Thursday, July 31, 2014

On Zak S.

If you asked me to draw a picture of an apple, I’d probably whip out something that looks a lot like the logo for Apple computers. From an objective viewpoint, the logo really doesn’t look like an apple. It’s flat, usually colorless; a gross simplification of the real thing. Like eyes in the paintings by ancient Egyptians or the modern smiley face, it’s more symbol than reproduction, an easily recognized and processed shorthand that, by itself, conveys a simple idea and then gets out of the way. These sorts of symbols play to our assumptions (no matter what color Apple’s logo, we all know apples are red) and work as a very convenient shorthand in our day-to-day lives.

When my mom paints apples, they look like this:

You don’t need to look closely to realize these are some really messed up apples. They’re a dozen different colors at once: red, yes, and green, but also blue, grey, purple, violet, various shades of yellow and gold and even white. What the heck is wrong with my mother’s eyes?!?

My mother’s eyes don’t just see what is assumed, but what is actually there. Take an apple and really look at it. Don’t just let your mind process “apple” and then speed off to the next thing. See it. See how the skin retains hints of every color it’s ever had as it matured from bud to fruit. Notice how it reflects the light and with it the colors of things near it. See how even the red is actually a complex mottling of various colors, nearly pointilist.

My mother doesn’t paint apples as we expect them to be. My mother paints apples as they really are, with the parts we miss in our daily lives highlighted, brought into focus and shoved in front of our faces, where we can no longer ignore all that we gloss over in our headlong rush to towards five minutes from now.

That’s not something all artists do, but it’s something that many good artists do. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about art giving us new eyes to see the world with, of helping us see and appreciate what’s always been right in front of us.

It’s something Zak does. When Zak decides to make a gaming book and asks, “How can I make the cover useful?” or wonders, “What else can we do with dice when we roll them beyond just seeing what number is on top?” he’s doing the same thing my mother does when she paints apples. I love getting into things with Zak because I know he’ll see what I miss. He doesn’t gloss over the things I just assume. Zak takes ideas to the next level and asks questions like, “What does it mean that Tiamat has five heads?” and “How can we convey the important stuff about our settings in a way that the DM will actually remember and use at the table?” or even how avoiding immersion is part of the fun in our immersive fantasy games.

Perhaps most importantly, Zak calls me on my bullshit. (Oddysey is also indispensable for this.) You need people to do that to keep you out of deep, stifling, and creatively barren ruts. Of course, some people love wallowing in such ruts and hate being prodded out of them.

Nobody has asked Zak to drink hemlock. Not yet. But folks have gotten grumbly. The world, as seen through the eyes of an artist who sees things as they are, lacks the comfortable assumptions that most of us need to get through the day. Some people simply cannot endure what the eyes of such an artist see. Sometimes, they’ll lash out bitterly at those who knock over or ridicule the illusionary worlds they’ve built for themselves.

They’ll also lash out at you when you accidentally bump up against the set-dressing you can’t even see because you don’t share their illusions. Just something to keep in mind.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Playing with Kyma - the Market District

The ocean-side port, warehouses, and shops on the southern shore. Heavily fortified to protect against both storms and pirate attacks. Good source for exotic fruits and woods, spices, gemstones (especially turquoise, obsidian, coral, and pearl), whale oil, wool and furs, marble and exotic construction materials, and human and dragonborn slaves, as well as more exotic sorts. Also includes accommodations (inns, taverns, low-end brothels) for travelers).

Connected to the Bazaar District by the Grand Canal. While you can get seafood here, those in the know go outside the city walls to the Tumbles.

During the monsoon, encounters happens on a roll of 1 on a d10 every hour. The rest of the year, they occur on a roll of 1 on a d6 every hour.


