fun! Who do I get to play?"
"We still have that gnome monk you made."
"Oh, right yeah. Where are we?"
"Well when we left off you were all deep deep inside Demogorgon's palace and then you hear a rumbling from every direction...who's rolling initiative for your side?"
(all the players in unison) "LONGSHOT!"

Rogue plays an elf barbarian named Shugah Pie and rolls 20s, bitchessss.

Gambit has never been invited to play.

Cable played a half-orc cleric until 4e came out and then was all over the warlord (and all over 4e, Cable loves 4e with a blind and jealous ardor) and Beast makes him a little warlord hack for whatever system they're using. Cable is deeply touched by this but there is absolutely no way anyone would ever find that out, even telepaths. But Beast fucking knows.

Madrox will play anything. Well, some of him will.

Banshee DMs because he has a lot of time on his hands.

Beast DMs a lot, too, but when he isn't DMing he is always down to play and plays a thief with a high charisma and is basically the team leader in D&D.

Angel plays an elf fighter that is exactly like the Peter Jackson Legolas, including intermittent bits of the sort of moody Dark Legolas you see in the Hobbit movies.

Legion only wants to DM and only wants to run Carcosa actually kind of good at it.

Magneto actually secretly only ever turns good because he likes DMing and seriously Blob and Pyro and Mystique are not playing D&D with anyone. Toad wants to but has never told anyone. He plays boardgames with Martin Prince from the Simpsons sometimes at the rec center but only when they can find something that's 2-player.

Sunspot plays a barbarian.

Wolverine would not play a barbarian. He just plays a dwarf fighter and he has a sense of humor about it because he used to drink with Fritz Leiber. Or at least the Wolverine I know. Fuck Hugh Jackman.

Nightcrawler has a good sense of humor but no sense of irony so he doesn't play a drow thief he plays a human ranger who is baaaasically Robin Hood. He's not minmaxed or anything but you always know everybody's making it out alive if Nightcrawler's playing.

Wolfsbane thinks D&D is devil sorcery at first but then got into and she's an elf druid. Kitty has to remind her what her spells are.

Professor X doesn't DM for the team anymore, the Starjammers and Lilandra made fun of him for it and he never quite got over it. He secretly sneaks off and plays Rolemaster with Reed Richards and Dr Strange though.

Fantomex is a savage minmaxer who plays whatever the most exploitable class is in whatever system but is actually not a dick or a spotlight hog about it to other players. Quentin Quire, though, do not get me started.

Deadpool shows up once in a while and says "Hey guys I can totally run Castle Greyhawk? Rat On A Stick?" His real passion is Paranoia though. Obviously.

Jean Grey doesn't play but is super-supportive of other people in the mansion playing and kind of envies that they could just be that creative and unselfconscious and instead locks herself in her room and masturbates while thinking about plane crashes.

The first time Emma Frost played it was just because she knew Jean Grey never played even though Cyclops was super into it but then she did actually herself get super into it but pretends not to be--she plays a dark elf cleric of some increasingly terrifying god.

Doug Ramsey is a fucking bard.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Nazi Games

I don't have answers to all these questions, but it seems to me far too many conversations go too far with out ever asking questions like these. People get stuck on boring, kindergarten-level questions like "Can art affect people?" (Yes) "Can art be racist, sexist, etc?" (Yes) "Can art be unconsciously those things?"(Yes) "Can fiction be racist, sexist?" (Yes, but it's relatively rare)  "Should we avoid offending people at all costs?" (No) and "Should we censor things" (No) and pretend the argument is about that. Here are some questions which are for adults.

I chose Jewishness as an example because it is a form of marginality (however minor, in the US in 2015) that I can claim by birth--I am not, myself, religious--but these questions are still meaningful when ported to other, considerably more marginalized, groups of people. So here we go-- the easy ones are first:


1. Hitler writes a game. He intends it to clearly reflect his worldview but he's so bad at writing, no-one can understand it and it has no effect on anyone.

Is it anti-semitic? Why or why not?


2. The author of this game harbors no prejudice and is kind to everyone -- this is publicly known and is privately true. Or at least as true as it can be of anyone. No-one has ever even suggested she harbors any bigoted feeling or idea. She has sacrificed a great deal for the well-being of the marginalized.

