Tuesday, 31 March 2009

dungeon construction: character

It's rare for a dungeon to spring new-formed from the ground like Athena from the brow of Zeus; so there are questions that must be answered before you are accused of just throwing these things together. This need not be a laborious process and can furnish some additional versimilitude to your game which makes for easier suspension of disbelief.

- Why is it here? There are a number of reasons to dig out an underground tunnel complex and populate it:
  1. Bolthole - Somewhere to go until the heat dies down. If you outrage the locals or if they've offended you, it is prudent to travel somewhere safer. You need fresh air and water, stocks of food, a place to rest and other supplies (spare weapons) as well as a spare exit in case someone tries to flush you out by frontal assault.
  2. City - When you're dealing in epic scale (can you say mega-dungeon?) the presence of an underground city makes the grade. In the real world, places like Derinyuku or Kaymakli attract travellers and explorers; why shouldn't your underground cities do the same; they can offer things which most above-ground cities may not.
  3. Deathtrap - A method of execution by those who'd rather think of other things; while it is lamented as singularly lazy by more ambitious evil overlord-types, there are times when a well-stocked deathtrap provides hours of amusement. Many death-traps are used to keep inconvenient truths (like the original minotaur of Crete) out of sight and mind.
  4. Dungeon - The classic prison; including oubliettes for those you never want to hear from again, well-stocked torture chambers and guardians. Some of these places are designed to bring pain to their occupants, others merely to contain them until more permanent methods can be applied.
  5. Fortress -When you have a number of violent races hiding underground, wars are real; the appearance of an underground fortress may be prudent if your opponent has aerial superiority. There may be bolt holes, redoubts, empty tunnels and heavy doors to contain explosions as well as low-maintenance traps.
  6. Lair - Like a bolt-hole but longer term thinking is required. Not quite the size of a fortress this is suited to both civilised and primitive monsters. Sleeping quarters, kitchens and other home comforts must be considered as well as an emergency exit or two. If the lair is placed here by an architect then these may be less than ideal.
  7. Mine -Another classic, though denizens must beware of digging too greedily and too deep; the mine may still be active, have an owner, have ownership deeds lost deep within it's depths or may even be played out. Mines often have extensive tunnels radiating from a central shaft or spoke. Cave-ins, gas pockets and avarice are all perils.
  8. Proving Ground - The purpose-built proving ground is popular among secret societies (including such fun types as assassins, aspirant clerics and wizards). Here the initiate may pit their wits against traps designed to test their wits and mettle as well as monsters that may make your life interesting as foes, obstacles or dangerous allies of convenience.
  9. Temple - Usually the literal incarnation of an underground religion, this construction is usually done by the faithful. As such, iconography is usually visible and may provide motifs for builders to place secret doors and traps so that only the faithful may gain admittance beyond a particular point.
  10. Tomb - Where the dead lie in wait. Grave robbing being a profession of choice for some so-called adventurers, there are cunning traps (of impressive lethality), false tombs and guardians (usually the walking dead) in place to protect the bones and grave goods of the patrons of this establishment. Add curses, magics and other hindrances to taste.
  11. Vault - A place to keep things secret and safe. Usually this implies some kind of treasure and guardians (including traps) to go with it. The destructiveness of these traps is often tempered by the knowledge that at some point what you've kept safe may need to be retrieved. Just look at any Indiana Jones movie to see what this kind of thing can entail.
Re-purposed? - What does it do now? Quite a number of places find themselves repurposed. Given the number of creatures that burrow and tunnel or prefer to stay out of the sun is it surprising that many of the above reasons are combined? Reasons for repurposing include:
  1. Abandonment - This may range from a newer, shinier complex being found (and is there a tunnel or was the journey overland?) to the need for the place being eliminated (lairs that have been cleaned out by adventurers for example)
  2. Disaster - A disaster can change the very nature of the dungeon. Mines become tombs through earthquakes, cities are flooded and become proving ground for warrior and beast alike. The nature of the catastrophe informs changes to both structure and occupants.
  3. New construction - Expansion is another possibility. Lairs can become over-crowded, tombs need more sarcophagi or the complex gains additional functions (a mine needs a dungeon for some of it's more feisty workers)
Intent - What do you want the players to experience while they are here? Not only can you play with the characters, you can also play with their players as well.
  1. Horror - Tombs, deathtraps and dungeons provide an element of horror.
  2. Promise of wealth - Mines and vaults promise wealth - though not without peril!
  3. Challenge - Proving grounds and temples are a challenge to adventure and test of worth; a classic dungeon was The Assassin's Run that apprentice assassins would have to best.
  4. Exploration - Boltholes and lairs are areas to trespass upon while fortresses and cities may offer the same or opportunities for trade with those who need it.
  5. Refuge - A bolthole, fortress or city may also provide shelter for a brief time and a friendly temple can supply sanctuary, lore or healing if it's needed.