  1. 2d12 Palace Guards searching for something (or someone) missing from the palace. Roll a d6. On a 1-3, they are alone, not terribly serious about the search, and eager for a distraction. On a roll of 4-5, they have a weretiger forced into half-form on a silver chain sniffing down their quarry for them. On a roll of 6, they are being guided by a seer.
  2. A selkie disguised as a human or elf. Roll a d4. On a 1-3, it’s searching for a good mate to conceive a child with. On a 4, it’s searching for a lost sibling.
  3. Werefox disguised as an exiled elven noblewoman, searching for a suitably talented elven or (if really talented) human woman to serve as her slave/lover/apprentice.
  4. Devotees of Xithras, heavily armed and looking for trouble. During the day, they’ll be attempting to discourage the sale and transport of necromantic paraphernalia and transformative magic, especially fertility enhancers like minotaur milk. If encountered at night, they’ll be conducting a clandestine raid on a warehouse or ship, and will be led by a paladin 25% of the time. In either case, they’ll avoid confrontations with city or palace guards, and will not engage in violence with any group that is equal to them or greater in strength.
  5. Human barbarians from the west. They’ll be heavily armed and looking for excitement and adventure. They’ll be boisterous, but polite to women and any they perceive as weaker than themselves. However, disparagement of their honor or character (and any negative comments about their mothers) will lead to drawn blades and shed blood.
  6. Human barbarians from the east. They’re quiet, seeking as little attention as possible, stick together, and will shrink from open combat. However, they’ll happily murder anyone they see as interfering with their quest (and will even hire Hasheeshins to do the job if they don’t know they’re up to the challenge), and will not hesitate to employ any means they deem necessary for the completion of their mission. They are in the city in order to (d6) 1-2: rescue a kidnapped princess; 3-4: recover a lost scroll; 5: assassinate a wealthy merchant; or 6: steal a powerful magic item.
  7. Delegation from one of the Sea Princes. 25% chance they’ll have an escort of Palace Guards. Haughty, rude, expecting to be hated, but eager to capitalize on opportunities for profit.
  8. 1d8 sailors on carouse. 1 in 20 chance that one of their fellow carousers is a selkie in disguise of either sex. For every hour the PCs spend with them, there’s a 1-in-6 chance of one of the following happening (d4 + highest CHR bonus):
    1 - fist-fight with rival crew.
    2 - knife-fight with rival crew.
    3 - acquire a pinch of dreamblossom snuff (powerful hallucinogen and aphrodisiac, and even a pinch is worth 10 gp).
    4 - PC gifted with a selkie-gold earring (advantage on sight-related rolls once per day).
    5 - PC wins a talking parrot in a game of chance (1-in-10 chance the parrot is a fey in disguise, else 1-in-20 chance it’s an eastern barbarian prince/ess transformed by spell).
    6 - PC wins lifelong friends who will smuggle things/people/PCs out of/into town when the ship is in port (1-in-10 chance any given week, 1-in-20 during monsoons).
  9. western barbarian witch hunting a man who owes her (d6) 1-2: 50 sp, 3-4: the skull of an enemy, 5: his soul, or 6: his firstborn.
  10. delegation from the merfolk. 2d6 humans (25% they’re actually selkies) plus one merfolk noble being carried in a bowl-like litter filled with seawater born by burly human (10% instead sharkfolk) slaves.
  11. 1d6 escaped slaves, looking to smuggle themselves out of town. If returned, they’ll net a reward of 2d6% of their market value.
  12. 1d3 agents of the sharkfolk intent on (d6) 1-3: securing protection money from a bold but broke ship’s captain, 4-5: disguised as carousing sailors looking for victims to kidnap and return to the sharkfolk as slaves/food, 6: looking to burn a ship that didn’t pay its protection money.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How Deep Is My Rabbit Hole

This sort of thing rubs me the wrong way. Specifically, this part:

It turns out that if you simply think "hey, there's a village of people here, maybe we can talk to them and figure out what's been going on" then the storyline starts to break considerably, and when the adventuring party starts to make peace treaties with them and get regular intelligence updates, a lot of later "OMG SURPRISE MONSTERS!" moments become less surprising. That's a good illustration of Fucked Up Trope #1: everyone you encounter, if they don't have a Special Plot Helmet, is presumed to be someone you're going to murder and rob, probably in that order.

Ok, by itself, yes, this points out an area where the Temple of Elemental Evil is surprisingly weak (especially compared to Keep on the Borderlands, Vault of the Drow, and especially Shrine of the Kuo-Toa). But that’s not his principal point.

Mr. Zungar’s pointing out the murder-hobos nature of D&D and asks, “Hey, what if we make peace with the hobgoblins instead of attacking them?”

To which I respond, and completely without sarcasm, “By what methods do you make peace with the hobgoblins?”

The hobgoblins are not some misunderstood noble savage, a more pure culture unsullied by contact with “civilization” or the magical brown people de jure. (Though I suppose in Mr. Zungar’s games they could be.) They are a race of slave-owning militarists who consider other sentient beings to be a delicious part of this complete breakfast. They’re medieval Nazis, or Spartans with the humanity filed off. Those who befriend the hobgoblins in the Caves of Chaos are likely to be invited to join them as they feast on plump merchant-and-wife. I don’t have ToEE in front of me right now, but I imagine the hobgoblins there are devotees of Zuggtmoy, demon-goddess of evil (and, one imagines, tasty) fungi. (Seriously, I could totally see Zuggtomy being an Underdark fertility figure, Goddess of the fungal fields, a sort of monstrous Persephone who seduces Hades and robs him of his fecundity in order to feed her legion of followers. Vault of the Drow kinda implies that she, and not Lolth, is the principal deity worshipped by the drow, and that Lolth is an upstart looking to instigate a coup.) In order to befriend the hobgoblins, will the PCs be expected to join the cult? Why not?