Her game is rancid with prejudice, Jews are called kikes, every race is slurred and degraded. The imagery and experience system suggests it is heroic to slaughter anyone less well-off than wealthy blonde white men--and it is written at a level suggesting it is for children. Her motives are unclear: perhaps she wrote it as a kind of cathartic exercise to purge herself of wicked thoughts, perhaps simply as an intellectual challenge to write in a voice that was not her own--it's impossible to be sure.

However, this game is unreadable. It is written in a language that was lost forever and will never be remembered or recovered, even by the author. No-one knows anything about it.

Is it anti-semitic? Why or why not?


3. The motive behind the game is repulsive -- it seeks, proactively, to begin a race war. The author is unimaginably racist. No-one knows any of this.

The game is a ridiculous failure in its secret purpose and nobody even notices the racial overtones, they are so clumsily coded and poorly written. It comes across as a charmingly inept kind of Gamma World or Mutant Future.

A prominent celebrity of color is quoted as saying he is a fan. Its odd and accidental charm makes it not only popular but immensely, disproportionately popular among players of color. A statistically meaningful number of people who aren't white take up the hobby because of it. People who do play it generally walk away with a greater feeling of tolerance toward others than they walked in with. Universities where they study games, like UCLA and Columbia -- notice these things and report them. The results are confirmed. This goes on forever.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


4. Hitler writes a game. Or maybe Goering or Goebbels. Or the Grand Wizard of the Klan.

Nobody knows they are the author. They die.

The game is discovered later, author unknown. It is published, embraced. It has no content anyone ever accuses of being racist. It seems considerably less ideologically loaded than, say, Pong, to anyone whoever plays it. Let's say: even in these fraught times, it attracts less racial critique than any other RPG ever, though it is popular. The audience is skewed in no particular way. Social scientists can detect no notable change in attitude among people after playing the game. In fact: there is none.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


5. The game is produced with the best will in the world by the most progressive soul imaginable -- but not the most talented. It becomes popular.

Because it is kind of dull or because of the social circles through which it propagates or for some other reason that's difficult to trace, the earnest (and in no-way detectably offensive) game only manages to acquire a very WASPy audience. It changes their attitudes in no way, as it was preaching to the choir. Because it is popular, it actually makes the RPG audience less Jewish and more WASPy than it already was.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


6. A Jewish person produces a game. They harbor no self-hatred. Exactly half the Jewish community finds it offensive and anti-semitic. The other half doesn't and, in fact, hails it as a vital exploration of social issues essential to the community that couldn't have been addressed any other way. It changes the game audience in no way and there are no detectable changes in peoples' attitudes about race after playing or reading it.

Is the game anti-semitic Why or why not?


7. A white anglo-saxon protestant produces a game. They harbor no anti-Semitic feeling. Exactly half the Jewish community finds it offensive and anti-semitic. The other half doesn't and, in fact, hails it as a vital exploration of social issues essential to the Jewish community that couldn't have been addressed any other way. It changes the game audience in no way and there are no detectable changes in peoples' attitudes about race after playing or reading it.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


8. A person bearing no prejudices produces a game. It is broad and written for children and relies on stereotypes about people of many ethnicities either because they're oblivious or because they think this is a good way to get ideas across to children. It is incredibly popular among people of precisely those ethnicities and encourages everyone who plays it to learn more about those cultures. It is, in fact, more popular among a diverse audience than an earlier, less stereotype-riddled version of the same game.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


 9. A progressive person produces a game full of progressive ideas about people of all ethnicities, including Jews. It is dull and (measurably, like in a lab) makes people think these kinds of games suck.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


10. 30% of Jews say the game is anti-Semitic and offensive, 70% say it is a vital exploration of social issues essential to the community that couldn't have been addressed any other way.  It has not other measured social effect on the audience or the audience's attitudes.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


11. A person bearing no prejudice produces a game. 10 Jewish people play it and are offended and say it's anti-semitic and never play RPGs again. 10 Jewish people love it and have the best experience of their gaming lives and go on to do a great many game things. It has no effect on anyone's attitudes about prejudice except the offended people--people who like it just say it's fun.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

What if 20 Jewish people love it?



Only 2?


12. A game divides the Jewish community. All the Jewish people you get along with and think are smart consider it a vital and necessary exploration of their identity. All the ones you don't and think are stupid consider it anti-semitic.