Friday, 27 March 2009

from the edge of twilight: dustman

It's been two days now - no sleep, limited food, only my need for water to keep the coffee and energy drinks from fossilising my kidneys is forcing me to good behaviour. I look a mess, but have to keep driving. Everything's taking on a ragged woolly edge and my eyes itch like a Dali movie. Unlike me, he - it - I don't know - won't stop. When I wanted a movie-star lifestyle, I didn't expect it to be Terminator with me as Sarah Connor.

I'd have to drive farther than the petrol in this car to get to convenient vats of molten steel since they closed all the steelworks and he's too smart to stand under a steamhammer so he can be hit with it. I can risk refuelling again but if I use plastic, he gets a fresh trail. I learned that the hard way at the last roadside services, dumb luck saved me then - I can empty my account but it's a slow painful process that brings him closer to me.

He'll walk if he can't steal a bike or car; he doesn't tire. Stab him - he doesn't bleed, just some kind of dust trickles out and then stops. Hit him with a baseball bat, he crumples and comes back. I haven't seen how he reacts to being shot. It's like he's putty; a toy for a monster child. You hear about stalkers, serial killers and you thank God it's not your problem. Jesus, Andrew I'm so sorry. You shouldn't have tried to stop him. I have no idea why he's after me.

I don't know why. That's the worst thing. If there was some kind of purpose to it - if we could understand his - it's - motive I could put a brave face on. Hide outrage in rationales and march to war. Instead I'm here with no reason, poor Andrew in ICU wondering where the hell I am after two days. I'm an office worker, not some heroic tart with a shotgun and six months solid gym muscle. My man is in ICU and I should be with him...

I want to hate he - it. Can't sleep. Can't let him find me. This is protecting Andrew - the text message says so; the phone bleeps occasionally - it's running low, like me. I've felt myself slip - what they call microsleeps - you can travel an eighth of a mile at the speed I'm going. Can't. Can't let him win. Can't stop on this road yet - maybe the next service station. Another text bleep.

'Look Up.' What does that mean. The bridge. Oh no. He's there! He's going to jump on me - floor it now; ignore the speed camera just drive! Above the engine I hear a thud behind me and see the cars swerve to avoid the body - where's the body - just a pile of dust being blown off the road by cross-winds, his clothes already tumbling under wheels, a lorry hits the brakes to avoid them and I'm gone.

Another text bleep. 'Nxt srvis stn. 2 coffees.' Smooth, whoever you are. Better get some water as well. My kidneys are killing me - I don't know how long I've got before he comes back.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

dungeon construction: elements and alternatives

2009 appears to be the year of the mega-dungeon, with grognards and 4E fans running back to adventure in epic dark tunnels full of monsters, magic and mayhem. There are environmental concerns despite all that healthy Gygaxian naturism er, naturalism. With this, you may want to consider the following things about the physical environment of the dungeon. Denizens may also be aware of these environmental issues.

  • Air - Apart from air quality (an environmental hazard) which in caves and tombs is not always wonderful, the presence of wind currents implies a nearby exit or the presence of magic. Portals to places where air is fresh may provide a ready-made exit yet be a risk if you can't see what's on the other side. Air purity may also be a concern with the presence of strange mists, volcanic vents and mines, explosive, toxic or noxious gas.

    Wind currents can be variable. The presence of heat may cause updrafts and the presence of airborne moisture can create mists and clouds that may affect gunpowder, obscure visibility or make it humid and uncomfortable; the presence of dust or sand may be airborne (shaken from footsteps overhead or formed from the grinding of stone on stone) and indicative of disturbances in the fabric of the dungeon itself.

    Flight is unusual (unless you're a bat or something similar) unless you're in a large cavern or expansive tunnel; it's unlikely a dragon will be able to negotiate a dungeon's tunnels without magic or some kind of adjustment to the environment. Where flight is possible, the introduction of a third dimension allows those who can use it significant tactical advantages in either initiating combat or withdrawing from it.

  • Earth - Your walls, ceiling and floor. It's rare for wood panel to be seen deep underground and while other options exist (see below), they are usually in addition to this mainstay. Those races with an affinity to stone or magic to shape or move the rock dungeons are usually hewn gain certain advantages and may build these into their domains; not every wall needs a secret door or death-trap unless that's what you're building for...

    Remember rock is subject to forces like compression, tension, shear, twisting or bending that cause tunnels to move and distort without the aid of magic. This may lead to distorted features (which look insanely cool) and may presage a collapse. Structures built within the dungeon (like bridges) may need to consider load and vibration. Perhaps the fire giant is trapped because the bridge collapsed. How far can you jump?

    Then there is temperature - the expansion of stone over time may warp once-reliable structures and the presence of intense cold may cause the stone to contract. A sobering thought for those near volcanic vents or who employ fire or cold magic extensively - eventually such forces may result in a rockslide or collapse. And these effects can gradually accumulate until one day, when the time is right and with a little help...

  • Fire - Provides heat, light and opportunities for pain to your characters. Unless you're undead, extraplanar or otherwise exempt from lethal loss of temperature, heat may be a concern for you. Fuel sources may be an issue if you're not near a convenient volcano, gas vent or mine - particularly in an area where there is plenty of water (which absorbs heat wonderfully). Illumination is another concern, particularly for certain monsters.

