Friday, April 29, 2011

Thank a Free Publisher Day!

I'm feeling kind of bad that yesterday's post, which was supposed to be a fun little commentary on our collective reading habits, seems to have pointed out a crystallizing issue that has led -C of Hack & Slash to decide to change from a free publisher to charging for pdfs. There's nothing wrong with being a for-profit publisher, but it was obviously a sort of wrenching decision for him which involved a bit of bitterness toward the way the community reacts toward free publications. And even though I wasn't the original cause, I apparently happened to make some observations that provided the last straw for him when they were set forth in the particular way I set them forth.

I do think, and I mentioned it in my earlier posts about Commercialization of the Old School, that our collective reading and posting habits tend to devalue free publications and their authors/artists. I'm as much guilty of it as anyone -- I think Chris Gonnerman, for example, deserves to be lauded to the skies for his free BFRPG project, and yet even though I've mentioned this in a couple of posts when free products arise, I don't think I've ever actually thanked Chris directly.

So I'm declaring my own "Thank a Free Publisher Day," and anyone who wants to join in with me, the more the merrier. I'm going to mention a couple of free publishers (note: this includes the people who have printed books up on lulu for cost only) and mention a place to say thanks.

1) Starting with Chris, I just created a thread over on Dragonsfoot HERE, for saying thanks for BFRPG. DF is where Chris mainly hangs out.

2) Then, Al Krombach for all the gaming resources he puts up at Beyond the Black Gate. I'm going to put this in a comment that will be totally off topic to his post, but I can't give out his email address, so he'll just have to figure it out. :)

3) Then, John Stater for all the Mu Pan free resources. (I also tossed this one in as a random comment for him to puzzle out if I'm in a 12-step program or wrapping up my affairs before going skydiving or something).

And there are a billion others, so if you don't have a blog, list them in the comments, and if you have a blog, post up the free publishers so people can go give them some applause, preferably directly! Make threads, name names, whatever. Lets make a day of it, or at least a few moments to either mention someone or to go to a thread/comment and say thanks for their work!

(I'll add more later, three is a good starter, and I'm hoping other bloggers will also be chiming in a bit on this, because it's a nice thing to do -- and remember, resource-heavy bloggers are free publishers, too!)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

What makes a blog popular

-C mentioned as a comment to my last blog (and his blog, by the way, is here) that posting art or free pdf files is simply a recipe for silence and small page views.

This is actually my experience as well, as strange as it seems -- but with one exception. The free module I posted (Last Priest of Sebek at this lulu storefront) was a very popular post, but it had an unusual twist to it -- it was charity related. I think charity-related posts tend to generate more attention, if for no other reason than other bloggers linking to the post to help out with the effort.

On the other hand, my next two most popular posts were both unabashed navel-gazing on the topic of the OSR. People love reading about the "OSR."

And then the next most popular one I can't quite explain. It was the one called Diaper, Helmet, ADVENTURE! It was about a piece of Erol Otus art. The only explanation for this one I can think of is that the title drew people. However, it's sort of a counter-example to the other art-related posts that bombed.

So here's a tentative conclusion about peoples' reading habits with one SIGNAL exception. Most of us apparently like to read discussions more than we actually like to read resources. Nothing wrong with that, except that most of us seem to think or claim otherwise. Odd.

The signal exception is Zak's blog. Zak is all about art and game resources, although he also tells stories. People like stories, too, although my stories are sort of in the middle range of page hits. I think the reason for this is simply the quality of Zak's art, writing, and imagination. He's in a niche that most people ignore, but he just does it well enough to be one of the most-followed blogs out there. It's the brute force of quality.

Most other bloggers out there have a lot more data about this, but the trend seems pretty strong. Since I'm all over the damn place with wildly different topics and random approaches, I've gotten to see a pretty broad set of responses.

Conclusion, and other bloggers please feel free to correct or expand on this ... we are actually drawn, as readers, to topics that we SAY aren't the ones of interest ... but that's where we go.

I suspect we know this, too, but it's just a dirty little secret. Cool.

Dungeon theory: Layers of Mystery

So, one of the things I did yesterday was an illustration for the "Read Languages" spell, which I uploaded as a thumbnail above. The key to the picture is that the hieroglyphic script on the tablet gives way to some English in the area where the magic-user is looking. The viewer can see what's happening with the magic as it works. Sort of cool, I thought.

In any case, it led me to a thought about dungeons -- adventures in general, really. First, an adventure should have various types of things to discover. (1) the background information about past events (2) background information about the location, (3) what's there, (4) how to use what's there, (5) background or other information about current occupants, (6) indications for future adventures/missions.

That's six things I could think of to find information ABOUT.

But the next factor is this: each of those regions of information should also have more than one layer (maybe only one more, maybe a couple). What I mean: information about current occupants in G1 can tell you pretty quickly that there's a hierarchy of giants and ogres and stuff like that. That's one layer. The second layer, though, is the information that the giants are taking their orders from elsewhere and (here's the #6 piece as well) how to find the next group of bad guys.

This might sound like a huge amount of work, but I think most of us build this kind of thing into an adventure without really thinking about it. I'm not talking about complex layers of information, just that when you learn a thing, you haven't necessarily learned all there is to know.

An adventure -- this is one of the things that makes an RPG (and also a computer RPG) so compelling is that it takes place in the so-called "fog of war." At the beginning, you don't know much. Traps might be around every corner. As it develops, you begin to have a larger map. You begin to learn things about the mad wizard who lived here: perhaps his "warning!" rune, perhaps just that he collected blue pottery. Whatever.

Building the larger picture, learning more, delving into the unknown ... it is the layers of mystery
that make an RPG such a powerful genre of gaming.

It's fashionable to bust on the idea of having a "story," where the DM scripts the action too much, but it's critical to keep in mind that a BACKSTORY is something totally different and very important.

Without the tagline of "the dwarves delved too deep," the Mines of Moria are nothing but a big hole in the ground. But with that tagline from the backstory, the big hole in the ground becomes THE MINES OF MORIA.

(and then you learn about how that dredged up a watcher at the gate, and orcs came and killed all the dwarves because Mr. Balrog got loose, and by the way, there's a book that the adventurers can find so they can piece together the bits (layers) of mystery they have discovered).

Give them stuff to learn, bit by bit, even if it's trivial. That's a big part of the game.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Write On!

