Sunday, November 19, 2023

Action Mysteries

Mystery scenarios are probably the second-most popular genre of gameplay in RPGs after dungeoncrawling. Despite this, quite frustratingly, most detective-y games don't provide much support for facilitating the actual act of investigation. Call of Cthulhu, for example, just has a skill system for resolving basic tasks, much like any game would. Same with Delta Green, same with Blade Runner, same with Liminal Horror.

But even if the most popular options dodge such a big question, there's actually a lot of existing literature on the subject of running mystery games. Tools, techniques, and advice abound (mostly in the blogosphere).

Some offer techniques for robust level design. The Justin Alexander famously has the Three Clue Rule and Node-Based Scenario Design. The disgraced Zak S wrote about Hunter/Hunted and Investigations-as-Dungeons.

Others give advice for refining the act of inspecting and uncovering information itself with smarter adjudication. Alexander also described his Matryoshka Search Technique which is a simple trick. Mindstorm wrote a post called Ransacking the Room which I find utterly brilliant. DIY & Dragons gave us Landmark, Hidden, Secret which I'm pretty sure Nintendo must have studied very closely to make the last couple of Zelda games.

Sean McCoy has argued that the answer lies in smart visual information design. Give the player a literal tool that helps them solve a mystery. I took a class in college called "intelligence analysis techniques" that had a lot of very gameable things I think could be a great foundation for a system (timelines, network diagrams, cross-impact matrices, analysis of competing hypotheses, etc.).

Still others reinvent the genre entirely by way of novel game design. Robin Laws built the GUMSHOE system to bypass the issue of players missing clues, which was further iterated on in Cthulhu Dark by adding some dice. The game Brindlewood Bay relies on "quantum mysteries" that everyone co-authors as they go along, which Prismatic Wasteland has also described.

Alice is Missing is a totally unique example because it's built around gamifying one specific mystery and set of ingredients that go into it, having players draw cards from preset decks in order to form the truth as they're discovering it.

The world of video gaming has plenty of insights, too. Game Maker's Toolkit has a really nice video identifying three types of detective challenge: investigation (uncovering and collecting information), contradiction (noticing inconsistencies and flaws in information), and deduction (interpreting available information to extrapolate new information).

These are all perfectly cromulent additions to the collective body of RPG detective theory. I am here today to offer a modest contribution of my own to that corpus. I'm going to refer to it as an Action Mystery.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Imaginary Roller Coasters

Long ago, a theorist named Wolfgang Iser writing on the subject of literary anthropology came up with a concept that's very valuable in game design: the distinction between free play and instrumental play. It's how you answer the question "why are you doing the thing you're doing?" during play. When your answer to that question is, "because I felt like it" or "because it's funny" or anything about its intrinsic appeal, then you're engaging in free play. When your answer is "because it's what I should do" or "because it's how you win" or anything about pursuing a goal, then you're engaging in instrumental play.

Picture Bob watching Alice play a video game. Alice is getting really frustrated with a hard challenge, or like, spending hours doing something monotonous and repetitive. Bob asks "why are you still playing that game if you aren't enjoying it? That's such a waste of time when you could be doing something you find fun instead." It's easy to see Bob's point. But if you've ever been an Alice, you probably understand that a person can be motivated to do something unenjoyable if it's in service to a desired outcome. The process might not be fun, but winning is fun. Or leveling up, or unlocking collectibles, or getting every ending, or whatever.

In short: this is why Minecraft has a survival mode and a sandbox mode. Some people genuinely do not understand the appeal of survival and others don't understand the appeal of sandbox.

Let's talk a bit more about this and how it ties into RPGs specifically.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Medusa and the Gorgons

Poster for Possession (1981) by Basha AKA mythic Polish
graphic artist Barbara Baranowska.
Long ago, in ages past, I warned you there'd be more art posts. Today you get to see my collection of artwork depicting Medusa or the other gorgons known from classical mythology. Some people get annoyed that D&D has always referred to the monster as "a medusa" instead of treating that as a proper name, but I don't really care either way. All I know is that this is one of my all-time favorite monsters, and one which I am in terrible danger of over-using.

Once again, I'll put in some effort to credit properly and maybe provide additional notes as I can. If you have more artwork that you like, I'd love to see it as well. Some of the art in here is obligatory historical inclusions, some are genuinely brilliant, and some just have a unique variation on the basic design.