I think this is why I find Raggi’s vision of D&D so compelling. It’s a Dashiell Hammett world with swords. These guys might not be so vile as those guys, but nobody’s in the running for the title of actual, unadulterated good guy. It’s vice and greed and brutality and foolishness as far as the eye can see.

But that’s how I play D&D. Mr. Zungar is, of course, welcome to get all post-modern and deconstructive in his games. Others are welcome to go the opposite direction, declaring hobgoblins to be manifestations of the Mythic Underworld, shadows without personality and personhood, and thus “killable” without moral consequences.

Flavor to taste, y'all.

Monday, July 21, 2014

More A5t Via boingboing

Via boingboing, more 5e art, in this case specifically from the Player's Handbook.  Scrolling past the article, we find a red dragon facing off against some heroes by Daren Bader.

My first reaction: the Hildebrandts called and want their color palette back. 

It's ok.  There are bits of it I like, bits of it that kinda remind me of Otis, and the colors and shades and composition and little details all have a pleasantly fairy-tale feel to them.  But it doesn't grip me or get me excited about playing.

I like Tenery's wood elf city much more, in spite of it clearly owing a lot to Peter Jackson's movies and medieval Russian architecture.  Also, the clearly cut-and-pasted elements in it.  In spite of all of that, it has great mood and character.  Looking at this, I can tel you things about the people who live here.  As a player, I'm intrigued and want to explore.  As a DM, I'm inspired and eager to portray the inhabitants of this city to my players.  In short, it does (for me, anyway) exactly what I want art in an RPG to do.  This is especially so when you look at the bigger version at the top of the article. 

WAR's Mordenkainen's Sword is amazing.  I want to play this character and cast this spell against a foe who's been my nemesis for the past three adventures in a final spell-to-spell showdown.  He oozes cool.  He's clearly a bad-ass high-fantasy version of Dr. Strange, Harry Potter grown up and in another universe, an ass-kicker and name-taker supreme.  This piece grips me exactly in the same way that Trampier's  Emirikol the Chaotic did.  If this character doesn't wind up on a lot of character sheets or in campaigns (alas, most likely as a DM PC), I'll eat my hat.  This is Reynolds doing what Reynolds does best.

Then we have Claudio Pozas' Cloudkill.  It kinda looks like a MtG illustration, more so than even Reynold's Mordenkainen's Sword.  I think that's because in Reynold's piece, it's clearly the spell-slinger that's the focus of attention.  Here, it's the cloud. 

I like the details, especially the dwarves that strike me as vaguely Babylonian.  I think a bit too much punch was pulled on what is, in effect, a summoning of mustard gas.  But maybe I've been spoiled by Raggi's art.

I think I'll come to appreciate Scott M. Fischer's High Elf Wizard the more I look at it, but right now I appreciate the pleasant colors and shapes, but as a composition it just doesn't gel for me.  And is it just me, or does she look like she's just tripped and is about to impale herself on the spikey end-caps of her scroll?

As for the warlock page, it looks good: easy to read, easy to find information, pleasing to the eye and complex without feeling cluttered.  I'd have used a bit more sans serif, but they probably get better effect using color.

I've already said I think all there is to say for now about the cover.

All-in-all, I'm pleased.  I think too much emphasis is put on having a unified look in RPGs.  Sure, with some RPGs that have a very strong theme and setting, that can be important.  In a more generic RPG, like D&D, variety is called for.  There's stuff here that leave me feeling very meh about it, but there's also stuff that gets me excited to play.  And I'll bet you there are folks out there who feel exactly the opposite of how I do on the same pieces.  Variety means, sure, some of your pieces won't click with some viewers, but gives you a much better shot at having something that will click with everyone. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Playing with Kyma - the Bazaar District

The Bazaar District of the port city of Kyma is dominated by docks, warehouses, and shops.  Located on the shore of the Dromosero, the placid inland sea, it's not as heavily fortified as the southern Market District, which services traffic from the Ocean. The Bazaar is the principle source for elven (herbs, silks, dyes, wooden crafted items like musical instruments and furniture, and mead, wines and brandy) and dwarven (worked metal, ingots of adamantium, weapons, vodka, beer, ale) goods, as well as exotic (elven, dwarven, and orcish) slaves. The goods in the bazaar district tend to feel more exotic, though it’s also the principal market for grains, livestock, and lumber as well. Also includes accommodations (inns, taverns, low-end brothels) for travelers, which are dens for smugglers of all sorts. Connected to the Market District by the Grand Canal.

