Saturday, June 15, 2024

Grimdark vs. Eucatastrophe

Noisms has some interesting ideas in this post about his desire for some depth to his grimdark, and turns to Gene Wolfe and Tolkien for relief.  Now, it can be argued that he’s watering down, even spoiling his grimdark by twisting the universe to actually be caring and not indifferent.  And that’s true, but it sounds like Noisms finds the nihilism of grimdark to be hollow, all shadow puppets without depth or impact.  And I totally get that.  I don’t think his preference for a greater truth that bends the universe towards benevolence if only someone dares to reach for it is the only way to solve the issue, but it is an interesting one.

He follows that up with an elevator pitch that’s rather like something he’s done before with a dark science-fantasy twist.  And then he lays three conditions, or design pillars, on the idea: 

The task is to provide maximum campaign flexibility and maximum player agency combined with an institution-based mode of advancement.

Now, straight up, I’m not sure how I see these design pillars necessarily intersecting with this theme, and I’m not entirely certain they do.  They might only be challenges Noisms thinks are interesting to tackle in RPG design.  I certainly think they are.  

I think the core of making this work is building towards one or more eucatastrophes over the course of a campaign.  The challenge is that they can’t be random; just as Bilbo and Frodo sparing Gollum's life results in the destruction of the Ring, so do the eucatastrophes in the game need to grow from the actions of the PCs and the choices of the players.  The benevolent universe only puts its finger on the scales when courage and virtue invite it.  

There are a number of ways you could do this.  You could give the players points when they do something that invites eucatastrophe that they get to spend for rerolls or power-ups, but that feels cheap to me.  You could use Progress Clocks a la Blades in the Dark; as the PC knights exhibit virtue in the face of a hostile world, the Progress Clock fills.  Once full, Providence takes a hand, and by “miraculous happenstance” our heroes get their fat pulled out of the fire or stumble across a clue or tool necessary for their success.  

To truly make this work, I think the GM would need to keep the Progress Clock (or Clocks, as you could have one for each PC or tied to different threats or different virtues; I myself favor different clocks for different virtues) so the players would have no idea if the clocks are full or not at any time.  Heck, the GM might not know; perhaps the GM rolls each time the progress clock gets a tick to see if it’s full or not, with the odds rising for each tick but never quite reaching 100%.  

This way, the players know that acting in accordance with virtue is beneficial, but they never know quite how beneficial.  And since a full Clock doesn’t necessarily “go off” as soon as it's full, they can never know if the risk they take for virtue’s sake is actually benefiting them, or if it’s “wasted” on an already full Clock.  Which only feels right to me.

I think this is ringing for me in some part because I’m reading Pendragon 6e’s Player’s book right now.  I’d be tempted to use the virtues from the old Ultima computer RPGs, especially since those come into conflict with one another in beautiful ways, challenging not only one’s commitment to the virtues as a whole, but to individual virtues in relation to the others.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

The Light Dawns

THIS!!!  Yes, a thousand times, this!


Back in the day, I referred to this as “neo-classicalgaming,” which is to say, the sorts of games that came out of various deep dives into older games to see what was actually going on under the hood, rather than what everyone assumed was happening.  (The ‘90s were a terrible time where dumb “conventional wisdom” ruled conversations about RPGs, but much of the thinking from those days still lingers, especially in professional spaces.)


Anyway, point is, if the core of gaming is making interesting decisions, rolling the dice isn’t playing the game; it’s putting the game on pause while a random element is introduced to force the players into potentially rethinking their approach and how they value their various resources.  So the more a game has rules about a thing, the less it’s potentially about that thing. 


This creates weird mechanics that kinda sidle-up to their topic.  On the one hand, if you want the players to be making decisions and talking around the table about a particular subject, you can’t gloss it over with a dice roll.  On the other hand, what rules you do have should encourage conversation about the topic.  Mothership wants you to spend time on being stealthy, so it has rules that make combat very dangerous, and creating spaces where you’re going to be chased by critters that want to engage you in combat.  So the game’s mechanics encourage stealthy activity and conversations because the alternatives (touching the dice) are much worse from a mechanical standpoint.


Granted, these games require a LOT of trust all around the table; lack of skill and lack of trust can ruin a game like this.  Luckily, it only requires a modicum of social skills to be able to put together a good group and engage in this sort of gaming.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Corkboards & Curiosities: a New Angle on DMing

Here's a new YouTube channel that's absolutely worth your time.  There's some clever ideas in this video I will absolutely be implementing in my campaigns soon (especially the "what are you thinking" one).