For this post, we can also go in (roughly) chronological order, starting with the original Ancient Greek artwork. It gets better and better the further we get, though. You can just look at the pictures if you like (that is what this post is for, of course), but if you like art history/criticism then I'll go ahead and provide some amateur supplemental details. I'm not learned on the matter, I'm just enthusiastic.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Nested Tasks

[This post contains mid-sized spoilers for the video game Breath of the Wild and the RPG adventure In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe]

Your quest is to awaken the slumbering elf king by bringing him the fairy stone. To do that, you must journey to the ancient shrine of Cernunnos, now controlled by orcs deep within their dark, industrial colony. You get behind enemy lines, sneak past orc armies, kill some scouts, steal their maps, and locate the shrine. Once at the shrine, you have a dungeon to clear out. There's a sequence of rooms you discover, soon finding the fairy stone. It's locked behind the Hart Gate, an ornate lattice fence shaped like a stag. You'll need a series of keys, each one hanging from a branch of its antlers so you can unlock the gate. That means exploring the maze of trials and secrets throughout the shrine. In each room of the shrine, there's monsters and orc patrols, puzzles and riddles, traps and hazards, secret treasures, imprisoned civilians to free, and weird magic stuff to play with.

Room < Dungeon < Hexcrawl

The above adventure doesn't exist. But the broad strokes are familiar. All adventures are a sequence of tasks. But the way those tasks are organized goes a long way in shaping the whole thing. There's a hierarchy. Every room of the dungeon presents a short-term task. You start a combat encounter with some orcs, and for the next stretch of playtime that is the task you are performing. But those are all contained in the context of the dungeon task, which you're also performing simultaneously. It's not just a series of arbitrary, disconnected episodes. There's a through line tying it together. Collect the keys to unlock the gate and get the MacGuffin. That's a mid-term task you began when you entered the dungeon and which you completed after finishing a bunch of the rooms. But the dungeon is not the full story, either. It's also a piece of a greater context. Doing the dungeon is just the middle task in the hexcrawl. Getting to the dungeon was a series of tasks, as is getting back from the dungeon. All of those hexcrawl tasks, with the dungeon task in the middle, comprise a long-term task. And it's that long-term task that is the true "quest."

This probably sounds obvious, but I have a theory.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Least Interesting Type of Crunch

As I'm sure you well know, not all crunch is the same. It can be broadly useful to know if you generally prefer less crunch or more crunch. But it helps a lot to feel out the nuance of the issue. I myself don't often identify as preferring "rules lite" games anymore because I have to admit that there's actually some very crunchy games I love. My own design certainly leans lite, but I know confidently that I'm no true minimalist. I can sink my teeth into rules and procedures, so long as they're the right kinds. But I think I've discovered the one category of crunch that I find the least interesting overall. And I'm sure many of you out there will vehemently disagree.

Rules, resources, and procedures that complicate basic task resolution do basically nothing for me 99% of the time. I cannot get excited over this sort of thing. And the worst part is, this is also the focus of, like, 75+ percent of all RPG design discussion. Just go onto and see how much of it is literally just talking about dice mechanics.

Don't get me wrong. I'm well versed in this area. I can talk about it for fucking days. Right now, off the top of my head, I can name and explain at least 20 different core mechanics from RPGs I've seen or read or played. I can tell you all about the strengths and weaknesses of d20s, d6s, 2d6s, d%, or whatever. Binary pass/fail? Variable difficulty or static difficulty, then? Or what about noting margins of success? Or if you're a PbtA fan, gradations of success then? Please. Roll-under or roll-over? How about roll-under blackjack? Hell, some games exclusively use contested rolls for all checks. And yet, others have exclusively player-facing rolls. Dice pools are cool, but you know what's cooler? Measuring attributes in die sizes themselves. But I'm sure some of you enlightened ones are about to preach the gospel of narrative dice, or FUDGE dice, or Zocchi dice. And how do we feel about modifiers? +/- X is a bit clunky, but we could go back to matrices. Advantage/Disadvantage is pretty slick, but have you heard of Boons and Banes? Personally, I really like Momentum from the 2d20 engine. Effort dice to deal "damage" to a task is cool, too. But sometimes you just gotta go for exploding dice, right? And yet, is anything more elegant than two attributes sharing a single stat, as in Lasers & Feelings? We haven't even touched criticals and fumbles, either. Oh Jesus Christ how the fuck do you begin to explain FASERIP??

And yet... I don't give a shit. I just don't care. If the most interesting part of a game is its dice mechanic then I probably won't be able to get into it.