One downside I've discovered to blogging is that when you write something every day, it begins to cut into the time available for writing actual resources. So today, I'm going to focus on moving a couple of different projects forward.

1) Getting more material assembled for Knockspell #6 and writing my own part(s) of it
2) Layout on the Core Rules and possibly an illustration
3) Adapting a new FGG module from Pathfinder to Swords & Wizardry
4) Possible working on a re-structuring of my module "Drinker of Ships," which seems to have too railroady a beginning but will require a fair amount more writing to change (it was originally based on the "characters start in a bad situation" concept).

Obviously, I don't expect to finish anything, but I need to push the field forward instead of spending too much time working on a blog entry.

Stay tuned, though!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I thank you all!

Since I'm on permanent disability and my wife works for the state government, every once in a while some unexpected financial event has the potential to throw things into a real crisis. In general, the beer money that I make from Swords & Wizardry I don't spend - I either re-invest it in things like cover art, or I stash it in case of a family emergency.

About a week ago, my car suddenly developed an earth-shaking vibration in the engine. For those who have seen it at NTRPGCon, my car is a junker: the paint has flaked off about a quarter of the body, the driver's side window doesn't move, and the acceleration is similar to that of an angry turtle. But it serves the purpose of getting my daughter to work and me to the stores or other errands like handling my son's chronic missing of the school bus. Unfortunately, it was clear that this problem was going to rip up other parts in the engine - it was that bad.

It turns out that the engine mountings had started to come loose, or come apart, which is something you need to fix unless one day you want to see your car's engine through the rear view mirror. The problem was that this trouble developed just late enough in the month to come after the payment of lots of bills, but early enough in the month that there wasn't any way to just tighten the belt and make it through. You can only make it so many days by living out of the pantry; I know this from experience. Credit cards were a bit close to the limits, partly because of my new computer and partly because my wife had just gotten some repairs to her own car. A fixable situation, but one that needs a bit of time to even out.

However, there was just enough sitting in the Swords & Wizardry bank account to handle the gap between what we could pay, versus what we needed to pay, for the repairs, which was $521.29. Without that money available, we would have run into some serious difficulties; mainly my daughter, since I drop her off at work, but in other ways, too. For those who aren't familiar with Houston, Texas, you have to drive everywhere -- there is effectively no public transportation in most of the city.

Anyway, I thought I would mention it and say thank you to all those who have bought various modules or rulebooks, etc. from me over the last year or so! Although the end result of purchases obviously aren't foremost in peoples' minds (except when doing something like Chgowiz is -- see HERE), hopefully it will be a lift of the spirits for people to know that the money from our games and hobbies, even when it's not going to charity, can sometimes have a really big unexpected effect somewhere down the road.

So thank you, all of you -- have a good feeling today about the hobby -- it can occasionally have some significant real-life effects!


Monday, April 25, 2011

Destiny, Conan, the Grey Mouser, and their Job Histories


It's a fairly common device in heroic fiction for the author to provide a bit of foreshadowing to suggest that the protagonists are destined for greatness in some way, and Fritz Leiber and R.E. Howard are no different. Fafhyrd and the Mouser are mentioned as being bifurcated parts of the same mythic-hero identity. R.E. Howard is a bit clearer about Conan's destiny: he's going to be king of Aquilonia. (Okay, I don't know for absolute certain that Howard was the one to interject this into the Conan stories -- it might have been in the DeCamp stories, but which author it was isn't all that material).

I'm going to suggest a couple of ideas about how the destiny of these two heroes is quite different. That's related to my original plan for this post, which was to talk about how the two heroes approach problems, but this topic of destiny got so intertwined with it that I changed focus.

Conan the Average Guy
On the one hand, there's Conan. He's your regular old blue-collar, Joe Sixpack schlep. In general, he tries to approach things with the best sort of plan he can manage, and his goal is usually money (or, at least, food). Usually he's just trying to find a good job, and -- like most of us -- it turn out that his boss sucks, or that somebody has a hostile merger planned for his company, or that the management expects him to do stuff that's not actually in his job description, or that the company plans to terminate his employment at the end of the project.

Heroic Job Histories
As with most heroes whose story is best told as a short story, Conan's curriculum vitae is a disaster. He can't hold a job, the results of his work are generally disastrous, and he has a history of killing his employers. Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser do little better. On the other hand, high-fantasy heroes like Frodo Baggins are reliable employees. They hold down a job for long periods of time, and usually work for a good boss. The pay is often less, but there's a lot of satisfaction with a job well done (save the world, etc).

Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser: Problem Employees
This duo, unlike Conan, tend to remain unemployed for long periods of time, and often "live off the land," engineering a sort of primitive social welfare plan without the consent of the donors. They meander into situations, usually without any particular plan for what they want to achieve, simply relying on their ability to improvise. Whereas Conan is an ideal employee, Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser are people you really don't want on your payroll. They divert funds, and tend to get distracted. The only reason they don't kill their employers is probably because their employers are a pair of spooky wizards that could blast them into bits.

The Destiny of Conan
Conan's destiny is to become King of Aquilonia. In other words, his destiny is to achieve a specific event. It's not a destiny written by supernatural forces, because, as we know, Conan's god Crom just sits on a mountain and watches the world go by. Like the watchmaker god of Enlightenment Christianity, Crom simply sets things in motion, tossing his barbarians out into the world like an infinite number of monkeys, mildly curious to see which ones become Kings of Aquilonia and which ones end up as fat couch-potatoes working as security guards and talking about their glory days at the siege of Venatium, drinking beer, and watching the chariot races.

Conan, in other words, makes his own destiny, even though it's waiting out there for him. This is classic philosophical determinism. With dialectical precision, Conan's migratory path from one crappy job to the next shuffles him toward inevitable monarchy like Yates's beast shuffles toward Bethlehem. His nature destines him for a specific event; his life is a teleology wearing the false mustache and beard of a picaresque tale.

By Contrast: Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser
Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser don't really have a forward-looking destiny. What they have, instead, is an identity. They are the residue (dregs, perhaps) of some past mythic hero that, typically for them, managed to screw up its rebirth and end up as two people instead of one. Already, here, we have the implication that determinism and teleology don't play much of a role in Leiber's world; cosmic forces do their best to work as advertised -- the rebirth of a mythic hero being one example. But as cosmic forces go, they are pretty incompetent -- the mythic hero ends up split into two bodies, like a bad teleportation.

