Thursday, January 22, 2015

Turning "What did we get?" Into "Here's What You Know."

Angry’s got a pretty good rant (or, rather, how-to) on exposition. Suffice it to say, your best world-showing probably happens in the game, rather than before (though I never fail to sneak in a little via character creation, and D&D 5’s backgrounds are a great opportunity for more of that).

There are some related thoughts on ars ludi about using treasure as a method for providing exposition:

There are lots of times during a game when players are half-listening, or thinking about other things, or maybe just wandering into the kitchen to get a soda. But in the magical post-combat pre-treasure window, everyone’s attention is high, their curiosity is piqued, and they are clamoring to hear what you will say next.

Couple this with the Three Clue Rule and you shouldn’t have much trouble filling out your treasures with interesting stuff. The treasure doesn’t just include a map to the ancient elven forge, but an elven silvered dagger worn by the scholar the map was stolen from bearing his family crest on the pommel, and an ornamental lapis-and-gold bowl engraved with runes commemorating a deal between the forge and a dwarven nation which agreed to supply the forge with mithril in exchange for an even weight of brandy.

Which answers the question Zak brought up when I was trying to find where I’d read the ars ludi quote above:

I just go "…aaaaaad 5200gp worth of random fancy junk". The thing I hate is when it's like "…and 37 copper and 2 tourmalines worht 6000 each and…" like: why are we doing math for no reason and hearing random jewel names?

I’ll admit the Gygaxian Naturalist in me knows exactly why the hobgoblins have a chest full of uncut rubies, but, as Zak points out, it’s really all the same to the players. (Most of the time. My college group was big on the types of gems they were getting and using them in jewelry they designed and commissioned for themselves. But they were an exceptional bunch in many ways.)

With treasure-as-exposition, you get to eat your cake and have it too. Just be sure the exposition gives them something actionable. That is, it’s not just, “Hearken ye back to the days of yore…” and is more, “Hey, I’ll bet these elves could tell us something about the lost forge,” or “Wait a minute… these are all tools for hunting vampires. Do you think these guys knew something we don’t?”

Friday, January 16, 2015

"There's Gonna be a Rumble..."

Mr. Robertson has been contemplating urban adventures lately after flipping through the 1e DMG’s urban random encounters table (you know, the one with the wanderling harlot subtable). As per usual with 1e random tables, there’s no effort spared on encounter balance. Just as in the wilderness where 3rd level PCs could encounter ancient dragons, so too could that wandering harlot be a succubus and that old man could be a high-level wizard. So Mr. Robertson asks:

While the idea of letting players run into this range of adversaries is appealing to me, I wonder if other people have had success with this? How did you make players aware of the risk involved in the average man they meet with a sword when they could be a 0-level person, or 10th level fighter? If they are not dressed like a Lord, do not have obvious magic items, and are hanging around in a common sort of place do you give any hints to ensure the players don't unwittingly bite off more than they can chew?

Well, as long-time readers of this blog know, I’m more than happy to let my players bite off far more than they can chew anytime they feel like it. That said, my current 5e campaign is almost exclusively urban (we’ve been playing since September and I think they’ll have their first real dungeon-delve of the campaign in our next session or the one after). So I do have some recent observations to throw into the ring.

In general, I've found players avoid violence inside cities. The social repercussions are seen as too daunting. Sure, you can kick around that one-legged beggar, but if he's a member of the Beggars Guild, that means facing enforcers from the guild later, large men without necks and a pinch or two of ogre in their background and absolutely no senses of humor.

And this pretty much holds for the entire city: the pencil-necked alchemist could hire an expert duelist to call you out, the sailor just off the boat has his crew backing him up and the urchins travel in packs.

So violence, when it happens, tends to be very focused, very quick, and the PCs have to be all but pushed into it. (Of course, since we're playing 5e, that also means I've had to chunk the EXPs-for-murder mechanic the game is built around).

Now, I did front-load this by tying local knowledge into character creation, using their chosen backgrounds as opportunities to speak of the dangers of the Beggars Guild, the political alliances of the city, and tying the PCs into their own alliances (that are too useful to threaten by acting like jerks).