I recently tried looking up "gimmick mechanics" in RPGs. Y'know, little pieces of design that aren't exactly foundational or revolutionary, but which still make you go "oh that's cute." I love gimmick mechanics. I wanted to collect a list. On occasion I'll revisit it, and maybe consider bolting one or two of these gimmicks onto whatever project I'm working on that week. And the list is coming along okay. But you know what I found in my search? Almost exclusively fucking dice mechanic variations. Things that just interact with the probability of success or failure at basic tasks.
  • D&D 5E has inspiration. Do a cool thing, DM gives you advantage. Spend it to get free advantage to one die roll. Only 1 inspiration at a time, so you better use it.
  • Fate has fate points. Everyone starts with a pool of fate points they can spend to either get +2 on a roll or to re-roll, whichever would be better. But to spend it, you need to invoke one of your traits and make it relevant to the fiction somehow.
  • Paranoia: Red Clearance Edition has the Computer Dice. It's the one die you always get to roll in your dice pool no matter what, but gets weird if it rolls the computer symbol. You gotta erase a point of Moxie and see how Friend Computer intervenes, which could be helpful or harmful.
  • Savage Worlds has the wild die, exploding dice, and bennies to spend for dice re-rolls. Do I have to explain all three? Go look it up.
  • Blades in the Dark has the "devil's bargain," where the player can add an extra die to their dice pool in exchange for a narrative complication.
  • Kult: Divinity Lost has relation inspiration. You have certain character relationships that are valuable to you. Then, whenever you can invoke the power of one of these relationships during a roll, you can get a bonus on it. Lifting a car to free someone underneath is difficult, but it's less difficult if the person is your own child.
  • Lots of Free League games include the "push" mechanic. Take some damage for the chance to re-roll some dice.
  • Troika! has an attribute called Luck. It's used in all sorts of places, usually just to see if things "go in your favor." But every time you test your luck, it lowers by 1 no matter what.
  • Call of Cthulhu has both a spendable Luck stat and a "pushing the roll" mechanic, which cannot interact with each other!
  • Every Star Wars RPG has had some kind of metacurrency. The 80's WEG one has "force points" The 00's WotC one has both "force points" and "destiny points." The 10's FFG one has "destiny points." All of these work differently. All of them are something you earn by being cool and you spend to make things work out better.
I'll admit that Dread really did something special in this area. But it's a rare sort of innovation.

The folks at Critical Role are currently coming out with a new game of their own. You may have heard of it. It's called Candela ObscuraHere's a video of a developer explaining the basics. I watched it. It seems like a fine game to me. I'm sure lots of folks will have a blast. But I just can't get past how much shit is involved in basic task resolution. To recap:

You have a score from 0-3 for each Action, determining how many dice you get in your pool when you roll that Action. Actions are nested in categories called Drives. When you roll an Action, you can also spend points to add extra dice from the pool attached to its parent Drive. You refresh Drive points by using one of your Gilded Actions. When rolling a Gilded Action, you replace a die in your pool with a Gilded die and can choose to take its result instead. Even though it may be worse, it at least restores a Drive point. And you also have Resistances, which you can spend to re-roll dice when you fail a roll.

Dear god that is so fucking boring. What could justify this degree of overthinking dice rolling?

I think one thing I've found during all my years running and playing games is that I want basic task resolution to be as quick and seamless as possible. I get unreasonably annoyed even just when one of my players takes 10 seconds to find the right die to roll, or they're struggling to type out the exact roll command on a VTT. Hell, I announce difficulty classes out loud when I call for a roll in the vain hope that I can maybe get the player to skip a couple steps and instead answer me with a simple "I succeeded" or "I failed."

I'm not an FKR purist, mind you. I enjoy that style of play, but I do prefer the uncertainty that dice can add to the equation. It's a crucial piece of design for me. I am pro-dice. But it's an ingredient of the design where I firmly believe that less is more.

Every piece of crunch you add has a cost. A cost in how much brainpower it takes to learn, to teach, to remember, to use. The essential tradeoff is to make sure that crunch is able to add something really valuable to the game in spite of that cost. I try to only add crunch in the parts of the experience that I think have the most potential for interesting decision-making. And in my opinion, "will I be successful at the thing?" is one of the most shallow questions to ask for inspiring decision-making opportunities.


Monday, August 21, 2023

Samwell Tarly the Slayer vs Ghost the Good Doggo

D&D didn't forget about or abandon followers, flunkies, and lackies. They merely evolved. Adapted to selection pressures, now built for a different ecosystem. Now D&D has animal buddies. And there's actually a lot to this, I swear.

The two most popular kinds of sidekick are followers and pets. I want to use general terms here because old schoolers will get hung up on the distinctions between hirelings, henchmen, and retainers while new schoolers will get hung up on the distinctions between animal companions, mounts, familiars, and other summons. But that's missing the point.

Obviously, both old school D&D and new school D&D can and do make use of both followers and pets. But they definitely each have a preference. Modern DMs have to choose to add followers into the game, often because they specifically want to add a pinch of old school! And old-minded DMs rarely are prepared for when their younger players inevitably ask to have a pet, and at best might homebrew some "animal taming" procedure to feel better about it. I'm just here to point out that each one is better adapted to the norms and expectations of each play culture, yet are fundamentally variants of the same basic thing.