Is it? Why or why not?


13. A game is produced by a superlatively progressive person. The game is for adults. It has no measurable effect on the attitudes of adults or on the demographics of the adult audience.

It is not for children, but if children were to play it, they have a chance of adopting anti-semitic attitudes.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


14. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game has only one sociological effect on the audience and it is measurable: people who have anti-semitic beliefs are more likely to take an anti-semitic action after playing.

Is the game anti-semitc? Why or why not?

If so: is beer therefore anti-semitic? Why or why not?


15. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game has only one sociological effect on the audience and it is measurable: stupid people are more likely to be racist after playing.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


16. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game has only one sociological effect on the audience and it is measurable: mentally ill people are more likely to be racist after playing.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

17. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. Smart people become less racist when they play the game and understand important issues better and more viscerally, stupid people become more racist. There is no other way to address the complex issues in the game except via playing the game in its current form -- it, for example, requires people to adopt roles of real-life Jewish people who were guilty of banking-related crimes.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


18. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. The game is old: the game's measurable effect on the audience at the time was to diversify the audience and make it more progressive. No Jewish people at the time were offended. However, now, looking back, there are elements which are not as progressive as the language we use today -- however the style of the game is so dated that everyone who reads it, looks at it or plays it has a level of historical distance or irony akin to when they read the casual references to Jewish bankers in 19th century novels. It is not for children.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

19. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. It offends only extremely, orthodox conservative Jews who have some sexist or homophobic ideas built into their way of doing their religion. But it does offend pretty much all of them.

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?


20. Progressive author. Fun, popular game. No measurable effect on participants' attitudes or the wider game world's demographics. However, it is written in english and english is a language and so contains inherently racist constructions like "Hip hip hooray".

Is the game anti-semitic? Why or why not?

If not--how many Jewish people must claim to be offended before it is?

21. Let's assume you are not Jewish but you hold the purse strings at a company about to give money to the author of game 7 above money for another project. Let's assume that for whatever reasons you need to decide whether their game was anti-semitic or not and back that decision with your money.

Can you? Or do you leave that to Jewish people to decide? And assuming they are split -- how do you decide?
This entry is old and accidentally got deleted, here are the original comments:
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  1. (Off topic = deleted)
  2. Sorry, didn’t want to derail your discussion. I will have a try, though I fear my english is too bad for complicated expIanations, I also hope I did understand every entry as intended:

    Clear yes for 1 (intent delivered)

    3 yes (intent delivered) - It’s like people of colour walking with PEGIDA (

    4 nope (no intend, author unknown); becomes a “yes” as soon as the author is revealed

    5 nope

    6 nope (not intended)

    7 nope (as 6)

    8 nope, though the author is playing with fire

    9 it probably sucks, but nope, not anti-semitic

    10 nope

    11 nope

    12 is hard… I’m not sure, perhaps I’m very exclusive with my jewish contacts - perhaps I only chose the non-religious or what. Probably isn’t anti-semitic per se, though.

    13 no, it’s not. It’s like some immature person who likes anti-war-movies because of the action scenes - as long as it is clearly stated that reader-discretion is adviced, the work is not anti-semitic.

    14 why does it promote anti-semitic actions? Any hint in the text or is it interpreted the wrong way by those weirdos? And no, I’m not that into alcohol at all but beer is not anti-semitic.

    15 same with 14, perhaps even more dangerous; manipulating the “simple-minded” is a big problem with any kind of extremism

    20 nope, no. This is like saying: Hey, Fabian, you’re born in germany so you’re totally anti-semitic. Too simple.

    With these I’m a bit overburdened by now - they are probably the questions you find most interesting: 2 (???), 16, 18, 19, 21.
    1. So for you intent alone is the important factor.
    2. Perhaps not the only factor but a very important factor. The way the intention is delivered to the reader is important, too. You probably cannot expect every reader to get your intent without stating it somewhere. And a little bit of honesty and authenticity won't hurt either.
  3. The answer to 4 would have to be "no." It would be like asking "if Hitler made a garden, would the tomatoes be anti-Semitic?"

