Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Computer Hacking in RPGs


Today I will once again be speaking confidently on a subject about which I am unqualified to discuss. 

I've been thinking about hacking a lot lately. Not "hacking" like hacking a rules system. Not even "hacking" like "exploratory programming." I'm specifically talking about our favorite x-tremely kool 90's heroes who save the world by breaching computer security (and occasionally rollerblading). It's a well-known challenge of game design.

I have never actually played a cyberpunk RPG like Shadowrun or... Cyberpunk. Hacking was in Star Wars: Saga Edition but I kinda bullshitted (bullshat?) my way through those parts because I was like 16 when I ran that game. But I have read lots of different hacking rules and I've read lots of other people discussing their experiences using them, and these are my takeaways for the most common problems:

  1. It's complicated and a headache to learn, especially for the GM who has the rest of the system to learn as well.
  2. It's usually only for one player to participate in while everyone else waits on the sideline, and in Shadowrun especially is notorious for taking a really long time.
  3. Either it's realistic and confusing or it's abstracted and unsatisfying.
  4. The GM doesn't consistently integrate it into the game world, treating it almost like an afterthought.
This is really tricky because the easiest way to integrate hacking would just be to tell the players "make a hacking roll" whenever they want to cheese a device, but then there'll be a player at your table who wants to be the hacker, and they need something more in-depth in order to fulfill their fantasy.

So I have some thoughts about how to address this. Partly, this results in me creating my own loose ruleset for hacking gameplay. But also, think of this more as guidelines for how to create your own rules based on your personal design philosophy and priorities. I'm here to spotlight for you the kinds of important questions you'd want to ask and answer if you tackled this yourself. Especially the questions that'll help you avoid the kinds of mistakes that lead to something as unpopular as Shadowrun's hacking rules.

Also, prepare for some semantic satiation.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

8 Opinions about Spider-Man

Per the demands of Prismatic Wasteland, I have to write a blog post about Spider-Man. So what do I say about Spider-Man that hasn't already been said?

I decided my best bet would be to just create a shitty clickbait post with no real substance and lots of bad takes.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

HeroQuest: The Tourney of Champions

The best thing about HeroQuest is pitting your friends against one another in a vicious deathtrap!

I've just designed my first custom scenario for HeroQuest, which I intend to play with one of my board gaming groups when we meet in a few weeks. It's a big group, so I had the idea of a competitive scenario where you split the players into two teams and have them fight one another in the dungeon. I have no idea how well this will work, if it's balanced at all, if we'll be able to get through it in one session, etc. It makes use of lots of materials from all the expansions because I backed the crowdfunding campaign and got them all as rewards, and I want to try using those pieces finally. I figured I would make the zaniest funhouse dungeon I could, y'know?


Saturday, July 23, 2022

A Primer on Star Wars RPGs

If you've received a link to this article, you may have just asked the question, "what's the deal with Star Wars RPGs?" The first part of this post is a succinct overview of all the major (and some minor) options out there which cover this need.

I decided to write this because in the last two weeks, I've seen at least 4 Reddit posts and a couple Discord messages where people asked that very question, and I get tired of explaining it. So if you see someone asking that question, link them to this article.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Traits of the Mythic Underworld

The "Mythic Underworld" is a term popular in the OSR that I believe was coined by Jason Cone in Philotomy's Musings. Cone argued that the rules of OD&D can be interpreted to suggest that the "dungeons" that adventurers delve into aren't really to be understood as real, logical spaces created by normal people or natural processes. Rather, they're more like a surreal, dreamlike, and hostile realm that runs on its own twisted logic, which might be inconsistent. It gives the referee some leeway to make a contrived, game-y, "funhouse" dungeon instead of stressing about accuracy or rationality.

Much of what Cone describes are just traits of megadungeons, or even simply dungeons in general. Things like, "non-linear pathways" and "lots of connections between levels" aren't really mythic, they're just good level design. So, extracting from his original writings on the matter, here are the traits he identifies that are actually mythic (in my view):