Followers are better suited to old school play because they're good for carrying items and holding light sources. Modern D&D doesn't care about either of those things. They're also a great backup character if your PC dies. But as far as modern D&D is concerned, an unplanned PC death is basically a complete fail state. It's like the worst thing that could possibly happen in the game and it means that someone, probably the DM, supremely and unforgivably fucked up. Followers are also an active agent to some degree, with their own motive, voice, and concerns about what they're sent to do and how they're treated. This holds potential for interesting social conflict, but it's a type of conflict that modern D&D doesn't have much interest in exploring or validating. Whereas an old school adventurer has to make a choice about whether they're abusive or fair to their followers, modern D&D would simply rather not allow them the opportunity to be abusive to anyone at all.

Pets are better suited to new school play because they don't have motives or agency or much of a voice. They can instead act as a fun accessory for their PC, making them look cooler. Remember, the PCs are much more the focal point of the game nowadays. Time and attention are finite resources, so anytime an NPC is getting the spotlight, it comes at the direct expense of the PCs. Followers are also more mechanically complicated. Pets are simple to run, which is good because PCs are now more complicated to run than in olden times. A pet can just be an extension of the PC, not unlike a mage hand. Of course, they can have personality. The players who want pets the most would all agree that the best part about a pet is when they're cute and fun and charming. There aren't many folks interested in a pet strictly for its practical benefits. That said, they do still have those!

The main utility a pet has in modern D&D is to serve as scouts and spies. That's a type of challenge that remains relevant in modern play, and my own group has to send out a pet to do some reconnaissance almost every single session. The second most common practical use for pets is to have them harass your opponents in battle so you can get advantage on your attack roll. This is a bit cheesy, but the prevailing ruling among the 5E community is to allow this idea (admittedly, probably mostly just so you can placate the player who really really likes their pet and wants it to be involved). Pet as an easy source of advantage means you don't have to be as clever about tactics. No need to work together with your fellow PCs (individual initiative is a modern design choice that already makes that less viable), no need to leverage the environment, no need to really read your opponent for their weaknesses. Just press the "activate pet advantage" button and move on to your attack roll.

I know this all makes me sound curmudgeonly and dramatic, but I sincerely like both of these playstyles and see the value in how each of these sidekick types complement them respectively. Followers make sense if the focus of the game is on navigating a landscape of complex, interactive challenge elements. Pets make sense if the focus of the game is to serve as a terrarium for your blorbos. But of course, everyone who's ever adopted the goblin NPC as a mascot for their party knows that followers can still satisfy blorbo appeal, and everyone who's sought out to tame a unicorn so you can have a powerful mount knows that pets can be treated as a very gameable asset even a rugged adventurer could see the use in.


Sunday, August 13, 2023

Brave, Final Edition

Here is a link to my hack of Ben Milton's minimalist RPG, Knave 1E. Here is the word document version. You can download this and then edit the text directly. This game was made using two free fonts (Sebaldus-Gotisch and Crimson Text). You'll want to install those so the formatting is retained in the document version. Just like the original, I recommend you print it out. Finally, here is a character sheet for it. If you want the original file to tinker with, you can copy it from this.

I started working on this in early 2019. It began, more or less, as just the houserules I found myself adding to Knave as I played it. Like many folks, I basically never run any game completely by the book. In time, I added more and more of my own content. It grew ambitious. And clunky. And generally kinda bad. I haven't touched Brave since mid 2021. What started as a break from the project turned into a terrible realization that I was out of my depth and had been making bad mistakes built upon worse mistakes.

But Brave still gets linked to a lot online. In nearly any conversation about Knave hacks, it gets brought up. So as long as people out there are looking for a version of this game that has my special touch on it, I still want to offer this. This has been streamlined to just the simplest, cleanest, and best modifications I've made to the game. Steal as much or as little from it as you like. I expect most folks have moved on to Knave 2E anyway. I'd also recommend Cairn or Errant. And keep an eye out for His Majesty the Worm when it releases.

As for the rest of my work... I'll revisit it at some point down the road. There's some interesting design that happened along the way. It would be a shame to let the good bits go to waste. I'll sift through the wreckage at some point, pick out the stuff worth salvaging, and figure out what I can do with it later. I'll keep everything up on my blog for posterity, but I don't recommend anyone bother with it.

Here is a list of differences between Brave and Knave 1E:

Monday, August 7, 2023

Clashing, Continued

Some people think my posts are too long, and I should try breaking them up more. I've tried many times, it usually goes poorly. Here's another attempt. This post is the follow-up to my previous post "Clashing, Not Attacking." In that post, I proposed a basic concept. In this post, I'm going to elaborate.