    I think makes more sense to ask two questions, rather than ask if "work X is anti-Semitic": (1) Does X express anti-Semitic ideas? (2) Does the work suggest the author is anti-Semitic? These are things you couldn't tell from, say, Hitler's tomatoes.
    1. True on various levels.
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.
    3. I don't really buy your two alternate questions, Matt. Take Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft's fiction definitely includes racist and anti-semitic ideas if you look for them (and often even if you don't - check out "The Horror at Red Hook"). Lovecraft was a racist and an anti-semite (despite his marriage) - that's virtually undisputed. That does not mean we should stop reading, enjoying, studying, or being inspired by Lovecraft's fiction or games that draw on it. Reading Lovecraft or playing Call of Cthulhu does not make one a racist. That's surely what's more important - effect, not intention or the beliefs of the author, nor the presence of unpleasant ideas in and of themselves. These might be worthy things to point out, but not as a basis to condemn the works in question.
    4. Jonathan:
      "That does not mean we should stop reading, enjoying, studying, or being inspired by Lovecraft's fiction or games that draw on it."
      do not lower the conversation by introducing simplistic ideas into it.

      Whether "we should" read something is entirely unrelated to the question at hand.

      The question at hand is whether or not you can call a thing "racist". Not what to do once that determination is made (which is a much simpler debate for much dumber people).
  4. Well, I wrote a thing long enough to run into Blogspot's character limit, and then I refreshed the page and saw your comment to Jonathan about not caring about the question of what to do about it, so I'll summarize my views:

    Basically, I think effect is what matters, not intent. Intent matters a great deal when you're trying to decide what to do about a problem, but effect is what determines whether there's a problem in the first place.

    If something is causing harm, there's a problem that should be addressed. However, I don't necessarily think that people being pissed off is harmful in and of itself. There needs to be something more serious going on. Sometimes people - even marginalized people - are pissed off for dumb reasons.

    If there's no harm, then I don't think it really matters what the intent was. There are too many harmful things in the world to waste one's time and energy on condemning harmless works.

    By those standards, my view on most of these should be clear, but I'll comment on a some of them:

    5 is complex, because although the game is causing harm, I would argue that it's not problematic in and of itself. It's not directly hurting anyone or promoting any kind of hate, but it is having an effect on the overall shape of the market. There's a lot to be said about this, but in the interest of keeping this brief and on-topic I'll just say that I think the solution is not to do anything about this game, but to create and promote other games that have an opposite effect.

    My feelings about 6, 7, 10 (all cases), 11, and 12 are more-or-less the same: The game is not causing enough harm to worry about, and it may even be doing good by sparking off debate that could wind up advancing the overall conversation.

    8 is a perfect example of the kind of thing that people need to stop worrying about.

    9 isn't hateful, but it is harmful.

    14-17 all are contributing to harm, but in all of these cases the root cause of the harm is something else. Any energy spent on addressing the harm added by the game would be better spent on addressing the root caue of the harm, be it pre-existing racism, stupidity, mental illness, etc.

    In regards to 21, my feeling is that you should definitely look to the views of the Jewish community to inform your decision, but ultimately you need to make up your mind for yourself. It's a cop-out either way to make your decision based only on whether other people are upset or not. You have to look at the strength of the actual arguments the different sides of the debate are making.

    In general, I think that focusing on labeling things as racist (or sexist, homophobic, etc.) or not distracts from the work of actually making the world a better place. It's just too easy to get lost in tangles of semantics.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Speedy Tree Maze

That was me in the beak
So this 11-year old wrote a dungeon that almost killed me.

Basically Hill Cantons Chris' dug up a dungeon he'd done when he was a wee lad, re-keyed it and set us loose in it. I only survived due to a lucky roll on the Death & Dismemberment table. Fucking roc.

It wasn't much different than a regular day in a Chris dungeon, though it was a hell of a lot of fun. Wherein lies some kind of lesson.

The adventure has a few Dragon Magazine-style jokes in it (magic pecans, Sheryl Tiegs) but then, so do all Chris' grown-up modules. Anyway, it was fun and, on paper, is flexible enough to run as creepy Original Wicker Man style thorns-and-darkness freakout or as a gonzo Nicolas Cage Wicker Man goofball beer & pretzels job.

And here's a one-page version I made for reference, feel free to use it after you've downloaded the details.
It also has a lot of room over on the west and south to throw in more stuff.