    Fire is a popular choice of weaponry for a trap-maker; although protective magics against fire are often a staple of adventurer magic it is in attrition that fire can be effective. The destruction of paper or wooden items by fire can provoke greed like few other things and usually targets those that should know better. Also in using their protective magics, it softens up the wary for later attacks and painfully teaches the unwary caution.

    Fire has many functions in a dungeon; from the candles which can indicate passage of time for a trap to forges where weapons are made or repaired to funeral pyres for the unwary. It's presence indicates civilisation (even rough and crude ones like the PCs) and how it is used will present strategies for those who live in the dungeon when they have to deal with other denizens. How else do you think the oozes are handled down here?

  • Water - Water helps shape a dungeon by it's presence (when a mummy's sarcophagus is ten feet underwater, burning it can be problematic and it doesn't need to breathe either) or by motion (anything from underground rivers to the slow drip formation of stalagtites and erosion of caves linked by an underground stream). It uses a sculptor's hand to caves by forming gypsum formations and paint a cave wall with striations.

    It can also bring a dungeon to life. The vast majority of creatures need to drink and free-flowing water may have fish or plant life which forms the diet of the local denizens. While dungeon hygiene is not an urgent priority, stagnant water can breed algae, disease and similar memorable experiences. Battles around wells can be vicious when it's the only water source available and well poisoning takes on new significance for chaotic evil races.

    The sunken dungeon is a consideration for the prepared and a death-trap for the unprepared. Providing chances to explore underwater can put traditional parties on the back foot if their magic or might are affected by the environment. Different rules may apply for combat. Running a sunken dungeon also requires preparation but can provide chances to use some different creatures and some intriguing environments.
Other options
  • Bone - One for those with plenty of bodies and limited space. The morbid artistry of such can be breathtaking as well as providing concealment for those undead who cast off their flesh but not their bones. If magic is involved, the bones may be providing structural integrity, necromantic sorceries or a guard service. These tend to be used for cemetaries so bashing down the walls may invite divine reprisals as well as undead incursions.

  • Crystal - Aesthetically stunning, it's likely some grognard with a wicker basket and no sense of dramatic irony will try to loot it. The crystals may provide some kind of light refraction necessary to prevent some minion of darkness from leaving, may provide luminescence or harmonics that amplify sonic-based magics. Or they may be the teeth for a stone-based life-form resembling a very large worm...

  • Ice - A counterpoint to fire, this requires cold, the presence of slippery walls and treacherous floors as well as those creatures who live in such climates make many experienced adventurers clutch their weapons a little more closely. Although fire tends to prove effective against those creatures, it's presence in a dungeon made of it can cause dangerous collapses which in itself it's own kind of response.

  • Metal - The presence of metal at this level of construction implies wealth. Such material is usually arranged in cunning mechanisms or heralds the presence of a trap; stories of certain dungeons being strange vessels cast of metal reach the ears of incredulous bards from time to time. Metal panelling is occasionally found in some of the wealthier sections or in rich tombs, often with some auxilliary purpose.

Monday, 23 March 2009

daring to be different

Quite a few posts in the blogosphere recently have focussed on how uncomfortable, difficult or amusing it is to play someone different from yourself. It may have led to cringe-worthy experiments - let's face it, how else are things going to improve? If you're so wound up about your immersion being broken then sit down, take a breath and lighten up. Even Keanu Reeves has got over it.

Apart from presenting a problem in that your characters sound the same or worse if you're in the game master's seat - everyone is sounding the same. Rural peasant, evil knight, thousand-year old dragon, goblin pirate, elven princess - all a cornfed games master.

It's time to shake things up. It's called role-playing for a reason. Even as capable as we are, not everyone is born Robert Downey Jr. So how do you portray someone you're not?

Go to character traits. How would they act? Women like to appear attractive. Who doesn't? These simple truths need not be the be-all and end-all of a character. Women tend to think in terms of relationships and organisation while men tend to think in tasks and comparisons.

Note the use of tend, examples of scatterbrained women and lazy men exist - distinctive because they are at odds with the normal. Caricature and stereotype are attempts to hide the fact you haven't done your homework. If this is someone you're playing, that's just lazy and automatically cheesy. If it's someone you're writing, expect them to come over a bit flat or worse, cheesy.

Respect your sources but don't rip them off. If you're drawing on Angelina Jolie's version of Lara Croft as a half-elven swashbuckling rogue - have her swagger around men, speak in aristocratic tones and give her an impish smile when she's about to give someone their comeuppance.

She doesn't need the shorts to get the idea across.

Show, don't tell is your key. If you fear you're basing a character on just one source, mix it up a bit with another character (keep this to two distinctive people). Add a bit of Keira Knightly's Elizabeth Swann; dignified, devoted to her man and fiesty and go from there.