Unlike the way Conan's course became fixed at the moment Crom breathed a particular personality into him, Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser don't have any particular event that they're moving toward. Or, if they did, that plan had to get scrapped because it called for a single hero, and the double-half-heroes obviously weren't up to the job specifications. Rather, Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser are caught in the currents of heroism without a destination. They are destined always to have to operate in the rarified events of mythic significance, but it's significance without destination, a great band that never seems to get a recording contract.

Cosmic Blind Instinct and Cosmic Over-Scheming in the Fafhyrd/Mouser Setting
The cosmic forces involved in the Fritz Leiber stories seem to operate on two levels. At the top level, there is a squabbling, scheming marketplace of higher beings, screwing things up in the same manner that destiny itself screwed up the reproduction of its mythic, archetypal single hero (ending up with two boozing reprobates charged up with all the power but none of the dignity of myth).

However, at the lower level, there is something deeply mysterious, represented by the gods in Lankhmar (as opposed to the gods of Lankhmar). The existence of destiny, too, is an interesting mystery, given that it's defective. Things are moving deep beneath the surface defects of Leiber's cosmology, but while the top level of gods is so scheming that it can't achieve anything, the lower, deeper level seems to operate only on a blind, reflexive level. It's like instinct, or the Jungian collective unconscious, or the secondary brain in a dinosaur's butt. At least it has a certain majesty to it. Issek of the Jug inhabits Fafhryd for a while, to execute the terms of a prophecy that Fafhyrd invented. The gods in Lankhmar rise and walk when they are upset.

Mouser and Fafhyrd are actually picaresque Heroes - Conan is not.
So basically, the Grey Mouser and Fafhyrd really are picaresque heroes, because although the universe is doing its best to provide direction, the cosmic forces are all screwed up and no-one, including the gods, has any idea WHAT the hell is going to happen. The future is undefined because the cosmic forces are in such disarray. The Grey Mouser and Fafhyrd don't seize free will: they have it thrust upon them because that's what happens when the universe can't get its act together.

Two very different ways in which heroes are related to their fictional worlds. There's Conan the hard-working hero with a specific event-destiny, and no real interference by destiny on his behalf, and then on the other hand there's the Grey Mouser duo, caught up in the rip-tides of myth but with no place to actually go.

It's kind of fascinating.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pitch and torches

If I recall correctly, one of the pieces of advice that Gary Gygax gave about Dungeon Mastering was to read omnivorously, including non-fiction. Since I woke up this morning thinking about torches and flammable things, here are a couple of minor thought-offerings that, even if they don't directly affect your game, might give you some ideas. They concern the mundane and lowly torch.

Pitch is one of the substances used in making torches (I looked this up). This stuff can be derived from petroleum (in which case it is called "bitumen") or from resin. Heating wood without burning it causes tar pitch to drip away from the wood, and this is also, by the way, what causes wood to turn into charcoal. I never knew that -- I'm glad I stumbled across it.

In general, torches have been made not with a single stick of wood, but with a bundle of sticks (or reeds, or bamboo, etc), usually green rather than cured, tied together. Pitch or animal fat is used at the end (impregnated into cloth or moss) to slow down the rate of burning and keep it from blowing out too easily.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Quick note for French speakers

Quick note to all French speakers: check out this OSR-related post!

For all you English-only types, I've got nothing at the moment. The well is dry, the harvest is barren ... but the shopping and the dishes are done, which (given the amount of shopping) is an achievement that still gives me a certain pride.

Sometimes, not thinking about fantasy stuff is a good recharge.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Advise me on an illustration for Core Rules

There seems to be great support for the Garamond font, so I'm going with that for the time being. I have reached the first point (at the cleric class description) where I will be asking Jason Sholtis, who has generously offered some illustrations, for a picture of a cleric.


In terms of making decisions about what the iconic cleric image will be for this game, what should the illustration look like? The character class pictures are foundational for the feel of a lot of the rest of the game.

Please give me your thoughts on either or both of these two questions:
(1) What should be depicted in terms of what the cleric looks like (clothes, age, and activity portrayed), and
(2) What are the best pictures of clerics out there?

Font suggestion needed

What font should I use for the regular text in the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules? I want to use a serif font for sure, so that it's more readable. Several people have told me that Times New Roman is boring to the eye.

But I don't have the artistic-layout "eye" to gauge what other fonts might work well.

This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone ... help ...

Georgia seems to be a pretty good font...

15 minute Fantasy Blast

I have 15 minutes before the next real-life task of the day, so the objective here is to pull out an evocative stream-of-consciousness post during the course of those 15 minutes. Starting with the word "otyugh," and proceeding through word association.

Otyugh, offal, deer, stag, hunt, wild hunt, horned helmet, viking, fur cape, bear, giant bear, fangs, teeth left on the stone floor of a dungeon, skeleton underneath flagstones, mortar, statue with indistinct outlines made of mortar, exploding mortar, falling wall, secret passageway behind old, poorly constructed wall, mouldering carpets, dangerous dust, beams of light shining through dust, light beams that shine on bronze plates triggering trap if the light stops shining on them, symbol etched in metal, Tsojcanth has the effects for those magic circles shown in the DMG, efreet, fire, burning lake of oil, narrow bridge, wizard and white light, monsters with blinding light behind them, searchlight in large dungeon area where you have to avoid it, underground structures, city of underground creatures, lake where they come from, lake has secret passage to other dungeon area underneath, hydraulics, vast moving pistons under the ground, possible flooding of the entire area under the lake if wrong thing is done, flotation devices for adventurers, air sacs, special diving suits, expedition into non-water environment needing protective garments, deep-sea diving, sharks, shark wearing necklace, transformed deity, feeding frenzy, blood in water, blood floating in air, liquid causes problems in gravity-free room, globes float in gravity-free room, breaking globes releases substances both beneficial and baneful, dark ink in air, giant squid floats in air, giant floating squid with weapons, giant floating squid with weapons and mental attacks, giant squid that pulls levers.