Another consideration going the other way, however, is the openeness of the urban environment. If they players haven't wandered into a well-planned ambush, they can almost certainly flee in multiple directions. So if they do get in over their heads, they can generally beat a hasty retreat, regroup and figure out who they need to pay off to make this problem go away.

Mr. Robertson adds:

I was thinking of the 'Rake' encounter from the DMG: 2-5 young gentlemen fighters of 5th to 10th level (d6 +4). The rakes will always be aggressive, rude, and sarcastic.

In this case, the NPCs are begging for a fight. If the PCs take the bait (the wood elf barbarian and feral, raised-by-wolves half-elf ranger in my current group absolutely would), what then?

Well, assuming they’re badly outgunned, they’re unlikely to suffer a TPK in a single assault. Even 10th level fighters can rarely do more than 20 points of a damage to a single individual in a single attack, and that’s only if they roll critical. (I think. Important caveat here: I've only played so much 5e and barbarian rage can be pretty scary.) So it’s unlikely even one PC will be KOed after the first round of combat. Even a wizard with no Constitution bonuses or defensive spells up has 14 hit points by 3rd level, and the party’s fighters will have 22 without Constitution bonuses. So they’ll get a single round of fighting at the very least where I can make clear to them the skill of their foes when describing the wounds they take. A smart party would hopefully see what’s happening and take the opportunity to flee, regroup, and plot revenge.

And if they don’t? Well, as Mr. Roberts points out, “The 5e rule where they could elect to make their attacks non-lethal might be helpful as well.” Why did the rakes start the fight? Maybe they just roll the PCs, lifting all their loose coinage and jewelry and leaving them for others (local clerics or the like) to rescue. Were they just trying to make a point to a patron or organization friendly to the PCs? Or do they drag them off for ransom? Sell them to the Temple of Shkeen? With a TPKO, the adventure’s just begun.

Friday, January 02, 2015


I haven’t heard. I have heard scuttlebutt that they’re still trying to figure it out, and I suspect that’s the case. Magazines aren’t the revenue-generation machines they used to be. With the existence of the internet, DRAGON can’t be the social hub and font-of-all-news they were back in the 21st century. Print is expensive to produce and ship; unless you plan to go the Raggi artisanal route (which is kinda the polar opposite of what we expect from a magazine, but in this age of retro-cool maybe it could work) there are better methods for delivering that sort of stuff.

For 3e, WotC farmed out production of the magazines to a third party. This created Paizo. I suspect there’s some resistance inside WotC towards going down that path again. Still, it is in keeping with farming out the production of the Tiamat adventure series to Kobold. So while I see this as terribly unlikely, I don’t see it as beyond the realm of options they’re probably looking at.

The magazines went digital in the era of 4e, serving as loss-leaders and content generators for a digital portal that was supposed to be the hub of 4e play and a strong source of revenue. Alas, about the only part that really worked was the (admittedly indispensable) character generator. With the faceplant that was the Morningstar project, I suspect D&D’s digital future is still being hashed out. If they go digital with the magazines, there’s a very good chance they’ll be attached to whatever online offerings WotC offers behind a paywall. I see this as the most likely option, but that’s assuming WotC doesn’t just throw up their hands and walk away from any sort of digital for-pay products. Their history with that sort of thing isn’t exactly festooned with success.

Which brings me to what I consider to be the most interesting option. Assuming a fairly permissive third-party publication license, DUNGEON and DRAGON could be the methods by which WotC leads and guides that sort of thing. They could serve as a sort of Manual of Style for publishers. They could be used to showcase the sort of work they’d (officially) like to see more of. The magazines could be a vehicle for publishers and designers to get their names out there. In short, they could serve as a sort of guide and ideal and possibly even imprimatur by which WotC could lead third party publishers and their customers towards the best work.

What appeals to me about this is that, as a guide-by-carrot, it won’t shut down the likes of Raggi if they decide to publish something really out there for 5e, but could possibly mitigate some of the tide of utter dross a really open publishing license is likely to unleash. However, I’m not seeing a really good way to directly monetize that sort of thing short of selling ad space (which isn’t a bad thing, mind you, just not a recipe for financial success to date). Maybe they could go the route of digital comics and sell dead-tree collections, or maybe best-of compilations as they did in the 1e days?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ok, Yeesh, I'm On It...

Fine, fine, yeah, I'm on it.