Also, speaking of druids:
If you're following the porn news, D&D With Porn Stars stands with our druid, Stoya, 100%:

Thursday, November 26, 2015

He Chose Poorly and Rolled Worse. He Will Be Missed.

In the words of that guy from The Usual Suspects--We did more jobs, and I saw more money, than you can ever count.


My most vivid memory of the late Malice is very mundane:

Years ago, he and my own thief, Blixa, were scouting ahead of our party in the Vats of Mazarin moving toward a corner around which was what we'd find out was a lich.
And Blixa said "Walls."
and Malice said "Walls."

And they began to climb forward on the walls.

It was just that workaday tactical-thief thing we had. We were good at it.

He was proud, strong-willed, aggressive, devious, and more often in the front line than was strictly healthy for an AD&D assassin. A team player but mostly in the sense that he reliably kept the enemy busy, like Custer or JEB Stuart. And, like them, arrogant, too brave and dead.

As a player, there is possibly no-one who more often had my back and I his. Certainly no man.


Moreover, he died at an extremely inconvenient moment--in another GM's game, we were smack in the middle of one of the most desperate battles of our lives--near the final room in Jennell Jacquays' fiendish and utterly balance-blind classic Dark Tower, where last session we got through exactly 3 rounds of combat during which all I managed to do was run away 3 times and get punched by a demigod.

Normally I'd want revenge--problem is it was me who killed him.


I was GMing and they were deep in the goblin palace of Gaxen Kane, just past the Goblin Cubes, they'd killed the purple worm--noisily, and summoned a nuisance patrol.

Step One

The nuisance patrol were red goblins, though, which means they go up in a spell when they die. The party was pretty tasty about keeping them from actually dying via Hold Person and knocking them into a well of damned souls.

But then Malice tried to knock one over with a 2-handed sword and did it too well--the one-hit-die monster popped off in a cloud of Blind.

Step Two

When the saves clear we have two blind party members and enough party juice to clear up one case. A coin is tossed. The toss goes to False Patrick's martyrdom-hungry roachman Fiddlin Joe. Fiddlin' Joe of course elects to remain blind and give the cleric the potion. The cleric takes it.

Step Three

Malice cleverly uses a fixture of dangled iron to capture a rust monster. Then forgets they did that. Alcohol may be to blame.

Step Four

There is a mystery door and, behind, a glimmer of what looks to be--in the Predator-esque light of infravision glimpsed between door and jamb--one unmoving thing, goblin sized.

Malice and Fiddlin Joe hide above the door jamb. Pete Loudly, the party wizard hovers above the jamb. The party cleric, Joe Dunneman, hides in the room beyond, on the far side of a green slime pool.

A trap is rigged up--a bucket or jar of green slime on a rope. Malice opens the door without looking through, the bucket swings, the door is closed.

The cleric (of the god of cleanliness) counsels against this untidiness.

The GM rolls a die for this blind and unquiet trap. The slime, unseen by any living PC, hits no-one and forms a puddle on the far side of the door.

Step Five

The players wait a long time for someone to open the door so they can ambush them.

Meanwhile the comprehensively alerted high-level goblin cleric on the other side of the door summons some guards. As, even in goblin land, you do.

Whether they know it or not, the party's in a Mexican stand-off.

Step Six

Malice flips upside-down and peaks through the door, failing his stealth roll.

From the goblin palace-guard's point of view what we have here is a lone elven aristocrat hanging upside down in the door to the vestry of their bishop's inner sanctum after vandalizing it with sacred slime.

With their overwatch actions, they throw their harpoons. Malice resists their attempts to yank him through the door. The goblin bishop lashes out with his five finger-tentacles--a gift of the Carrion-Crawler God, paralyses Malice. Malice is yanked off the doorjamb and toward the assailants, toward the untidy puddle of green slime he himself created.

But whatever--due to an incident earlier this year, Malice regenerates at a constant rate. Everything will be fine.

Step Seven

Now we talked about Fiddlin Joe the cockroach-man's martyr complex.

This extends to, for example, putting on his cloak of darkness and charging down a hallway toward the sound of his friend being attacked by four foes at once despite being completely blind.

Step Eight

Many dice are rolled. Fiddlin Joe runs into a wall. Under cover of the very darkness Fiddlin Joe is emitting, paralyzed Malice is dragged around a corner no-one can see. The goblin bishop backs up at another angle and prepares to kill whoever comes through the darkness cloud.