Warning: this is a very technical design post hashing out an experimental mechanic in great depth. If you're the kind of person who enjoys seeing the full thought process behind mechanics, this is for you. I'd especially appreciate input from folks like that. Everyone else... this might be dry, even for me.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Clashing, Not Attacking

Anyone here into HEMA-tube? Yeah, I bet you are. You fucking denegerates. You love LindyBeige. You probably have some others you watch, too. That part of YouTube is the center of more RPG nerd attention than actual RPG YouTube. You may have even gotten into HEMA yourself!

In the words of my friend Pollux, "every HEMA dude eventually tries to write a system that truly captures the beauty and subtlety of combat, all of which have sucked."

They are correct. And today, I am that HEMA dude.

I mean, not actually. I'm not terribly interested in realism for realism's sake. Combat rules are a loose simulation of real-world violence, and the best combat rules are going to make it a simple and streamlined simulation. You just can't include all the variables which realistically could make a difference. If you ask real-life melee combat experts, they'll tell you that weapon length was a really important factor back in ancient and medieval warfare. Does D&D care? Nah, that's not really accounted for. Some things just have to get left on the cutting room floor, okay? In many ways, what makes one combat ruleset different from another is the variables it chooses to simulate and how.

What I care about is interesting game design, and real life often provides great inspiration for this. It's important to just remember not to get carried away with simulationism. And in this case, I've spent a while thinking about something I see get a lot of focus in HEMA theory that I think is gameable.

In traditional D&D combat, every participant is an isolated, discrete agent who can target all other agents in symmetrical fashion. D&D doesn't even have rules for what direction your facing. But in fencing, two combatants become entangled with one another. They are not trading attacks, taking turns attempting to strike one another. Instead, they engage in a phrase (to borrow the modern fencing term). This is an exchange where both participants are trying to attack and defend simultaneously. Either one could win the exchange. And while dueling, they very much are entangled on the battlefield. If you play enough D&D combat with a grid and minis, at some point it feels like maybe two people in a swordfight should be occupying the same space.

I have an idea for how to reinvent attacking in D&D.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

This one's for all the aspiring Matt Mercers out there

This is the secret technique that you wouldn't find in "How I Run The Table." This one weird trick will supercharge your game and maximize player satisfaction. I call it...

The Family Guy-Style Cutaway Gag

All you Blades in the Dark fanboys can go blow yourselves, because flashbacks are for pussies. This is how real game masters spice up narrative flow. Allow me to teach it to you, if you can handle it.

Look at yourself. You're pathetic. You aren't funny. You're a gamer. But you're on the spot, your friends are waiting, and they expect to be entertained. How in all your hopeless ineptitude can you possibly make them laugh? Are you good at improv? Can you do impressions? Of course not. But all you need is your new best friend:

The rogue is probing the lock on the chest when he hears a sharp click. Family Guy-style cutaway to the elder lich watching you through his crystal ball at the center of the dungeon, saying to himself, "oh this is gunna be good."

Boom. Knocks em dead, every time. Instant laughter. Adulation. Dare I even say worship.

You want verisimilitude in your game? What better way to remind the players that the imagined world exists and lives independently of their PCs than by literally narrating as much.

You want character development? Worldbuilding? A threatening villain? Then interrupt your dumb players and tell them about it. Throw whatever scene at them you want, whenever you want.

You want your players to take a more active role in storytelling, filling out the world, and bringing it to life? I promise you, whether you like it or not, once you start using the Family Guy-style cutaway, your players will begin doing it too.

Now I cannot stress this enough: you have to verbally say "Family Guy-style cutaway" each time you use this technique. It's how you indicate to the players that you're doing it, so you can transition into the gag. If you don't, how will they know what the fuck is happening? Trust me, nobody ever gets used to this technique, probably because it's so refreshing and clever. So make sure you announce it because it can be difficult for your players to follow along if they aren't as smart as you.

I use the Family Guy-style cutaway gag every time I ever run a game, and also frequently in regular conversation and sometimes while I'm alone too. It's by far the most reliable way to maintain a smooth flow of play and active engagement from your players.

Better yet, make your players reveal their backstories exclusively through the use of comedically-timed Family Guy-style cutaways. They don't get to share it all up front. They have to wait for somebody to say, "Wait, you don't know how to swim?" so they can cutaway to some embarassing childhood experience where they got laughed out of the public pool. And if you aren't proactive enough, the other players will develop your character for you. "Wait, these NPCs all know your wife already?" Trust me, you don't want to wait and let the other players give that an explanation with their own cutaway gag.

Worried about splitting the party? Fret not. It's just an advanced application of the Family Guy-style cutaway technique. Jumping back and forth between two or more groups of players can and should always be paced according to comedic timing and situational irony.