Encounters of note occur on a roll of 1 on a d6 for every hour spent in the district during daylight hours.  The chance for an encounter increases to 1 or 2 on a d6 after sunset and before sunrise.

  1. 2d6 dwarves on a carouse. They’ve got gold to spend, and hanging out with the dwarves will net you all the free drinks you can stomach (save or pass out from alcohol poisoning every two hours of carousing with them) plus one of the following per hour (d4 + CHR bonus, any number that repeats yields no goodies):
    1 - an exquisitely crafted iron brooch worth 150% of the usual value of such an item. It’s unusual fabrication will be recognized by other dwarves and gives a +1 to reaction checks with them.
    2 - a loadstone that always points north.
    3 - a sunstone that will always reveal the position of the sun, no matter how dark the clouds or thick the rain.
    4 - a marriage proposal.
    5 - a bronze puzzle ring that hides within it a complete set of lockpicks.
    6 - a silvered dagger.
    7+ - a treasure map.
  2. 3d4 recently unemployed mercenaries, looking for work or, failing that, a fight.
  3. a desperate apprentice warlock, sent by his master to acquire a rare and expensive reagent. Alas, the youth’s purse has been stolen, and there’s little he won’t stoop to in order to complete his task.
  4. 1d4 masked Hasheeshins ambushing their target.
  5. Gang of persistent goblins claiming to sell herbal remedies for nearly all ailments. Roll on Potion Miscibility table for actual results.
  6. 2d8 members of a press gang looking to abduct the unwary to serve as oarsmen on a galley.
  7. apprentice witch disguised as prostitute seeking (roll a d6: 1) a lock of elven hair, (2-3) the seed of any male, (4-5) a mount for a hag, or (6) a gallon of blood for her mistress.
  8. pickpockets! If the PCs get involved in their distraction(roll a d6), the thieves get a bonus on their rolls:
    1 - angry crone beating a disobedient youth.
    2 - pair of sailors preparing to fight/duel for the affections of a half-elven girl.
    3 - naked lover being beaten by cuckolded husband while wife pleads for someone to save her lover.
    4 - fire in an old warehouse.
    5 - two gangs of minstrels start a brawl over a stolen song.
    6 - explosion of hallucinogenic gas. Save or be incapacitated for a half-hour with strange visions. Anyone who rolled a 1 on the save has prophetic visions.
  9. brawl between the crews of competing ships.
  10. slavers claiming to be successful sailors and looking to spend coin on pretty faces. They’ll drug drinks and haul their victims off for sale.
  11. procession of elven dignitaries heading to the Palace.
  12. dwarves disguised as merchants but really on a mission of vengeance against a merchant who cheated them.
  13. City guard raiding a warehouse, dwelling, or other building looking for contraband. 1 in 6 chance the raidees are (roll a second d6: 1-2) orcs, (3-5) heavily armed pirates, or (6) have a warlock or two with them and fight back.
  14. 1d4 escaped slaves (1 in 6 chance of being elven) looking to escape the city by boat. If returned to their owner, will garner someone a reward of 1d6% of their market value.
  15. 1d4 nixies disguised as elves on the prowl for slaves. They’ll attempt to charm any they can lure into the waters of the sea.
  16. 2d4 young adult orcs seeking employment or easy coin so they can purchase weapons.
  17. 2d4 orc mercenaries on the carouse. Every hour spent partying with them gains you (1d6+ CHR bonus):
    1 - a black eye.
    2 - a blood-sibling who you can call on in dire need, but who may also call on you; refusing the call leads to a blood feud.
    3 - a treasure map.
    4 - being chased by the guard and a night in the gaol if caught.
    5 - fleas.
    6 - a new undercity contact.
    7 - an attempted seduction.
    8+ - an attempted rape.
  18. 1d6 elven merchants on a carouse. Every hour spent partying with them results in the entire party (1d4+ best CHR bonus):
    1 - losing half your (d6: 1) copper, (2) silver, (3) electrum, (4-5) gold, (6) most expensive piece of jewelry in the party.
    2 - a valuable rumor.
    3 - a chance to buy (d6: 1-3) a rare herb, (4-5) a potent hallucinogen, or (6) a dire poison at 75% the regular price.
    4 - passed out in an opium den. Everyone loses all the coin they had on their person, 1-in-6 chance for each member to have had a prophetic vision.
    5 - an invitation to an orgy.
    6 - a single ring of silver that can be used to gain an audience with an elven noble of a particular house.
    7+ - being drugged, kidnapped, and sold to merfolk.
  19. a vampire’s agent, seeking victims.
  20. a ghost seeking vengeance.