Assuming you remember what the opposite sex is and can get past the stereotypes of violent hatred for the opposite gender, complete promiscuity or frigidity, really irrational behaviour and mind-blowing greed and selfishness then you can have some fun. If you're playing the opposite sex, think of someone you admire or that you want to understand a little better - why would you want to play someone you'd hate? Games masters are exempt from this one, obviously.

Admirable women - Harriet Tubman, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Xena Warrior Princess.
Admirable men - Bruce Lee, Mahatma Gandhi, Julius Caesar, Cucullain

Over at Dungeon's Master, the dilemma of playing someone of superior intellect when in fact you're of average intelligence means you start noticing things or planning ahead to anticipate your strengths and weaknesses. If there's a group, have them use tactics. An example of this in 4th edition D&D is the warforged have Intimidate skill - in combat, using this skill takes a -10 penalty against hostile foes (making the attempt a bit limited by yourself). Now if you have maybe four friends banging on their shields (and making Aid Another checks) - you have a bit more oomph behind the Intimidation check. And it's a cool scene-setter as well.

Equally if you're playing someone of different smarts to yourself is another dilemma - the criticism that some people play their brick walls as smart as their rogues - or worse, their wizards - is one heard in certain areas. Dare to be stupid or focussed on the wrong things at times (just not life-or-death situations eh?) and watch your character become memorable.

Because you're a red-blooded woman doesn't mean you don't want to play a gentleman who prefers male company (prevalent in slashfic authors I'm told) or vice versa; you don't have to be of a different gender to appreciate what's on offer. Or you might want to play a character who to paraphrase the movie Spartacus likes "...both snails and oysters." Avoid cheesy stereotyping and do some research into those attitudes; what you find may surprise you, like the Greek charioteers called the Sacred Band of Thebes who were once believed invincible.

Many people have wondered why there has been much dancing about in terms of gaming and race. Tabletop RPGs have arrived a little late to the game, partly due to political correctness, partly due to the Hollywood roots of gaming's inspiration.

Ironically, Robert E. Howard is ambivalent - while the women are rarely fierce combatants (Valeria, Belit and Red Sonja are unusual) but the pirates and mercenaries that Conan works with or fights are a mixed bunch. White Wolf brought this into the light of day in Vampire: The Masquerade (and later in Mage: The Ascension) but the fun needn't stop there; other games (D&D) have realised there's a whole world to bounce off.

Different cultures can be good. They may also not need your brand of civilisation. There is a time and a place for cannibal tribesmen but it need not be every island. Equally, organising your gangs along ethnic lines may be fitting to your urban setting but consider the effectiveness of crossing the tracks as well. Why not have the gangbangers do some leg-breaking for the depleted yet wealthy Yakuza gang in return for cash?

Time to wrap it up.
  • There is a time and a place and in some cases it may not even be relevant to the story. Case in point - Albus Dumbledore was outed by J.K. Rowling at the end of the Harry Potter series even though he died in the previous book with no real indication of this previously. Close friendships between men need not necessarily imply homosexuality...

  • Nobody wants to be that guy or girl into hot elf-on-ogre action or who uses the templates and hybrid races as an excuse for experimentation. Instead write it down, password it and and if you're really good, see if you can get a publisher. Under a pseudonym naturally!

  • As always, respect the boundaries of your audience and fellow players. Not everyone is as willing to experiment as you may be or wants the details thrust in their face as it were.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

musing on the analytics game and the story so far...

Mashup of the week has to go to Life & Times of A Phillipine Gamer who has managed to get Legend of the Five Rings in Spaaace! It sounds very cool, I imagine a little Dark Heresy influence on the setting and that for me is not a problem as it's reminiscent of David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series.

Of particular interest was the analysis of interest in RPGs using Google stats by The Core Mechanic. It suggests a steady state of interest in RPGs generally but a gradual decline in interest in 4th edition D&D presumably propped up by new releases and blogospherics. Computer-based RPGs may influence the stats as well in my view but specificity and deep analysis is going to take time...

Having recently stepped into the analytics game (thanks to Google and Chris at 6d6Fireball) it's persuaded me to try and get more blog posts out as there are definite peaks & troughs involved (the power of RSS compels you!) when I put something new out. That and I'm fascinated by some of the places my blog has been read in which leads me to my next question.

The metrics tell me you like the 4E posts as well as the recession-proof gaming and web 2.0/free software posts as well as some of the writing and plotting posts; so I will be doing a few more of these. However I also know metrics don't always tell the whole story so if you want to see something more to your tastes let me know...

Thursday, 19 March 2009

synergistic storytelling and random encounters

The concept of using more than one kind of media to tell a story (cross-media or transmedia) stories has blossomed. An icon of modern synergistic storytelling was The Matrix/Animatrix/Matrix Reloaded where a narrative arc was split between three movies and characters appear in the movie narrative as a result of the plot of the Enter the Matrix computer game.

Unless you were a complete Matrix-head, you may not have realised and have even thought that Niobe's sudden appearance in Matrix Reloaded was a deus ex machina rather than a bold experiment in synergistic storytelling.