If you really want to impress your players, you can level up your cutaways by breaking the fourth wall. Provide meta commentary on the action not by speaking out of character, but by employing a Family Guy-style cutaway in character which describes you and your players at the table, making an observation about the events in the game. That kind of self-referential layering of the experience is what people play D&D for.

This is, without exaggeration, the defining difference between true masters of the game and sad, bumbling, incoherent fools saddled with a responsibility far too great for their inadequate faculties of storytelling and drama.


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Christmas Adventures

[What better time for such a post than July 5?]

Because I make Halloween adventures, I have often been asked, "are you going to make a Christmas adventure next?"

The short answer is no. But because I've been asked so many times, I've put a lot of thought into it. Here's my full answer.

The first and most important reason why I wouldn't is that I don't really like Christmas. Some years I'm in more of a "it's just not for me" mood, but other years I can get pretty Grinch-y. And so I wouldn't really be the right person for the job. I hope that anyone who reads or plays Tricks & Treats can tell that I fucking love Halloween. But if I'm correct and that shows through in the finished work, then surely my lack of love for Christmas would show in any attempt I make at a Christmas adventure. It deserves to be made by someone who has enough passion to do the task justice.

But I also have a weirder, less convincing reason why. A train of thought where I've talked myself into believing that, ackchyually, a Christmas adventure would be inherently inferior to a Halloween adventure for XYZ reasons!

Friday, June 30, 2023

How I Run the Table

After this post, Josh encouraged me to write about some of my "soft skills" of GMing. I talk a lot about game design and scenario design. I pretty rarely talk about how I personally run my games. I've never felt confident enough that I'm qualified to really talk about such things. But in the last month I wrote that post about how I do NPCs and I've been working on the GMing advice section of the Tricks & Treats rulebook. So let me copy/paste some of what I wrote and see if it resonates. Keep in mind that a lot of this is written specifically in the context of a game about going on Halloween-y adventures. I'll try to avoid the usual advice you see everywhere. "Be consistent, reward creativity, telegraph danger, blablabla" yeah if you're reading this blog then you've already heard that stuff before.

Monday, June 5, 2023

People Are Problems: NPCs as Challenge Elements

Before we get started, I swear I'm not a sociopath.

I don't think of NPCs in the same way that most other GMs do. If you're new to the hobby, you'll find no shortage of tips and tricks on "how to make amazing NPCS!" And for many GMs, a well-crafted NPC is literally their favorite part of the game. Here's an article DM David wrote called "how to create loveable non-player characters," which, in my experience, is very typical of the sorts of advice you commonly see. He advocates that your NPCs should...

  1. Be distinctive
  2. Be flawed
  3. Be relatable
  4. Be useful
  5. Be authentic and vulnerable
  6. Struggle
  7. Ask for help
  8. Show warmth
  9. Show admiration
  10. Be entertaining
  11. Be optimistic

That sounds nice and all, but it is not how I roll. If I happen to make an NPC memorable, believable, three-dimensional, and beloved by the players, then that's a happy accident I'll gladly accept. But my goals are a bit different.

To me, an NPC is essentially the same thing as a trap, puzzle, monster, or magic item. They are simply another asset in my toolbox for crafting obstacles and opportunities to challenge my players. The reason it's hard to think of them through that lens is because... well, for one thing, they're people. But also because they are the most flexible and potent tool for crafting challenges, so all-encompassing in their possible design purposes that it's hard to make any generalizations about them. But today I'll share a few things I know.

Monday, April 10, 2023

The Genres the OSR Can't Do

If you only ever listened to annoying AD&D fanboys, you might think that the OSR is strictly about crawling through big megadungeons as sword and sorcery murderhobos. But no community should be defined by its worst gatekeepers. The very fact that they suggest the OSR to be anything other than a manufactured revisionist narrative is reason enough for them to be suspect. To me, the OSR is an enduring illusion in large part because it's a very flexible culture of play. And I feel that despite its reputation for being notoriously difficult to define, "old school play" is still pretty cohesive and compelling.

I usually find myself on the side arguing for an expansive definition. "Renaissance," not "revival." The most important non-D&D game in the OSR lineage is Traveller and its relatives, and indeed, moderately-hard sci fi is a cornerstone genre in this space. So too are noir / investigation games and horror games. The genres often get blended together (Lamentations of the Flame PrincessMothership, Electric BastionlandEsoteric Enterprises, and Liminal Horror come to mind) but they just as often remain separate! Perhaps these four genres are simply the cornerstones of all RPGs. The most robust and reliable ones you can emulate in nearly any play culture. Remember, Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness have historically been the biggest serious competitors to D&D globally.