Step Nine

The subsequent rounds of combat are a hairy hell: Fiddlin Joe lashes out hitting mostly nothing in his own personal darkness, a goblin nets and grapples the party wizard on the far side of the obscuring dark-cloud, the bishop silences him, and the PC's cleric spends most of his time moving up from how far away he was when the whole fracas began what seems like years ago.

Meanwhile the paralyzed Malice is being unresurrectably changed into green slime over the requisite d4 rounds and armor-being-eaten-away period.

Step Ten

Fiddlin' Joe finally gets ahold of Malice.

The mighty Malice, slaughter of thousands, dissolves into green slime.

Step Eleven

Resurrection being out of the question, there's always the Time Giant Spit.

That is: the bottled drool of a sleeping Time Giant from a tower defeated in the summer. Carefully titrated by a trained alchemist, it can be used to turn back the clock on a character's condition.

Fumbled out of a bottle by a blind cockroach-man while elite goblins are trying to hit him in the dark, it can be a little more dangerous....

Step Twelve

Fiddlin Joe rolls a 65.

The proud pale elf is devolved far past primal grey elf, far past half-fae, back into the primordial lineages constituents from which elves emerged--some barely coherent pre-faerie eddy in the natural order and a desperate tiny curled amphibious something that would eons hence turn into a primate.

Thus passed white-haired Malice--djinn-slayer, gambler, exploiter-of-loopholes, leaving only tears and stuff.

A very specific way of playing D&D has passed forever from this world. We may again see its like, but not soon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Because Bad Wizards Are Annoying

These things are true in D&D:

-Evil wizards come up a lot.

-Writing out which spells of which level they have is a pain in the ass, especially because they might die in a round.

-Always giving all of them infinite spells of the appropriate level removes an important tactical limit that makes wizard fights interesting.

So GMs might be interested to giving NPC wizards a limit on what they can cast, but one that's easier to work with than the one PC wizards have.

Here's one False Patrick and me are using in the upcoming (really upcoming: it's in layout) Maze of the Blue Medusa book. It's based on the following additional observations:

-You're going to be keeping track of the wizard's hit points.

-Even if the spell selection is written out for you like in a published module, you still are always going to have the player's handbook and/or its spell list and descriptions immediately to hand just in order to run the game normally.

A most excellent Librarian, 12' tall. Guards the SEEPING CHIMES from interference and knows what they are for.

AC: 17
HD: 8
Atk d12 bite or by spell
Can be harmed only by magical weapons--except fire, which does doubles damage.

Spells: Gruel can cast any magic-user spell of levels 1-4 at a hit point cost to herself equal to thrice the spell's level--so Magic Missile would cost her 3 hit points. The cost of healing spells is deducted after the spell takes effect.

800 gp in ancient bracelets.


Notes on this:

-Obviously you can adjust the hit point cost for different kinds of wizards to like 2/level or 10/level or whatever and for different editions. This particular version of this monster was designed for Basic-style monsters, who have way less hp than 3, 4, and 5 edition monsters.

-Again, this presumes you've got the PHB and its spell list by level right there anyway, so it's no biggie to look down the list and decide what spell you'll use.

-If you're tempted to use this for PCs, there are hitches that take hold: outside combat, it gives them them infinite healing (if they have any healing spells) which in turn gives them infinite spells, which in turn means infinite growth, shrinking etc etc. It's good for combat only.

-Players playing hardcore system-mastery-as-tactic will be frustrated by this, but, really, let them be. It violates the system's rules but not the genre's.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

James Went Into His Attic And You Won't Believe What Happened Next...

...he found 50 copies of Red & Pleasant Land that aren't out in stores. So if you're no up for hunting around, you can order these straight from the publisher.

Only 32 left now, so hurry.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Somebody Check Laney Chantal's Dice

Session before last was a long time coming:

9 millenia ago it was prophesied that unto Demogorgon would be betrothed a Champion of Tiamat, and this union would bring the Age of Eradications.

To determine the distaff part of the sacred union the Five Churches of Tiamat--The Pale Eye, The Jade Fang, The Red Hand, The Cobalt Claw, The Black Wing--brought forth champions to battle to the death in a mad tourney. Winner marries Demogorgon.