13 minutes, including introduction. Hah!
Kind of funny to track the connection between each thing I typed. Mentioning the DMG led to "efreet," for example...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

20% Lulu discount until 4/26

20% off, up to $250 limit. I can't tell for certain if it applies to pdfs. Here's the quote from lulu:
Enter coupon code HOP305 at checkout and receive 20% off your order. The maximum savings for this coupon is $250. Offer good towards print costs only - shipping and tax amounts are excluded. You can only use the code once per account, and you can't use this coupon in combination with other coupon codes. This great offer ends on April 26, 2011 at 11:59 PM so try not to procrastinate! While very unlikely we do reserve the right to change or revoke this offer at anytime, and of course we cannot offer this coupon where it is against the law to do so. Transaction must be in US Dollars
Obviously, I recommend vast purchases of the materials from the Mythmere Games store, and I'll also throw in a good word for John Stater's excellent Land of NOD series.

Gygax your name

I'm making this up as I go along, so it might suck -- consider it the beta version.

Step 1: Roll 1d6
1-3: Take your name (first, last, both, whatever). Unless the first two letters are "Th" or "Sh,"reverse the letters. Ma becomes Am, Wi becomes Iw, etc. If the first two letters were Th, change to Ts. If the first 2 letters were Sh, change to Ss.
4-5: Don't reverse the letters, but add a "j" after the first 2 letters if the third letter is a vowel, or add "y" after the first two letters if the third letter is a consonant.
6: Roll d6 again: (1-3) Add "Y" as the first letter of the name, (4-6) Add "Qua" before the rest of the name.

Step 2: Then:
Roll 1d6 again.
1-2 Don't make any more changes
3-5: Reverse the last two letters of your name (unless "ph" "ch," or "th" in which case see below). If the last letter is now a vowel, roll 1d6 and add the indicated letter at the end. (1) "j," (2) "x," (3) "re" (4) "ff" (5) "u" (6) "pp." Otherwise, with the name ending in a consonant, roll 1d6 and do THIS: (1-2) nothing, (3-4) remove the consonant, (5) double the consonant, e.g., "w" becomes "ww" (6) Split the name into two parts with the first word ending after the first time you run into a vowel followed by a consonant.

If your name ends with "ph" "ch" or "th," roll 1d6: (1) add "o" at the end (2) add an "e" at the end, (3-4) add "u" at the end, (5) add "a" at the end, (6) exchange those letters for "dun."

6: Take the last three letters of the name and move them to the front of the name.

Step 3:
Roll 1d6
(1-2) Pick any consonant, and make it a double consonant (e.g., "k" to "kk")
(3-4) Remove any syllable if the name is too long
(5-6) Change one letter to any other letter

Thus, "Matthew" might become Amtathwe or Maytthe or Quamatthwere.

William might become Iamiwll or Ywillimaj.

See how it works, and let me know in the comments...

... they had to eat Robin's minstrels Part I (Awesome Stylin')

Once upon a time, in a campaign I ran long ago, something cool happened.

The party of adventurers was asked to go across the border into a neighboring kingdom to rescue a priest who had been kidnapped and imprisoned by a local lord. That's not the cool part, that's basic stuff.

The cool thing (which I will get to) highlighted something that a DM may not always be keeping in mind, and since I think many of us on the internet are usually the local DM, I (as a player more than a DM) will point this out for the benefit of all players everywhere.

Back to the story. A friend of ours (this is the RL part) was visiting, and he got to see the cool thing happen when he played in this session with the characters, who were about 7th level.

The players, before the incredulous eyes of the visitor, proceeded to plan the important parts of the expedition: minstrels, uniform livery for the hirelings, an adequate supply of strawberries, trumpeteers, and a barrel of copper pieces to throw to the slack-jawed peasantry along the way. This was NOT thespianism or method acting, or anything like that. It was all undertaken with the seriousness of making sure that the hirelings had armor and that there were mules and ten foot poles.

What some DMs forget is that for the players, this is a game of stylin'. Style. Panache. Swooning maidens, rock-star bad-assitude, and flowers in the god. damn. streets. Bling, baby. You think you're tough? My sword has a name and glows, and you still have five payments due on your wooden pitchfork, Mister Farmer. You're nothing but a dice-roll on my rumor table. The boys are back in town.

My own magic-user character, for instance, wears a bitchin' aztec headress that he acquired from someone who was no longer in need of it. That's style. Not good taste, but it's style. Also a good decoy, since the local baron probably knows that I refer to him as "the guy living in my future house."

Returning, though, to the players I mentioned before, this was part of their standard operating procedure. At second level they started hiring minstrels to write and play songs about their (highly exaggerated) exploits. This was a FUN campaign, in capital letters. Sometimes they ended up in situations where their highly overblown reputation put them in some seriously deep poop, and sometimes it got them out of dangerous situations. Try stalking up to a dragon halfway through its "I will kill you and lay waste to your general vicinity" speech and calmly offer it one of your strawberries "before we begin." Dragon suddenly thinks twice when faced with this kind of "yeah, whatever" reaction to its most terrifying routine. They would have been toast, but the minstrels ready on the sidelines, quill pens poised to record the details of its demise -- this is the sort of thing that makes dragons nervous.

Players don't enjoy a game where they are nobodies forever. Indeed, their whole effort is geared toward becoming the kick-ass powerhouses of legend. My aztec headdress. Their minstrels and strawberries and trumpeteers.

Never forget this about players. Don't smack down the style -- work with it.

Next up, in the second and final part of ...they had to eat Robin's minstrels is a discussion of player stylin' as it applies to Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser, as opposed to Conan, and with important philosophical references to Robin's minstrels. Don't miss it -- I haven't actually written it yet, but I just bet it will be awesome.

*Since I'm using his image from Google images, I should direct people to the underlying website of Martyn Wylde, HERE. I'm totally unfamiliar with him, but it seems only faire.

Internal Module Headings (G1, S4, L1)

This post is about the internal headings used to organize a module so that it's easy for the Referee to assimilate the information contained in it. It might be a matter of little interest to someone who's just writing up an adventure for the weekly session, but there are probably others who, like me, still make the weekly session adventures look a bit like a module. Nevertheless, this is mainly for those who already have the adventure and want to make it as accessible to another reader as possible.

A module operates on several levels, which is something I hinted at in an earlier post about boxed text. It has to be well written in terms of grammar and evocative imagery. And it also has to be a useful quick-reference tool for use during play when something definitely needs to looked up (treasure, a trap, etc).