But really, what's there to say?

"There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?"

Lots of theorizing about whose voice this is. I want it to be Max von Sydow, who's supposed to be in this movie. I want to see him be the villain and go all Ming-the-Merciless on the Star Wars universe. Why not? After all, there's a direct line between Flash Gordon and Star Wars.

Then we get freaked-out Stormtrooper. My favorite explanation for him is that he got separated from his squad when he ducked behind a dune and did some Tatooine peyote.

But seriously, clearly not a clone of any Fet we've ever met. Is he a crashed Tie-pilot? A Stormtrooper who's gone AWOL? A Republican in disguise? (The Rebels won, right? So shouldn't there be a new republic? If that's the case, shouldn't the folks who used to be Rebels now be Republicans?) (Oh, and no, that's not a political statement, though now that I go back and read that, I can see why they absolutely won't be called Republicans. >.< Just so long as they're not called Rebels because that implies they still have something to rebel against. Unless, of course, they do, but that would feel both extremely lazy on the parts of the writers and undercutting the victory at the end of Jedi.)

And, ever so faintly, at about 0:25, you can hear the sounds of an imperial probe droid, sounding exactly like the one that Han and Chewie killed on Hoth. Is he being hunted by someone?

Cute soccer droid! Seriously, if you needed any indication that international bank was vital to the success of movies, this is it. R2-D2 has been turned into a soccer ball. Though even making worried boop-beep-boop noises doesn't save this from totally undercutting the tension the music is trying to build.

Happy Stormtroopers! So clearly, somebody's not just using the old symbology and Imperial look-and-feel, but has been improving on it as well: new armor, new assault blasters (with noticeably bigger scopes; can these guys hit what they're shooting at?). So either:

A) the Empire's still alive and well, either in pockets or is actually still calling the shots in most of the galaxy, in spite of the death of Palpatine and the destruction of much of their fleet at the Battle of Endor.

B) or somebody's attempting to resurrect it. This is the less lazy option, honestly, but the more difficult to pull off.

Cute scavenger girl! Her goggles, apparently, are fashioned from the lenses of an original-trilogy era Stormtrooper visor. Her ride looks a lot like Luke's at the beginning of New Hope turned on its side. And if you freeze the screen at 0:39, you'll see, strapped to the side of her ride, what looks like a lightsaber on the end of a long pole. The link between samurai and jedi has been made repeatedly. Is this a jedi version of the traditional weapon of the onna-bugeisha, the naginata?

As she takes off, you hear more lovely Star Wars engine sounds. The Star Wars universe has probably one of the most recognizable soundscapes out there, and the new crew appears to be milking it for all its worth.

Have you noticed how long the pauses of black screen are? They're just a touch too long, to induce you to sit forward impatiently while you wait for the next scene.

X-wings! Our pilot looks clean-shaven, but his helmet has those scratches and dings we associate with the Star Wars universe. (Though, arguably, it should look nicer and cleaner because the Rebellion won. Didn't it?) Hot-dogging x-wings coming low over a lake. The only planet we've seen so far that looks like this is Naboo. Why so low? Training exercise? Attempting to come in below someone's radar?

If you look closely, you can tell that these are not duplicates of the x-wings Luke flew. The engines appear to be solid to the body, with the folding wings stretching out from them. Some have suggested these are closer in design to Ralph McQuarrie's concept art.

Oops! AWOL scene from Game of Thrones! Seriously, cloaked dude in a snowy wood? Is winter coming? "The Dark Side... and the Light."

And here we get what's become the most controversial bit of the trailer: the cruciform lightsaber.

Only, I'm not sure this is a lightsaber. Oh, sure, it's a laser-sword of some sort, but notice the sound is off? That it sputters and flickers more? That the blade is longer and thinner? It looks like a cheap knock-off of a lightsaber, honestly.

Since the original series, there's been a huge revival in what folks are calling the Western Martial Arts, mostly involving the swordfighting techniques of Western Europe. It would be cool to see some of that in a Star Wars movie.

That said, a lot of longsword play had you grabbing the blade for leverage, or to bash people with the quillions. While these quillions look pretty deadly, grabbing the blade looks like a good way to lose your fingers. Maybe this crossguard is simply the logical response to the Skywalker penchant for cutting people's hands off?