  1. It's so large it might have infinite levels.
  2. The deeper you go, the more dangerous it is.
  3. Its layout may change over time.
  4. Doors are locked/stuck for PCs by default, but automatically swing open for monsters.
  5. Related, it is shrouded in darkness, but all monsters have infravision.
    • It should be noted that when a monster is persuaded to join the party, they lose these two privileges! This strongly suggests that the space itself is intentionally rewriting its own rules to oppose the players.
  6. Torches and whatnot might be randomly blown out by a strong gust of wind, despite the fact that you're deep underground in, like, a tomb or something.
And... that's it. I always thought this idea was much cooler in theory than in reality. I agree with Cone that this is really the only reasonable way to interpret the rules, but I always wanted there to be more. So I've compiled some:
  1. Party incurs fatigue/stress the longer they spend in the dungeon (taken from Basic D&D).
  2. Rations spoil once you enter the dungeon (BECMI D&D, thanks to ktrey from d4caltrops.com)
  3. When the players open treasure, monsters might pop out of the walls, generated from thin air (taken from the board game HeroQuest).
  4. Monsters don't exist until the players first observe them. Thus, exploration should be slow and methodical or else the players will too quickly surround themselves in monsters (also taken from HeroQuest).
  5. The monsters cannot set off traps (HeroQuest again but I wonder if this might be encoded in D&D somewhere in its history).
  6. The scenery and room features attack you (countless haunted house media, but in this case I was inspired by the 2006 movie Monster House).
  7. Stairs turn into ramps, doors start randomizing where they lead to, hallways become endless, secret doors appear and then disappear (no, I don't mean they become hidden again. I mean they stop existing), etc. (more haunted house shenanigans).
  8. Weird M.C. Escher gravity rules.
  9. Advanced Darkness.
  10. Every hall keeps leading back into the same room no matter what, and it's full of horrible doppelgangers (the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks).
  11. Doors to rooms that would overlap each other, doors into rather thin walls, windows to the outside world in an interior room, doors/windows/entrances moving which side of the room they’re on, etc. (the Overlook Hotel from The Shining).
It's a start. Now of course, I don't necessarily advocate only using the Mythic Underworld. I quite enjoy "reasonable," well thought-out dungeons. But if you're going to make a Lynchian funhouse, then you should commit. In the Mythic Underworld, the dungeon is a living organism and the PCs are an infection. It has its own natural immune system that wants to drive them out. For the PCs to feel as though they're fighting the environment itself, I think it needs to put up a better fight.


Sunday, June 26, 2022

Stranger Things and "Puzzle Monsters"

[This post will contain spoilers for Stranger Things up through season 4]
The best monsters are not merely a big sack of hit points you hack-n-slash your way through because of a random encounter table. No, they're something more. They have qualities possible only through the conceits of fantasy. They challenge your brain just as much as your stats and dice. They stick in the mind. They're not just a one-and-done encounter. They're grounded in the world and its rules, and can't be understood merely with numbers. And maybe most of all, they're robust enough that reckoning with them is the whole adventure, or at least could be the whole adventure.

A very popular piece of advice in the OSR is "Just Use Bears." The basic argument is that, "monsters which don't have elaborate special abilities could probably be represented sufficiently with the stat block of a bear, since the minutiae of individual stats rarely has a significant enough impact on a fight to be worth the trouble of always having a custom stat block prepared."

As practical advice, this is good. But in spirit, I feel like it's a concession. A failure. If you're using a monster that could be substituted with a bear, then maybe you shouldn't even have that monster at all. Monsters should be special. You could be running a better game where you never use that advice. Not because it's bad, but because you've made monsters good enough that the advice isn't applicable.

To illustrate what I'm calling "puzzle monsters," we're going to go through the monsters used in the Netflix show Stranger Things as well as some examples I've created for my own adventure scenarios. After that, I'll walk you through the steps I take to create a puzzle monster, and other considerations that help a lot in the creative process.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Tabletop is Theatre, Videogames are Film

Theatre and film are intimately linked mediums of artistic expression. They use many of the same core ingredients (visual, sound and dialogue, time, performance) and even employ most of the same optional conventions (experienced in a single sitting lasting a couple hours, uses non-diegetic music, usually presents the action in its own space and told in roughly real-time for most or all scenes, etc.). Obviously there are exceptions where one medium is used to do something quite different, such as documentary for film or an interactive murder mystery dinner theatre for the stage. But they are closely related media, with film arguably descended directly from theatre. Early film even copied most of theatre's conventions, such as all the action taking place on a "stage" viewed from a single, fixed camera angle straight-on, as though the screen at the movies was meant to be used as an illusion to replicate the "stage" that the audience was used to sitting in front of.
This clip is from King John, filmed in 1899. When movies were new, one of the first things they did with it is adapt Shakespeare, naturally. But as with all art, eventually film went on to discover its own strengths, doing things that you can't do with theatre.