Here I'm going to talk about organizing the presentation of a module, which is not only part of the technical-reference side of it, but is also about the flow of the first reading -- the Referee's enjoyment and assimilation of the material without having too many WTF moments where pages get flipped backwards again (as I had to do when reading the wilderness section of Tsojcanth).

Originally I was going to write this post by starting with my opinions about organization and then looking to see how the historical modules sort of "met with my approval," but I realized, when mapping the outlines of these modules, that there's room to differ with my opinions (the shock almost killed me, let me tell you). It works better just to show how this was done in a couple of modules, and then I'll bitch about them on a subjective level.

Let's look at the organizational scheme of G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, 1978. This was a tournament module, but I think that for these purposes it's irrelevant whether a module was written for a tournament or for regular play. The goal is to allow the Referee to assimilate, understand, and enjoy the module, and those goals hold true regardless of the module's intended use.

G1 - the Internal Headings
1. Background:
2. Start:
A. Notes for the Dungeon Master

I. KEY TO THE UPPER LEVEL [centered, all caps]
[text on new line]

II. KEY TO THE DUNGEON LEVEL [centered, all caps]
[text on new line]

By contrast, let's look at Tsojcanth (1982):
[Background-type text]
1. Preparing for Play:
2. The Map:
3. Movement Rate:
4. Horses:
5. Food and Hunting:
6. Adventuring Characters:

1. For the Dungeon Master:
2. For the Players:

WILDERNESS ENCOUNTER TABLE (Doesn't fit the format - intended as a special table heading, I think)

... Etcetera

[Matt's note here: this is clearly an error in the outline format, because it should be a sub-heading of Wilderness Encounters, but it is at the same exact font size]

1. General Notes:


B. ENTRY CAVERNS [this is the heading-level for all the numbered locations]

That's the end of the first Tsojcanth booklet - the rest is supplemental information.

L1 The Secret of Bone Hill

A. Notes for the Dungeon Master
B. Random Wilderness Encounter Chart
C. Rumors and facts:
D. Rumor list:

Here I'm stopping on Bone Hill, because the organization of Secret of Bone Hill is a disaster. Things that are obviously subheadings (Dweomer Forest is clearly a subheading of "The Wilderness" but is not shown that way).

My Comments:
None of these is perfect in terms of an outline structure, although Tsojcanth comes pretty close. There's no heading for "Background" to cover the backstory, but this is contained in unmarked text following the big Introduction header, which works fine. It creates an interesting illustration of how EGG perceived the Background information about Tsojcanth to be perhaps less important to the gaming of it (no heading) but vitally important to the overall understanding of what's going on (because it occupies a significant position as the introduction to the rest of the introduction).

By contrast, the weirdly inverted outline of G1 slightly indicates that the Background and the Start are pretty procedural elements - important to play, but not important in an overall way. Notes for the Dungeon Master are more important than anything else in the introductory material, according to the header. In Tsojcanth, DM Notes are equal to Starting Information in terms of emphasis.

Finally, in Bone Hill, the heading "Background" is equivalent to the "Introduction" heading in Tsojcanth, and is used the same way: the introductory material all falls under this heading. The introductory material includes the DM Notes section - as prominent as in Tsojcanth, but still less prominent than in G1. And then .. the starting material all just spews forth with no meaningful organization. A wilderness encounter chart precedes the Wilderness section, Wilderness keyed areas apparently aren't technically part of the Wilderness section, etc. It's incoherent. Bone Hill is a GOOD module, but the organization is really crappy.

My favorite is Tsojcanth: the only place the outline breaks down -- and it really looks like a typesetting error rather than a failure of the organization -- is that "Lettered Encounter Areas" was supposed to be part of "Wilderness Encounters." Or else, what we've got is another one of those subtle indications about the author's intent - that the lettered areas (which do have their own maps in one case) are important enough to have their own heading. That's also possible, especially because there's a map in that section - maybe the idea was that anything with a map gets a roman numeral.

Anyway, I've got my own ideas about how to break down the information in a module, and perhaps I'll do a post on that later, but I think it was more interesting just to show how a couple of TSR modules differed so greatly in their organization.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Boxed text in modules

By "boxed text," I mean the design principle of including, in an adventure module, a section at the beginning of each keyed area which describes what the characters see -- before, then, going into details for the DM about the reality of the situation. Boxed text is written in second person: "You" see this, as opposed to "the characters" see this.

In most cases, the boxed text is used as read-aloud material -- the DM simply reads the description to the players.

As I run through what I think the pros and cons of this approach are, the beginning point is to look at what the text is intended to achieve, and WHY it's intended to achieve that. In other words, when we talk about why, there's an underlying assumption about how a module is supposed to be played -- or, at least, what compromises have been decided upon by the authors of the module in terms of how the module plays most effectively.

So, if I'm going to make any sense with this little article, I have to step up and mention how I think a module ought to be played. That's a bit more than subjective in my case (as editor, publisher, and writer), because you can't write a module without having some of these assumptions in play. A module can't be written if you're not keeping an eye on how to make it work best, and there are choices. If you try to please everyone, you're writing by committee. This has to do with several features of a module that might not be immediately apparent to a reader, including even such things as the size of the font being used.

How I think a module plays best
The assumption I work from is that the strongest gaming moments are when the direct communication between the players and the DM is at its highest level. There's eye contact. The DM is able to answer questions and announce results based on his/her own mental picture of the situation and the environment, without stopping to read something. There is the immediacy of a back-and-forth conversation rather than the sudden gear-shifts involved in changing from direct speech into reading aloud or referencing something. I'm not offering this as a "rule for DMs," I'm just making the observation that -- whatever level it reaches with a particular DM or group of players -- these tend to be when the action is fast and the gaming is strongest.

The upsides and downsides to using this approach as a design rule (and there are downsides to playing this way) are what drive the following opinions.

In Favor: Point #1
The first point to be made about boxed text is, I think, very simple and clear. In the older style of modules (mainly the G and D series, but also B1, etc), boxed text didn't appear. As a result, when the module is actually in play at the gaming table, the DM either has to remember the salient details of the encounter area, or else stop the game temporarily to skim the material. I happen to be an insanely fast reader, and even I have trouble doing this without pausing, or else I lose focus and might miss something a player is saying. Here, I mean when I'm skimming the next room while players are still only approaching it. So here, we avoid one gear-shift. If there's boxed text, the DM doesn't have to suddenly stop, fall silent for a couple of moments, and read (or skim) the room's text.