Through a barely explicable series of events involving the Plane of Shadow, a hot dog, and not wanting to be fat, the champion of the Jade Fang was named: a halfling with a pet flying squirrel-Estuche, avatar of Laney. That's the halfling--the squirrel's name I can't remember.
The other champions were more typical: level 20 paladins in plate mail with crazy powers.

Long story short is we have a lone 10th level halfling ranger with like 40-50 hit points going up against 4 bad guys with like 160 hit points each and, among other things, the ability to heal 100 hp in a single round action.

In the gambling parlors of the cube-shaped earth, the experts have weighed in:

So you're probably wondering how Laney died. Well here we go:

The Black Knight

The party managed to take out the Black Knight before the tournament even started. Which, yeah, is cheating. But then Ela:

...sorry--Baweyn the elf ranger--had the bright idea to go around wearing the black knight's armor. So nobody knew the Black Knight was missing and the Black Wing never thought to replace him. Go Ela!

The Cobalt Knight

So Estuche faced the Cobalt Knight in the first round of the tournament, the joust. Herein Alondra (as Excene the druid)...
(seen here with Red & Pleasant Land cake)

...thought to aid her ally with low cunning: although magic is not permitted in the tournament, there was nothing to prevent the Knight Viridian from secretly replacing the standard mount of tiny Knights of her Church (the velociraptor) with a druid wearing that shape.
Also Alondra
So it was a blue armored electromagnetic titan with a bastard sword on a carnivorous destrier vs a halfling with a spiked chain on a friendly dinosaur.

First round Laney wins initiative and immediately rolls a natural 20 with the spiked chain, meaning the Cobalt Knight's not only taking double damage but has a chain around his neck while on a horse and needs to extricate himself before doing anything else like, say, healing. Plus also velociraptor.

On his turn the Cobalt Knight can't get himself loose, then gets yanked by the neck off his horse (rolls a 1) and Laney then proceeds to roll natural 20s over and over and over and over for the rest of the fight. Everyone's sitting on the couch just staring as she and Alondra beats the fucking tar out of this guy who doesn't even get one spare round to lay on hands. Also I think she uses her rangerness to tell his horse to just go away.

First round to the Knight Viridian: the crowd goes wild. The Church of the Cobalt Claw begins scheming to assassinate the celebrating PCs in their seats.

The Red Knight

After the joust begins the melee--all the remaining knights (minus the Cobalt one, slain in the first round)--thrown together.

The Red and Pale champions engage each other, leaving Laney to fight the (fake) Black Knight, who she, of course, (fake) beats handily.  While the PCs in the stands manage to stop an assassination attempt from mutant elves of the Cobalt Claw, The Red Knight falls to...

The Pale Knight

...the last Knight left opposing the bold halfling. The Pale Knight is (Roll d100...) 90% fucked up from fighting the Red Knight, and Laney, who hasn't got a scratch on her, leaps on her as soon as Red goes down. All the Pale Knight's bonus Tiamat powers like level drain and reversing the last round depend on Pale winning initiative, which Pale never does, Laney then proceeds to natural 20 the fuck out of him too while the gods of probability weep as rain rolls down their bell-curved roofs and everyone playing is just like holy mother of fuck.

...thus winning the tournament--as was clearly ordained by Demogorgon, Inciter of All Incidents, Laney's new fiance.

As I wrote almost 2 years before I had any idea this would happen:

The Jade Fang is one of the five Tributary Temples of Glistening Tiamat....its energies are green: the energies of jealousy, lushness, vigor, triumph, old wisdom, glibness, and theft.
Praise be to Him

As word reaches the gambling halls of Gaxen Kane:

Fiddlin' Joe Cooper makes 5000gp.
Anxious P's Babs loses 1200gp betting on the Black Knight.
Malice Aforethought wins 10,000gp.
Sir Ward wins 2500gp.
Pete Loudly the Sorcerer wins 10,000gp.

...and the girls make their way back to Vornheim, undisputed leader of the Church of Tiamat in tow where Alondra gets drunk and wakes up next to a succubus, Twiggy gets such a reputation as a party animal that carousing in Vornheim costs twice as much from now on, and then party sets off to find an easy side quest before a PC has to marry an elder god and are promptly set upon by carnivorous apes.

More later.