Despite this, I've recently been thinking about some things that have got me feeling out the borders of what can count as "OSR." This is a rare occasion when I'll be the one standing guard at the gate. But more interesting than that, I aim to discuss why these outsider genres can still be very exciting anyway for someone with OSR-inclinations like myself, even if they're "incompatible" with my default preferences.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Forgotten Fire Bird of Castle Greyhawk

I haven't blogged in awhile, but I've still been spending a lot of my time on D&D-related things. I recently had an experience I simply have to share. I got a hold of some obscure and fascinating records from early TSR, honest-to-goodness RPG buried treasure.

Behold, the Alicanto, AKA Gary Gygax's "Dresden Bird":

Allow me to elaborate.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Spoiler-Free Review of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I just got out of an advanced screening of the D&D movie. It was better than I expected. Not great, but good. I have a lot of very negative things to say, but does anyone want to hear that? Maybe you'll enjoy hearing about some things I enjoyed (without spoilers, of course).

There are many moments in this movie that felt very authentic to the experience of playing an RPG. I don't really give a shit if it "wouldn't work in 5E." If anything, it was a pleasant surprise whenever I saw something that is in 5E. But leave it to a bunch of pedantic, joyless nerds to dwell on the accuracy of rules. This movie understood the far more important thing to get right: what it's like to play an adventure with your friends. Everyone brought a delicately-crafted snowflake PC to the table with some backstory prepared, maybe didn't read up on all the class features they have, sometimes forgot the magic items they got, created stupid running jokes throughout the campaign, and were doing their best to say badass one-liners and funny quips despite being a bunch of nerds sitting around someone's parents' dinner table.

In the first half of the movie, a criticism in the back of my head was, "this is a very mid D&D campaign." The Forgotten Realms remains a garbage setting, and this movie does nothing to redeem it. The DM definitely came up in the modern, story-focused tradition of running the game in "scenes" that they've strung together with some excuse plot which the players are asked not to depart from. The PCs are neither cliche nor are they creative. They are the exact sort of forgettable class+race+tragic backstory combos that most first-time D&D players come up with. "Tiefling druid raised by elves whose motivation is some vague thing about wanting to protect nature, but is still pliable enough that they'll work in the DM's campaign without much friction." A big part of me wished that it was more like, y'know, a good campaign. Maybe even a great campaign.

In the second half, I began to appreciate the value in it being, like, an extremely generic campaign instead. Because that's what most people who play D&D are going to experience. They'll run some shittily-made WotC 5E module set in the Sword Coast with a forgettable villain, listen to (and forget) tons of lore and backstory that both does-and-doesn't matter, and then, every once in awhile... they get to actually play. They're thrown into a scene with a weird and tricky problem to overcome, and they start trying to solve it. They debate, make plans, leverage their resources, make some hilariously stupid suggestions, and eventually succeed through a combination of lucky die rolls and genuinely good ideas, the kind that only D&D players can come up with.

Asking whether or not the movie is good is a bit useless. I have a far more interesting question.

Every now and then someone asks about what movies and shows "feel the most like D&D." The most commonly-agreed upon answers usually aren't high fantasy works like Lord of the Rings or Willow. Rather, they're the ones about characters going on quests, using their noggins to solve problems, usually working as a team, and overall just seem to be tackling challenges that feel like the sorts of thing a DM would cook up to entertain their friends for the evening. Tremors, The Expanse, Jim Henson's LabyrinthThe Mandalorian, Big Trouble in Little China, those sorts of things.

My one thing I was hoping for more than anything else is if this movie would be a fitting answer to that question. "What movies feel the most like playing D&D?" And it actually was.

Overall I rate it a 1/10, because it only had one dwarf in it.


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

I Remember My First Time

Noisms wants to hear stories about your first time playing an RPG. Unfortunately, I don't think mine is particularly interesting. 

I was onboarded to the hobby by my older brothers, one of whom is my co-writer on this blog. I was in 6th grade, making me about 11 or 12. It was 2008, the year of 4th Edition D&D's release. My brother had several years of experience with 3.5 Edition but was closely following 4E's development and was ready to make the transition like any loyal fan would. So he put a copy of the 4E PHB in my hands and told me to read it. I have a short attention span, especially when it comes to reading (ironic, I know). But I slogged through the main bits over a few days.

Then, my brothers helped me make a PC using the character builder software that WotC put out for 4E, since their game plan also involved heavy use of digital tools. We all remember how that worked out, right? I made an Eladrin Paladin who worshipped Bahamut. I think his name was Conall, since I looked up Celtic names.

My other siblings all made characters so that we'd have a party of four. My oldest sibling, who had all the experience, DMd a single session for us. I remember it being really fun, but I was a little kid who had to be coached through most of it. I never quite got a handle on the rules. I could only really approach the game with a "play pretend" mindset, which my brother translated into the rules for me. Which is, of course, still a very popular philosophy of play.