In Favor: Point #2
This is very much related to point #1. It's about missing an important detail. The faster you remind yourself about what's in that room, the higher the chance that you'll forget to mention something vitally important about the room's description - something the players need to know is in there. The risk is exponential -- it's the complex rooms that require the most reading-through because the room description is longer, which means that they will get skimmed faster by the DM right before playing it, and yet these are the rooms where a subtle detail is more likely to show up -- they are the complex rooms. Boxed text eliminates this risk if it is read aloud.

Against: Point #1
Stopping to read aloud is obviously a shift of gears. It probably creates different levels of shifting, or different levels of problems, depending on the DM and less so on the players. If a group of players simply has a high tolerance for the shift from extempore to reading, it's not a problem at all. And if the DM is superb at reading aloud, it's less of a problem. On the other hand, if the DM has a quiet voice, or reads in monotone, the gear-shift is more pronounced. Whether it's a problem for an individual group, I think it's incontrovertible that the shift in gears exists, and from my perspective that has the potential to reduce the quality of the module in play.

In Favor: Point #3
Since we're talking about a DM who reads in a monotone, we also need to realize that some of us really suck at describing things off the top of our heads. I think I'm really good at this, which is why my initial assumption is that extempore descriptions are better. But many DMs, I think, buy modules precisely because their ability to turn their own visions into rich description isn't very strong. People buy a module for a reason. I don't think this is the most common reason, but it's definitely there -- not everyone is a good communicator. A DM who can read aloud like a silver-tongued devil, but just can't manage to think on his feet about mentioning little details like damp walls or echoing sounds, might definitely prefer to use the boxed text as his tool for setting the atmospheric tone, allowing him to focus on his other skills like monster tactics, or whatever.

Against: Point #2
And THAT brings us to the next negative point, which is that boxed text can force the DM, consciously or unconsciously, into atmospheric descriptions that aren't exactly what he wants to portray. Okay, that's a really, really minor point. Indeed, it's something I totally disregard when writing a module. I think a lot more people, even the ones who don't like boxed text, are still buying the module to see the atmospheric feel of it. Nobody wants to read a bland module, a module that has an inconsistent tone, or a module that keeps telling the DM "you can do this any way you want." If the DM is good enough to distinguish and portray nuances of atmosphere, that DM is almost certainly going to be able to handle the "conversion" from one tone to another.

Conclusion #1
Notice that there is a shift of gears whether you read the text aloud, or whether you skim it quickly to remind yourself of the important details before giving your own extemporaneous descriptions. You either shift to reading (ie, a change in the tone of how things are working at the table) or you pause for a few seconds to refresh your memory (a shift in the pace). A DM who prepares modules with great thoroughness might be able to play without refresher pauses. A DM with less prep-time can't do this, though. This is one of the stark choices to make as an author: who is my audience? I make the decision that more people are buying modules precisely because they have less prep-time available. Hence, that suggests that the modules should have boxed text.

Conclusion #2
The above conclusion, which mentions prep-time, brings up another important point. Everything I addressed above had to do with how the module plays at the game table. But it's also important that the module is easy for the DM to assimilate in the first place. Boxed text isn't just a tool for telling players what they see. It also puts the DM into the shoes of the players while reading. Boxed text can make reading and preparing the module more fun and easier to read and assimilate.

Final Comments
Boxed text can be written badly. Text descriptions of a room can be written in a disorganized fashion and fail to convey atmosphere. A badly written module can't be saved by minor questions like whether they should include boxed text or not.

There are some ways to mitigate those gear-shift changes I've mentioned as being negatives. For example, boxed text can be kept short, so that the gaming reverts quickly back to the extempore conversation across the top of the DM screen. Long, long flowery descriptions will, at a certain point, turn stale and boring. But if they're short, sweet, and evocative, then they will keep things moving as fast as possible, and provide the best compromise in terms of whether you're going to break the pace by reading aloud, break the pace by reading silently for a second, or (possibly the worst) break the pace by discovering that you botched some major detail in the room description.

So I come down in favor of short, boxed text (or italicized, or whatever). The ultimate question is really whether the module is well written, but assuming it's well written, I think this is the best way to make that well-written module function best at the gaming table as a tool for actual gaming.

Back in the saddle, I hope

I should have posted yesterday that I wouldn't have time to get a gaming-related post out there; but the frenzied business of real life seems that it will subside today, so I hope to make a real post, and also to catch up on my various projects a bit today. I have to get my son to school since he slept in, but after that I'll write up that post about the pros and cons of boxed text in a module.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tsjojcanth. Best. Evar. (?)

While watching my wife's macaw to make sure it didn't fly around the house and get eaten by the dogs during its out-of-cage time, I happened to spot my copy of Tsojcanth on the shelf upstairs, and pulled it out to read through.

This wasn't one of the legendary modules of my youth; I didn't have much money for the game accessories, so a friend bought it first. Since I was the DM for almost all our games, that ruled it out for playing, since one of the players had already read it. The new monsters saw immediate use, but not the module. Also, it meant that I never sat there reading through it other than a couple of quick skims of the content.

Looking at it now, with the eye of a sometime publisher, I realized that from the standpoint of the imagery, art, layout, etc., I was looking at a masterpiece.

I have always said that the introduction to Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure is the best module introduction I've ever read, and Tsojcanth still doesn't top it, but it comes close enough to be in Behir-breath-range. There's something very Fritz Leiber in the style of both these modules, too. It's not at the baroque level of Vance's thinking, but it's also not at the dark purple level of Clark Ashton Smith on the other end of the spectrum. It's got the Leiberlike feeling of adventure in a way that I can't quite isolate.

The cover art is mind-rocking. Darker tones, just weird enough (see the physical construction of the behir) to push past gritty and medieval imagery such as Trampier and Sutherland's monochrome covers. It is both dynamic and dark, which is a combination not always achieved. It breaks my rule that a good cover depicts the moment either just before or just after something happens. This is action midstream, and I think it's the exception proving the rule.

Okay, matching the key for the outdoor map to the descriptive text was very poorly done, and the same problem existed with locating some of the map flow in the caverns. Important information about that is buried in text. This would get a modern OSR module absolutely blasted by reviewers these days, but I figured it out, and the text in which the information was buried happened to be decent enough that I didn't mind browsing for it. I do find it interesting that the standards we currently follow for module organization would have devastated Tsojcanth in a modern review.