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Fun Dice Tricks with Map Crow

Map Crow is a YouTube vlog that’s hit-and-miss with me; when it’s hot, it’s pretty hot, but when it’s not, it’s pretty meh.  FOR ME, I’ll hasten to point out; there’s a lot of stuff being discussed out there this old troll has seen many different times over the years, nuggets of wisdom rediscovered by new generations.  Reminds me that sometimes the topic I think has been done to death is, in truth, a brand new revelation for somebody, especially with so many new folks entering the hobby.


Anyway, Map Crow’s latest is on fun random encounter tables, and he does some really neat stuff using 2d6.  The sum of 2d6 gives you what the encounter is, while the red d6 tells you what the disposition of the encounter, while the blue d6 gives you their distance from the party.  Check it out; he does some fun things with the interaction between the bell-curve and the flat curves, making a the extremely rare roll of snake-eyes really, really ouch.


His division of his map is similar to what I did when talking about Hex Mapping, but combining the table, the disposition, and the distance all in one roll is very clever.  I’ll still probably default to my own What-Are-the-Monsters-Up-To table (I’m too much in love with how you can roll differently for intelligent and bestial encounters on the same table), but game must recognize game!

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Mad Mashup: One Roll Combat?

Ok, not a single roll to cover the entire fight.  But a single roll by each player to adjudicate not only the success or failure of their attack, but also how much damage they did to their foe and how much, if any, harm their foe did to them.

This should grant us a number of benefits:

  • It’s faster!  And when playing online (something I do a lot of lately), this is important.

  • If you roll high, you hit hard; no more rolling a 19 and then rolling a 1 on damage.

  • Often, both you and your opponent do damage to each other, which makes fights shorter.  

  • Something will happen every time, and we won’t go round after round where you miss, and your foe misses, and you miss again, and your foe misses again…

  • No rolling for the monster attacks.  Roll poorly, and the monsters will maul you!  Roll great and you’ll send your foe reeling.  This is great because:

    • It means a lot less rolling, so things move along a lot faster.

    • We don’t have to worry about initiative and fights can flow more dynamically.

    • Large solo monsters don’t get whaled on by lots of PCs, while only being able to target a single one in reply.  This makes big scary monsters big and scary, instead of dying in the first round to a massive alpha-strike from the PCs.

  • Things this doesn’t mean:

    • It doesn’t mean that monsters won’t attack if you don’t attack; they’ll still try to chew off your face if they can.

    • It doesn’t mean surprise doesn’t happen; if you get the jump on the baddies, you’ll get a full round to have your way without them getting to reply.

    • It doesn’t mean shooting someone with an arrow allows them to hit you with their claws from across the battlefield; ranged attacks will work a bit differently.

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Ron Cobb: Implied Storytelling in Concept Art

Ron Cobb is a name to conjure with in the art world, and his work as the  concept artist for the ‘82 Conan the Barbarian movie is well known to me.  At least, I thought it was! 

I came across the official Ron Cobb website and was blown away by the work he did on this movie.  There’s this chonkiness full of soft curves, hints of brutalism in the bones of it all, but softened by earthy silhouettes.  An almost welcoming chthonian quality.  

But what’s even cooler, to my mind, is the implications of a lost age, a more advanced before-time that’s best seen in the castle of King Osric.

I love the mix of heavy timber and almost delicate stone.  It gives the piece a lot of visual interest, but more than that, there’s this implication that the folks who built the timber part couldn’t do the stone part.  And that’s emphasized by this illustration of Zamora’s Gate, not used in the movie.

Or maybe this is just the implication that Osric is an usurper, that he conquered Zamora and hasn’t done a great job of putting it back together again?  Or both?  In any case, lovely work, and effective storytelling that makes the world of the movie feel grounded in a past through implication rather than exposition.  

Monday, February 05, 2024

Stellar Atlas of the Zauberreich: Verðandi, First of the Norn Stars


Verðandi is a G-type star, and among the earliest stars claimed by Humanity, most likely during the Second Diaspora.  Settlement on Verðandi’s worlds date back at least to the collapse of the Confederation of the Golden Gate and the rise of the Republic of Mars as the de facto leading world of Humanity.  It’s believed that Verðandi was the first of the Norn Stars to be colonized.  

Unlike the other Norn Stars, Verðandi held no Precursor artifacts or ruins.  Legend says that the Confederation had rules against settling on worlds with Precursor ruins, and that Verðandi had started as an outpost to supply those guarding the worlds orbiting Urðr and Skuld.  However, as the promise of the Confederation proved hollow and the alliances founded in its name collapsed, Human refugees settled on all of the habitable Norn worlds.  

Some of the most famous and heavily populated worlds in the Zauberreich orbit Verðandi, including Odin, Frig, and Thor.