The what, where, how, why and when has been summarised nicely by Christy Dena.
Yet there's the idea that events or decisions taken at the beginning of the story have an impact on the story or the information provided. Like the Fighting Fantasy books where choices made early in the narrative provide options (or equally deny them) later on. A variation on this was trialled by IBM researchers in research on interactive cinema how actions early on in the story cause impacts later on in the story environment and has repercussions for Internet browsing.

So can such deep wisdom be applied to tabletop gaming? Of course it can.

The diagram opposite posits an interesting viewpoint, that story authoring systems can increase interaction in an environment with time-bound story events. By story authoring systems we mean players, games masters/referees and in some cases even AI systems dealing with characters or environment. Which brings me onto random tables - used by all of them. Some of the finer points of these are explored by lumpley games' In A Wicked Age and the resulting Abulafia oracles as well as cards in Ravenloft to provide situational modifiers.

It was observed that the use of random encounters is something peculiar (though not unique) to D&D in it's various incarnations. As prototypical story authoring systems, these tables have led to significant impacts on games - not always to the positive. An anecdotal tale (which I recall being from Michael Stackpole) about how a sci-fi RPG game died in the first 10 minutes when the DM rolled an asteroid collision despite a pilot's awesome 'avoiding asteroid' roll and all the players bar one just nodded their acceptance and then put the game away for the evening.

The anecdote illustrates these systems are best applied judiciously.

Some older grognards may claim this is unfair to the 'roll it and see' playstyle. I personally think that if you are going to create a space opera, you don't finish 10 minutes after the start because the director thought it'd be gritty to have a big rock kill you all. Personally, it's a bit unsatisfying and it closes the story too early. In this instance, I follow the Rule of Cool over the Rule of C4 and yes, this is really a cosmic case of "Rock Falls, Everyone Dies" rather than a strict use of the Rule of C4.

Going back to cross-media, how would you feel about games that marketed itself by different media - not in a D&D Insider or Dungeon-A-Day manner (which provides content as the be-all and end-all) but to provide clues to a setting or story arcs or snackies for DMs?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

browser tricks, tiddlywiki things and writemonkey

Not-so-stupid browser tricks

Aviary is a graphics creation & manipulation website you may want to consider if you've forgotten your USB stick with Inkscape and GIMP. Developed by Adobe, it offers Web 2.0 versions of graphics manipulation, vector editing, effects and colour swatch creation.

Bookmarklets are a cross-browser friendly version of add-ons. A number of them have some immediate use for gamers but they also have the advantage of being cross-browser supported. If you use a bookmark synchroniser like Foxmarks, these come with you as well. Useful if you're on the move and you need the functionality.

Also, TiddlySnip is a Firefox extension that cuts & pastes into a TiddlyWiki. Speaking of...

TiddlyWiki Things
Some time ago I extolled the virtues of TiddlyWiki. If you're new to TW, then take a look at TiddlyWiki for the rest of us; a brilliant introduction to TW written in plain and downloadable for future reference.

Here's six add-ins you may find useful but be warned, the more plugins you pile on, the slower it takes for your TiddlyWiki to get started so only load up on what you really need. If you want to know how to install plug-ins and macros then check out Mnteractive or WikiHow for guides.

twab - A contact list which can import or export various formats.
QuoteOfTheDay - Picks a quote from a list defined in a separate tiddler - a daily dose of random.
ReminderMacros - This gives you a calendar and things to do on your TW.
Rollon - A randomiser that can roll on lists within lists. Courtesy of Joshua@Tales of The Rambling Bumblers.
RSSReader - Good if you want to test a feed or two.
TagsTree - Creates a hierarchy for your tags which helps organise your TW.

Finally a review of Writemonkey by Pomerancha Software. This was suggested to me as an alternative to Q10 which is my usual Windows full-screen writing tool. So far it's performing admirably in keeping me on-focus even if I do want to hit F1 to get the most out of it. That will fade in time - this always happens to me when using a full-screen processor.

The startup offers a moment of Zen which is transitory as soon as you click the Exit button.

Writemonkey has an extensive feature set including the ability to momentarily switch between windows. It is suited to portable use and can sit on a USB key with impunity. You can amend font, colour and other features in the Preferences settings (F10) and even preset preferred colour combinations (the default is neon green Courier on black paper) which is soothing on the eyes. Writemonkey has a good set of accessibility features which allow a user to adjust text width and size using a scroll mouse wheel or keystroke combination.

Files can be saved in various locations specified by the program and the repository. Navigation within the file can be done by using assigned bookmarks within a document (so you can move from header to header) or by jumping between assigned search strings (like the Find facility in a word processor). Editing text requires the keyboard, the program does not support drag-and-drop editing by mouse. Click at the start of a line and the program selects the whole line - a nice, intuitive touch.

It also offers a progress bar and timer for sprint writing. Those of you who partake in NaNoWriMo or similar events may find either of these useful. Overall, I'd rate this highly in terms of fast install, high stability and good feature set. I'd commend Writemonkey to anyone who needs a text-based full-screen processor for their Windows system.