I remember that all my siblings played as various shady characters, whereas I was of course a goody two-shoes. It was a classic "here's a contrived excuse for how you all meet each other and become a team" first session. The setup was that all the other PCs were in prison but were going to be put on a release program under my supervision, a fledgling paladin. In hindsight, appointing the youngest sibling as the "leader" was doomed to failure anyway. Then our meeting was interrupted by a goblin raid on the town, so we stepped outside and had a combat encounter. I distinctly remember a crowd of goblins (who I now know were "minions," mechanically speaking) surrounded me, made a bunch of attacks, and all missed. Their blows just bounced off my armor with a pitiful tink tink tink tink sound. I remember that exact description almost 15 years later because it made me feel awesome. Then I killed all of them in a couple rounds, since I probably had some kind of cleave-like area-of-effect attack.

Shortly after this, my older brother was quickly disillusioned with 4E and decided to switch to the also-brand-new Pathfinder. He asked us all to switch to the new system before our second session. I was frustrated and disappointed because I was asked to learn a new RPG already and reading is hard and learning new rules sucks and Pathfinder didn't have Eladrin.

It didn't take long before my own RPG opinions began taking shape and I, too, became a 4E hater. I also eventually became a Pathfinder hater but I do still think it's a better option for what I want out of my gaming.

This whole story is very typical, but in hindsight I see a lot of lessons learned and trends foreshadowed. I still really like playing Superman-like Lawful Goodies, I still like being a big powerful warrior in armor, I still slog through learning rules, and I still like thinking fiction-first instead of mechanics-first.

Maintaining a campaign with my siblings proved impossible. I realized soon that the only way I'd be able to play D&D was by running my own game. So I began studying Pathfinder, got together some guy friends from school, and spent a few months planning an unbelievably ambitious campaign based on Irish mythology. I ran one session of that and quickly discovered that the immaturity of 7th grade boys would guarantee my grand artistic vision would be completely ruined. But they had a lot of fun. I kept trying to start new campaigns over the next 3 years that all fizzled after one session, so most of my early history with this hobby came in the form of reading about games and game history by myself. Oh, and Order of the Stick.

I can't blame myself for making such typical mistakes when I was just in middle school, but I do really wish I hadn't wasted so much potential back then. In hindsight, I didn't truly begin playing RPGs until years after that "first time." I have a lot of criticisms of the modern norms of D&D's design and playstyle, but one of the most important has to be that... it's so geared against developing good habits as an RPG player when you're first starting out. Their design encourages you to spend more time reading and theorycrafting than playing. More time writing lore dumps, crafting all-too-serious plots, and carefully calibrating combat encounters instead of coming up with fun stuff for your friends to play with. More time investing in a perfect little original character than getting experience throwing yourself at challenges and developing those problem-solving muscles without fear of consequence. As Justin Alexander once said, asking your friend to play D&D is like asking someone if they want to join a fucking baseball league who has mandatory practice 5 days a week as an adult, when it should be more like asking someone "you want to play catch?" If I had been introduced to the hobby through something like Maze Rats, I have a feeling it would have led to a much richer experience early on and would have shaped me into a better GM in general.

Oh well. Instead you get a guy who just can't let go of Knowledge checks because he was trained by Pathfinder.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Picture Book Gameplay

I recently had a very novel experience running a game that I think has some potential that ought to be explored. Maybe someone out there has done this sort of thing and would like to share. It's a weird one.

Not too long ago, I was flattered to be asked by W.F. Smith (of Prismatic Wasteland fame) to do some playtesting for his upcoming crowd-funded adventure "zine," Barkeep on the Borderlands. The premise is simple: 200 years after the famous Keep on the Borderlands adventure from the TSR era of D&D, long after the Caves of Chaos have been cleared out by adventurers, the keep has grown into a large, bustling, cosmopolitan community. Its present-day culture and institutions of power are colored by the long history of consequences from that legendary adventure, and now your 21st-century players are invited to partake in one of the all-time great traditions celebrating that legend: six days of non-stop carousing in the Raves of Chaos. It's a barcrawl adventure with a hand-crafted town populated with lots of fun NPCs, factions, plot hooks, and 20 fully-detailed pubs.

I playtested it with three separate groups across 4 sessions, getting about 20 hours of experience running this adventure in total. I am happy to report that it was a great success, much fun was had, and valuable feedback was gained and incorporated. I recently gave high praise to one of Smith's previous, smaller adventures, and I myself originally backed the Kickstarter for Barkeep simply as a fan, not having yet really met him. Well before moving on to the main subject of this post, I'll go ahead and give a quick two thumbs up review. This adventure is dripping with that special sauce you want. I wasn't compensated in any way, save for the privilege of getting to play this adventure before anyone else on Earth. Here's a link to pre-order a copy.

But there was one pub my players went to that was a bit different.