The boxed test is good -- avoiding being too long or too flowery. I think boxed text is an important tool for reasons I might use as a blog post at some later date.

And the internal art is magnificent. This was clearly conceived as a masterpiece work, and that shines through. That feeling, of the masterpiece-making intent, might be one of the module's strongest features overall.

I'm thinking of writing a module to accompany the new printing of the core rules, and if I do, I'm going to be looking at Tsojcanth for the organizational and editing "template." And looking for that "this will be a masterpiece" attitude when writing it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Final" Cover for Core Rules 4th print

Core Rules Test Cover

Big Project Announcement

This is about the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules

The Core Rules have been sort of left at the altar while I wrote the Complete Rules for Frog God Games, plus doing the art book, Knockspell #5, etc. Then my computer started dying, and then the new computer presents various new challenges with new software.

I'm ready to get the Core Rules out there again, but with a slight nudge in terms of what they represent. The Core Rules have changed a bit since the advent of WhiteBox and Complete. Originally the Core Rules were the OD&D I was publishing. A catch-all to represent the whole game in miniature. Now it fits badly as a catch-all, since with WB and Complete the gamut is actually covered. There's no need for what Core originally was. Where I see it now is as the archetypal 4 (yes 4) class system, with the thief being optional but still side-by-side with the other 3. I want to fix movement, I want to add the optional saving throw categories, I want to put in the wilderness encounters. I want it to be clearer that it's the LBBs plus the GH supplement (minus the paladin because more important than anything else, it's the archetype-classes game).

Making those changes takes time in terms of the production side (layout technology). Between working with Frog God, finishing the art book, and now getting used to new software, those layout issues have looked a bit like the side of a mountain.

However, my goal (and I can't realistically put a time frame on this since I don't know what kind of problems I'll run into) is to get the slightly tweaked version out in hardcover, with free pdf, etc. I have to chance the cover to reflect the new title, and I want to add outdoor encounters, optional saving throw categories, clarify how combat movement works, use the clearer treasure tables from Complete, etc. There is some work involved, even though I want it to be fully compatible with the original core edition.

However, it's the new priority while material is still coming in for Knockspell - I have a gap there. This last two weeks have been a bitch in RL ... it's mainly a matter of time more than anything else, because I know that with new technology there are going to be parts of the process where I'm going to be tearing out hair.

The issue, just so you understand, is that the original Core Rules are in a type of file (inDesign) that I can't use - and I think there are a couple of art pieces I no longer have or never had. So there's more assembly required than one would assume. The cover needs to be re-done to reflect things like Black Blade not being the publisher, and calling it either Essentials or Basic, or whatever, and I also can't make that change without re-creating the cover from scratch.

When I start working on this, it might happen fast, but I expect lots of frustrations. Once it's done, though, I will put up a hardback, softback, free pdf, and rtf file. It's just that the background work required on a book like this is more complex than most people realize (if you're not a graphic/layout artist) and I really don't want to put up a book that's about to get pulled off for a new "version."

Just keeping everyone in the loop, since there are lots of questions about this. I expect this printing to come out of the gate very strong. More details as they emerge.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Technological Paralysis

So ... my old Adobe Photoshop won't initialize on the new computer, because it thinks the "scratch disk" is full. As far as I can tell, this means it's not satisfied with the 1.3 or so TERABYTES of memory available on the c drive, so something is wrong. And I can't screw around with the preferences in the program, which is how you're supposed to fix problems with this, because it won't initialize in the first place.

Which means that I'm going to be out several hundred dollars to get a more recent version, and that really sucks, because selling gaming books and modules is not exactly the fastest way to make several hundred dollars.

Anyway, without any useful graphics program working at the moment, I am kind of screwed. It's possible that the "Paint" program that came with the computer is actually capable of doing a lot of what I need - that will be the next thing I check out.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Youtube review of Swords & Wizardry Complete

I hear that this is a good review here:
but since I can't make any speakers work on my new computer, I have no idea what this guy is actually saying.

Pasadena, CA S&W game!

From The Reverend Dak, announcing a California Swords & Wizardry game!

The next D&D Meet-up in Pasadena, CA is on May 7th and I'm going to be running a 0e D&D game. It will be an entry level adventure (great for beginners) as I will getting my own feet wet with the Swords and Wizardry Complete Rulebook. Registration for players will be open one week before the game (Apr 30) but as the GM I can reserve a few seats. I'd like to open the opportunity for S&W Guild members to get a seat before the general public can register. As a courtesy to the Meet-up organizer, I want to leave a few open for Meet-up members. So if you can pass this on to the Guild, they can contact me directly to reserve a seat. I'm hoping one or two seats reserved for S&W Guild members.

Pasadena D&D Meetup:

0e: Swords & Wizardry: Old-School Dungeon Crawl (Original D&D)
DM: The Reverend Dak
Level: 1, Introductory Adventure
Start Time: 2:30PM
Length: 4 hours
Players: Alyssa, Annie, Guild Member, Guild Member
Open spots: 2
Notes: BYOC (Bring Your Own Char.) OK. 1st Level, 0 XP. Any OD&D, S&W
Complete Edition or Freestyle class or race should be OK. Iconic
pre-gens will be available. Minimal house-rules. DM rules
interpretations in full effect! Visit my DM-ing blog for more

Dungeon Design Deskbook at UDG

James Smith of the inimitable Underdark Gazette has done a sort of combination review-and-demo of my Dungeon Design Deskbook (volume 1). I don't know if he's planning on fleshing the exercise into a series as he continues with it, but I'm really psyched that he's liking it so much.

Especially that he's so pleased with it when he starts the post with "I'm feeling sluggish, uncreative and generally out of sorts, today. So, my current emotional reality will make for a fine test of the material."

This sort of introduction to a review can send shivers down an author's spine, let me tell you. However, it seems that generating some adventure background with the book cheered him up some, although the scenario he generates from the tables is pretty grim. A nice scenario, by the way. He concludes: By the way, I love this book. You should get one, before FGG runs out!

The four volumes of this series are all written, and will be published as a single volume by Frog God Games in the fairly near future (I don't have the estimated date, yet, but soon). In the meantime, if you want to get just one (or both) of the first two volumes, you can get printed copies at Frog God Games -- the various legacy products from BBP that are in stock are all listed here. (look on the right hand side to see the list).