Any more stuff you know about that I need to see? Leave a comment!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

the orc gate

Another visit to the carnival - war is clearly good for business and another of the free open-source 4e things for DMs in a hurry to give a 4th level party some excitement. As usual, made in open source software

The Orc Gate has a ruined fort, a whole bunch of ornery orcs and friends looking for a scrap or nine and a skill challenge on how to escape from a fort being pursued by a horde of orcs as well as local geographical colour and some rudimentary information on orcish tattoos.

Available to download now.

Friday, 13 March 2009

from the edge of twilight: hellhound

Vinson is feeling it - ten years of sloth, lust and gluttony on top of a dodgy knee's taken it's toll. He'd had a body to crush and to tempt, then he got careless and his knee blew out under the pressure of seven hundred pounds of US-grade football scholarship in a hard tackle. Denied his glory, he turned to other amusements to become HIV+. His friends dried up overnight with his prospects. Life's unfair and then you die, morality is irrelevant.

Vinson's crying - I can smell the salt of his tears, the Bloody Mary, pesto and Spanish Fly staining his woolen dressing gown, hear his ragged breathing, heart trip-hammering, the click of the Glock's slide. Vinson's rebellion came to His attention. He'd worked hard all his life and had it taken away from him in two seconds of conflict and a one-night stand. He made the deal. So he was offered, what was it - ten years of no consequences, eat, drink and be merry, whatever he wants without remorse or regret? Ten years of whatever you want. Items from menu A, B - you know Hell does standard packages now? Takes all the imagination out of it if you ask me. So few people do. They only ask me not to do. And I always refuse. I love my work.

"Awh-please don't..." Then he shoots me. See what I mean? I feel the bullet rip open my leg and it slows me down. I punch the tree trunk in frustration and leave a dent that'll take twenty years to grow over. Vinson's gun is now empty and he pitches it at me. I feel the muscles on my leg heat and flow like wax. Not silver, not blessed. I fall over as the gun catches me on the shoulder and spins away. When I get up, the leg aches with a bone-deep bruise. In half an hour, there won't even be discolouration. Benefits of the job. I'm his hellhound - dying from a gunshot would be inconvenient.

And we don't do inconvenience in our line of work.

"Please! Anything!! Please!!!"
"Your time's up Vinson. You made a deal. Time to pay the piper."

The full moon slips out from between the clouds. I feel my rancid sulphur breath steam like exhaust fumes as my mouth begins to elongate. My skin crawls with hair that thrashes like grass in a storm, my fingernails split, replaced by inch-long talons. Cartilege pops like knotted oak in a fire and I lose the capacity for speech as the howl breaks free and my legs recurve, the wound almost gone now. Vinson runs - fear-blind, adrenalin ignoring his knee for fifty metres. I salivate at the prospect and the roar that escapes my jaws has nothing to do with morality.

It's a short race, but a merry one and it always ends with a meal. What's left of Vinson's body is washed away by the spring rain or picked at by the other animals when I'm gone. His spirit? That's someone else's concern. By then I'm long gone, looking for the next debtor. Like I said, I love my work.

recession-proof gaming

So, you're facing the financiapocalypse. Made your saving throw? Good! Keep calm and carry on.

For those who didn't, there's still options if you've still got your Internet connection (and if you haven't you can't read this anyway). Prepare yourself a nice game of d20/3.5 edition D&D. And you only need the books when you're actually gaming! All the preparation can be done via the Internet and isn't even going to be difficult.
  1. Hypertext d20 SRD - This is awesome and an example of why the OGL was a good thing. Hyperlinked, cross-referenced and extra tools on top. Namechecked by Monte Cook in a recent interview about Dungeonaday.
  2. Dingle's Games' Monster Generator - I met with the author at the first UK Bloggers meetup and this was recently reviewed by Campaign Mastery. If you want to baseline monsters quickly, use this site. He also has a treasure generator as well.
  3. Big List of RPG Plots - Cumberland Games offers a number of tools but this one is the one that sticks in my mind - a collection of creative kickstarts. If you're feeling ambitious, use Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations on top.
But what about minatures, battlemaps and all the other ephemera I hear you cry? Got yourself a printer? Good.

If you need miniatures, the following sites may be of use.

Arion Games have an impressive freebie collection and a bonus area if you leave feedback on their products.
Oversoul Games has a whole page of figures and other stuff for the princely sum of nothing.
Go to Ravenblight for just about anything gothic or horror; from paper miniatures to terrain to masks to book props.
Sparks fonts by Cumberland Games offer two free samples.

Terrain and cardstock models were the recent subject of a post from Mad Brew Labs so I'll mention the one's I've tried out.
Wizards of the Coast have free fold-up paper models of buildings (some assembly required).
ArchiKit (a French site - site translated using Google Translate) provide free models as well.
For sci-fi, you might want to try WorldWorks' free ParticleBow frigate.

The Game Mechanics have shiny Initiative Cards. They also have a lot of other stuff which you can pillage for settings, one-off encounters with dragons, that kind of thing.