WOOHOO! The music, the Falcon, the getting-dizzy-in-your-seat barnstorming, the howl-and-rattle of attacking tie fighters. Fans over the age of 30 just got hooked; we're gonna see this thing no matter what else you tell us about it. :p

Seriously, the Falcon looks great, and it's fun to see it rolling and swooping over the sands to launch head-first into the ties.

Que title, que date, fade to black and give us a lightsaber sound. Seriously? Why end with that? Weird...

But there you go. So far, they've proven they've gotten the basics down. If this trailer's any indication, The Force Awakens will look and sound like a Star Wars movie. Well done to everyone involved. I'm very much looking forward to seeing more.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Great Purge

Lo, as was promised in days of yore, it has begun!

If you'll look at my blog list, you'll see it's noticeably shorter. It's not as short as I expected it to be, but some blogs got whacked. Most got whacked because they're not even there anymore, which is annoying, but what can you do? Others because they haven't updated in over a month or...

Well, to be blunt, this is my blog list and represents blogs I find interesting. So with some, they changed their formats or topics. The Nerdy Girl's Game Blog is now Amber By Design. It's a neat crafts & cooking website, but not really the sort of thing I associate with Trollsmyth. With others, I drifted away from them.

Others haven't been updated in years, but they're still here because I still find them useful (like the wonderful Hamsterish Hoard and How to Start a Revolution), or I've linked to them a lot or I find them of historical interest and value (like Grognardia). Such blogs will likely always have a spot on my blog list for so long as they remain up.

Next step: adding new blogs. I'm still soliciting suggestions, so if you don't see one you think you should, let me know!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"He'll Save Every One of Us!"

The RPGPundit, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen to save the OSR from unmitigated disaster. In order to prevent “the enemies” of the OSR from defining it, he has chosen to define it for us, thus locking the OSR in amber, preserving it for all time. His definition is as follows:

OSR: a design philosophy of creating systems, settings and adventures that fit within the boundaries of old-school mechanics and concepts; that is, either directly utilizing features that were in existence in the period before the advent of 2nd edition AD&D; or features that, in spite of not having historically existed at that time, could have existed in that period without the addition of material or design concepts that are clearly the product of subsequent ideas or later theories.


So try this experiment yourself: get up from your computer and walk to your kitchen/office breakroom/coffee shop counter. Get yourself a drink. Now, before you return to your computer, recite RPGPundit's definition.

How much were you able to remember?

How many of you were unable to actually finish reading it before it turned into the mwah-mwah-mwah noises of an adult in a Peanuts cartoon?

I understand what RPGPundit is trying to do here. For the lists and tourneys of the message boards he adores so much, I suppose that definition would serve fairly well. (Looks a touch too broad in concept to me, while also assuming there’s a significant mechanical difference between 1e and 2e that I don’t think he’ll get much support on. But meh…)

You want an actually useful definition of the OSR? Here’s one:
Rulings, not rules.

Now, RPGPundit is going to hate this definition with a purple passion. It’s absolutely useless in a joust with the likes of Ron Edwards. It does nothing to fence “the swine” from the OSR or prevent them from claiming bits of it as their own. And it easily supports a meme of the OSR as a system in which DMs abuse their players.

But you know what? At a quarter-after-midnight, after a grueling but triumphant 4+ hour DMing session, when you’re talking to someone in the parking lot of your favorite gaming store, you’ll remember it.

And when you lay it down, it’ll actually mean something to the person you told it to. And they’ll be able to tell, instantly, whether or not your game is the sort of game they’d like to join in on.

Because that, ladies and gents, is what it’s all about. That’s how the OSR rose to the victorious heights it enjoys today.

And don’t make any mistake about it, folks. The triumph of the OSR is all around you. You can see it in the re-release of the 1e core books in collectable hardbacks (with a portion of the proceeds going to a Gygax memorial fund). You can see it in WotC using The Caves of Chaos in their public playtesting materials. You can see it in the boxed sets of the Dragon Age and Doctor Who RPGs. You can see it in Monte Cook’s Numenera core book, where he writes:

Numenera is a game about ideas, not rules. The rules are meant to be a framework upon which to hang the tapestry of the story you and the players create.