Invite your friends round, potluck and away you go! One or more evenings of recession-proof gaming. No subscription angsts, no guilty miniature buying, no edition wars, no making it difficult for people to have fun. May not be FLGS-friendly but there's a time when shelter, electricity and water come first.

Don't fancy d20/3.5? Want something different? OK - challenge accepted.
  1. RetroRoleplaying has a number of free, simple pick-up games including Microlite74.
  2. a/state lite - For gloomy high weirdness in The City.
  3. Risus - Insidiously simple and yet effective.
  4. Nemesis - For modernish horror involving unspeakable things and unpronounceable monsters.
  5. Insylum - For what comes after the modernish horror.
No subscriptions required. No investment in the next sourcebook to keep ahead of the Jones'. Yes, you'll still need dice. If none of these please you, then invite your friends over and put on a DVD, potluck and snark at the movie. You're in no mood to game and it's still a social occasion.

Got other legal recession-beating games or gamer tools? Plug them in the comments!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

railroads and museums

A little musing on plot types. If you're working out an interactive plot (say in an alternate reality or role-playing game) you have two clear options.
  1. A linear plot with individual stations where protagonists can do things. The plot can continue when the protagonists decide to get back on the train and travel to the next station. Events at each station provide incentives to continue the journey from beginning to end. Let's call this plot structure a railroad. ARG authors may see stations as breadcrumbs but the principle is the same. Just don't invite Pac-Man.

    Railroads are great because you get from point A to point B to point C in a linear framework. Sometimes, the journey is a rollercoaster ride, other times it's a sedate journey where you get to take in the scenery along the way. Everyone is on the journey and you travel in the same direction (possibly at different speeds and different classes of carriage) aimed for the same ultimate destination.

    Railroads may challenge participants since they are clearly on a journey and the structure is mostly linear. What happens between the stops may not be quite as thrilling as what happens when you get to a station and you may have to insert a random element to maintain excitement or a scripted element to induce momentum. Writers do this all the time and people don't get indignant unless it's an interactive plot.

  2. An open structure with showcased areas of interest which can attract the attention of protagonists. There may be guides to steer people into following particular tours or to direct focus away from storage rooms or backstage spaces (dusty places with stuff that may interest or broken pottery). Let's call this plot structure a museum; some may see a matrix or bead collection in parataxis. Just don't invite Adam Sandler over for the night.

    Museums are great because you get to wander around, taking in things that interest you. Some exhibits may be interesting to a number of protagonists, others to a select few. The option to be guided along particular directions is available as is the option to split up and wander off and pursue what interests you. This latter seems to draw people to it like moths to a flyzapper.

    Museums may challenge participants since not everyone is interested in the same thing. Social cohesion of a group can be eroded by individual agendas and break the shared space that participants inhabit. If people have to wait their turn then the pacing needs to be really good or items of interest need to link into an overall framework (Time to break out the cable ties again!) to retain their interest.
Some prefer to compromise, to create a museum with a mesh of railroads with museums at key points in the mesh to ensure plot arcs aren't derailed. Of course this last option means a lot of work for the organiser/writer/game master and it helps to have a clear road map of what is wanted and where the protagonists need to be to connect the disparate plot elements.

Let me know if you prefer railroads, museums or the compromise. Also, how easy or hard do you find it to use these?

Monday, 9 March 2009

big plot, little plot

This concept involves running two plots arcs side by side. One plot is to have a major impact on the protagonist(s), the other to have a minor impact. Spider-Man fans will know entirely too well what this is. Spidey must fight the villain of the week while dealing with a domestic crisis involving either Aunt May or Mary Jane and there are numerous examples in other areas - it's just Spider-Man does it quintessentially.

Just as life isn't a single plot (usually), this provides a layer of versimilitude; as the audience/player has to deal with multiple issues so does the protagonist; and if you're dealing with multiple protagonists, this can leave you with multiple arcs threatening to go nowhere or completely out of the box. A little cable management may be required if you're dealing with a group of people - tying together plot arcs or setting them in sequence are valid solutions in many cases or you can end up with a tangled mess (Too many times I've been there, done that!) that confuses.

The big plot/little plot concept lets you compare the situations (How is a turbulent relationship like a sinking ship?) you've put the protagonist in so you can draw some parallels and even promote character growth - to quote Blaine from The X Files "I didn't spend all those years playing D&D and not learn a little something about courage." So when you're in the lifeboat after having saved six people and learned how to take the initiative, when your overbearing partner kicks off you have every narrative right to tell them to STFU.

It can also allow you to contrast the situations - this can be done to inject comedy into a huge drama or as a dark reprise against the bright epic being told. As with any composition using opposites, care must be taken that one compliments the other, otherwise you just end up being accused of being random. This suggests that some plot hypotaxis needs to go on when using big plot/little plot in this manner, with the little plot playing subordinate to the big. Or if you like huge backdrops for your human dramas, vice versa.