You can see it in the latest adventure path for the Pathfinder Game (a true rival if the OSR has one) being a loving homage to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. And most of all, you can see it in the games people are actually playing.

And how did the OSR achieve this triumph? As much respect as I have for the research and historical perspective offered by folks like Maliszewski, the truth is, we did it by doing fun things and getting excited about them. We built our megadungeons and published them on our blogs and shared death-counts (both those of monsters and PCs) as they were explored. We went through every monster in the 2e Monstrous Manual and brainstormed hundreds of awesome, crazy, and silly ideas. We applauded Jeff Reints when he described our style as Retro-stupid and thrilled to the zany joys of Encounter Critical and spidergoats. We started magazines because magazines are cool and we published boxed sets because boxed sets are cool and we hold contests of all sorts and do blind Christmas exchanges and share our settings and get excited about new adventures and kick-starters because these things make our games more fun. We read about the open-table, nomadic PC play styles of the ‘70s and said, “That looks like fun!” and started Flailsnails. We embraced the “lawn crapper” heavy-metal trappings of Raggi. We have no shits to give about Zak and his face-to-face group’s nine-to-five, or what it says about women in gaming or blah-blah-blah because what they do at the table is freaking amazing and cool and is fun.

We are frikken’ gamers who frikken’ game and have a great time doing it.

And that is incredibly contagious.

People want a piece of our action because our action is a great way to spend three to nine hours. We don’t gaze at our navels, fretting about 30 minutes of fun, brain damage, or what our games say about society. We fill our time with fun things, hang out with cool people, and create amazing memories.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? And, having that, who’d want to waste time worrying about what Ron Edwards thinks?

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Dragon Age: Origins First Impressions

Yeah, I’m really that behind in the world of computer RPGs. >.<

That’s mostly because I was spoiled by Ultimas IV and V in my youth. I got to play a game where the NPCs had lives of their own that didn’t revolve around me and my quest. I played a game that didn’t constantly lie to me about how “urgent” a quest was, and then punish me if I avoided side-quests in order to complete the main quest as quickly as possible. I played a game where you actually had real multiple paths to success and taking everything that wasn’t nailed down was recognized as theft.

Damn kids these days need to stay offa my lawn…

Anyway, I’ve heard tons of good stuff about BioWare’s CRPGs and EA is offering DA: Origins for free, so I figured out check it out. I’ve enjoyed BioWare’s other offerings in the past, most especially Neverwinter Nights. But I’ve cooled on the whole genre over the years.

The big issue, honestly, is that combat-as-puzzle doesn’t really hold my interest, especially when it’s real-time. And most especially when…

Ok, so I choose a mage and I do their Harrowing tutorial, which was a neat way to do a tutorial, even if I did have to ask a lot of questions like I’d slept through every class at the Tower. But after that? My next big quest is pest-control: clearing the storage caves of spiders. Ok, they’re giant spiders, but still…

And just to make it worse, I’m also looting the place. In a real, living world, this would be theft, or possibly even embezzlement. In a computer RPG, stealing everything that’s not nailed down, no matter where it is, is Tuesday.

And then there’s the interface. The things I need to know about my characters are far away from them, way off in the corners. I’m not watching the cool combat animations because my eyes are glued to the spell cool-down timers. Even with one character I’m hitting the space-bar multiple times in combat; once I’ve got a large party I’m really going to be wondering why this thing isn’t turn-based.

There’s supposed to be a “tactics” system that’s supposed to jump in when certain conditions are met, but so far it doesn’t appear to be working. I imagine there’s some sort of box I haven’t checked somewhere to do that. Or it does less than I think it does or only works randomly?

So yeah, so far, not terribly impressed. I’m mildly intrigued by the story. Part of that is because I suspect I’m coming at it from a place that’s very different from where I think most players default. Sure, yes, the magi are being treated poorly and oppressed. But neighbor, I’ve walked the streets of Mordheim and I know what happens when the horrors in the universe next door get their pseudopods on a juicy mage to use as a gateway. No, I’m not helping you abscond with your priestess girlfriend, and the reason you’ve not been tapped to experience the Harrowing is because you’ve already failed!

(If you help that guy and don’t end up fighting him as a demon-possessed horror later in the game, the writers should have their knuckles rapped by a fire giant. Seriously!)