Remember your primary intent and your narrative focus. If you suddenly veer off between plot arcs without any explanation, there may be a sense of being left hanging. In some cases (like in a cliffhanger) this is perfectly reasonable. In other cases, it may just get annoying (Heroes does this a lot because there are so many characters) and disjointed. If a character runs away with you on a little plot, keep notes and work out how to bring narrative focus back. Using cable ties is optional unless you're writing one of those stories.

Done well, big plot/little plot can provide hours of fun. Let me know if you've used this approach well or if you've got a lesson you learned the hard way.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

hypotaxis, parataxis, syntaxis

Hypotaxis - The arrangement of statements in a sentence to compose an argument or complete a picture. This can range from grouping together subordinate statements to form a whole with bridging clauses used to define sequence (e.g. the dog played with the ball after it left the pond) or pre-modifying a statement with another word without using commas to do so (e.g. flameproof body armour).

One of the best-known examples of hypotaxis is the Greek phrase "Molon labe!" ("come and take them!") reported to be used by Leonidas to the Persians at Thermopylae and now the motto of the Greek Army. Unfortunately it doesn't reveal itself in English.

Parataxis - This places concepts or sentences side-by-side without co-ordination or conjunction allowing a reader or listener to make their own connections or emphasis. Each concept is a bead of thought, a discrete item for consideration.

Dickens uses this in the Pickwick Papers (Mr. Jingle's speech in chapter 2) as does Barack Obama in his inaugural address to the delight of many literary bloggers. The classic examples of parataxis have a thread running through them, making a necklace of thoughts.

Some artists also define parataxis as a collection of items without hierarchy, in this instance a bunch of beads where the observer provides their own thread, sees a mosaic or just a mashup of concepts like a Wordle cloud.

Syntaxis - This deals with orderly arrangement of words into sentences and finding patterns formed by doing so. The use of patterns for emphasis, contrast and sometimes sheer aesthetic can drive literary types to distraction.

One of the best example of syntaxis in action is Milton's Paradise Lost. Syntaxis is contracted to syntax by those intimidated by the word's Grecian roots and as a consequence is cursed by computer programmers all over the world trying to put their code in order.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

upon a red horse and bearing a sword

The carnival is early this month and it's subject is war.

So I thought I'd take inspiration from the Horseman of the Apocalypse of the same name and write some 4E stuff - a new ritual (well a twist on an existing ritual) and a new magic sword to go with it. Upon a red horse is available for your downloading pleasure. You too can now emulate the second horseman.

In related matters, The Gamer Dome is considering a compilation of skill challenges for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. There have been some cool war-related ideas for these courtesy of Critical Hits.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The top 10 D&D monsters

And in reverse order, just like Miss World...

10. Kobolds - The favourite under-dog(men). Skull-skull for the Olympics!!

9. Shadar-kai - This goth-emo race conceal some serious opposition for the drow in terms of their blackened eyes and deadly shadow-based powers. In 3E they also had a masochistic streak worthy of Hellraiser. In either edition, fun.

8. Tyrannosaurus Rex - Big teeth, killer claws and jazz hands! The T-rex is a childhood staple and going toe-to-toe with one is a great talking point for a number of fighters.

7. Drow - Decadent, deadly, demon-loving poison-using spider fetishists. As dark reflections of the elves, they have become iconic (and slightly over-used by certain players). There are also a lot of jokes about the Victoria Secrets nature of their clothing but that's just jealousy isn't it?

6. Werewolf - Classic monster-movie fare and fun opposition. Even high-level parties have a frisson of nerves when they meet werewolves because things can go very wrong and you get some wonderful vignette encounters in Ravenloft involving them.

5. Hydra - Who doesn't relive Jason & The Argonauts meeting these? You don't? Liar.

4. Larva Mage - Really creepy and visually cool.

3. Mind Flayer - Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Wonderful - the idea of some alien creature eating your brain just adds to the fear factor and these creatures have that alien megalomaniac mindset which makes them great long-term villains.

2. Wight - Classic undead; from barrow wights to battle and deathlock wights.

1. Dragons - The icon. Accept no substitutes - these beasts need to be played according to their statute. Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick is currently showing how it should be done.

Honourable Mentions

Troll - The gift that keeps. on. giving.

Githyanki - Baroque swords, unforgiving grudges, telekinesis and red dragons. Love it.

Skeletons - More Ray Harryhausen goodness.

Frost Giants -
Really big, really cold Vikings. Wow.

Displacer Beast - Another icon, a shimmering panther with tentacles. Very cool.

No. Not that. Oh no - things I would not take seriously.

Salamander - I just prefer a big burning lizard myself. Look at the frost salamander, why not have a fiery version of it. Why do you need the arms and the spear?

Trilloch - Most parties are fractious enough without too much help.

Crimson Death - Just too annoying to fight and to run properly. Intangible, grabbing, blood draining and this is why people shoudn't kill vampires apparently.

- Evil stingrays cursed with unpronouncability and a lack of usefulness.

Senmurv - Are you sure drugs weren't involved in the creation of this thing?
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