I didn't have the pdfs up on lulu until James wrote his review and I got a couple of emails asking where to get the pdf. So I have put the pdf of volume 1 -- the one James reviews -- back into the store at a cut price (since eventually this will only be part 1 of 4). Somehow I don't have a pdf of the second volume (Monsters), so I'm working on that. Probably in the wrong folder.

Also, I can't make Photoshop work on my new computer, so the little promo-picture for the pdf is one of lulu's crappy templates. The actual cover is only visible in the preview.

You can find the pdf here: Direct link to Mythmere's Adventure Design Deskbook #1
Or if you want to check out the whole store, this is the link to the whole store.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Skull Mountain S&W Game in Austin Texas

Jimm Johnson will be running his Skull Mountain (OD&D/Swords&Wizardry) game this month at King's Hobby shop in Austin Texas (8810 N. Lamar Blvd. Austin, TX 78753). The game will go from noon to 6 PM on Sunday, April 24. Here's the description:

Two days north of the last outpost of the Sparn Empire, through the cannibal haunted jungles of Brool, across the piranha teeming river, a great boulder-strewn crag rises from the mists. An enormous, leering reptile skull sits atop the rugged formation. Some say the skull is an odd natural formation, while others insist it is the petrified remains of some primordial unhuman god. Whatever its origins, the whispered tales of Skull Mountain all agree on one thing: incredible treasure and unmatched glory await those bold and foolish enough to penetrate the mountain, unravel its dark secrets, and brave its untold dangers. Of course such treasure and glory will only accrue to those who can return alive!

This is an OD&D/Swords & Wizardry scenario for low-level characters and beginning or experienced players. Characters will be created at the table before play begins.
If anyone's going to be in the vicinity, play on! It's SKULL MOUNTAIN!!!

Sign up here!

Fates of Our Friends when the Greyhawkization comes

I already covered the fates of a couple of our well-known bloggers when the mind-flayer spaceship causes earth to become Greyhawk (see earlier posts on this imminent danger).

So, what happens to various of our known personalities?
I already mentioned:
Chgowiz: Lots of Canadians visit, hurled across Atlantic, motorcycle trip across Furyondy, eaten by giant crayfish after buying a hamburger in Hommlet.
Melan: eaten by mind-flayer
James Smith: not eaten by mind-flayer, otherwise MIA.
Johnathan Bingham: becomes Zagyg, the mad archmage

Stuart Marshall (author of OSRIC, tall Englishman): Probably eaten by mind-flayers (see earlier description of what will inevitably happen in England due to mind-flayers and short hedges),but he's got a suit of armor and a sword, so he might fight his way through to the Chunnel and make it to Furiondy. Being English, he won't like Furyondy (the French) and would likely become the Duke of Urnst.

James Boney (author of Ice Tower of the Salka and other modules): Located in Arkansas, and looks like a pretty scary guy, which means that he's got a few hit dice. I see Greyhawk as basically Arkansas with Scottish accents, so probably James gets annoyed that he can't understand all those Scottish accents and uses his high hit dice to become a bandit chieftain. I'm just guessing, because Arkansas doesn't seem to make it over into the mapped part of Greyhawk, unless maybe it's the Pomarj or the Wild Coast, in which case James is probably responsible for a lot of the chaos and partying in that region. Likely conclusion: freeholder in the Wild Coast, or bandit leader in the Pomarj.

Taichara (Canadian blogger) Unless she heads over to crash at Chgowiz's house, she's done for. As a security officer who might have a gun, though, she and Chgowiz probably find a sidecar and undertake the Furyondy motorcycle tour together. Eaten by giant crayfish along with Chgowiz.

Jeff Rients: I don't know if Champaign, Illinois is going to make it over the Atlantic to land on Italy along with Lake Geneva. Might, might not. Likely result: Jeff and Southern Illinois sink into the sea and Jeff is eaten by Cthulhu. Since Cthulhu plays no real role in Greyhawk, one can only assume that eating Jeff was enough of a snack, and the Great Old One went back to his nap afterward. So actually, Jeff saves us all.

James Maliszewski: The most recent post by James begins as follows: Among the philosophies of Men, none is more widespread -- or debated -- than that of Law. For many, if not most, Law is little more than a shorthand term for "civilization" and the order that supports it.

Obviously, James is mind-flayer chow. He's exactly the big brain type that makes a mind-flayer drool in anticipation like a dog at a meat convention.

Cyclopeatron: Obviously any kind of space-weapon that hurls Lake Erie to the south of Belgium is not going to leave California anything other than sunk into the Pacific ocean. Assuming that Cyclopeatron heeds my warnings and heads south, though, he will make it far enough to be captured by the resurgence of Mesoamerican culture and sacrificed to Camazotz at Tamoachan by priests wearing feathered cloaks.

Beedo has just mentioned that he's on his way to Africa, so he's going to end up somewhere around the Amedio jungle rather than disappearing into the sea to be eaten by Cthulhu like Jeff Rients. Probably he tries to get north to Greyhawk but ends up on the Isle of the Ape, becoming the High Priest of King Kong.

Okay, that's it.

The Great Greyhawkization: Furyondy and Halflings

Okay, you have to read back several posts to understand all this, but in summary I am warning everyone that - based on some recent research in the Netherlands - there is an imminent mind-flayer attack from space that will turn the world into Greyhawk. The logic is impeccable and can't be argued with, but you need to read the earlier posts starting here, to follow the steps of this geometry-like proof.

Origins of Furyondy. France. Yep. How do I know? Because English is the common tongue. "Okay," you might ask, "How do you know that English is the common tongue?" Read the f***king Gazeteer! Jeez, what language is it in? Now, since there isn't a geographical place in Greyhawk that looks like England, obviously everyone just drove through the chunnel and spread out through all of Greyhawk while the mind-flayers were making high tea out of the people without cars. Then it sank into the water, probably.

How does this indicate that Furyondy is the remnant of France? Because "Fury" means being pissed off, and how do you think the French are going to feel when they discover that EVEN THOUGH England got completely destroyed, French is STILL not the dominant language and that everyone is STILL speaking English? Yeah, that's right. They'll be furieux. But no one can pronounce "furieux" because they all speak English, so when the French tell everyone that they're "Furieux," everyone thinks, "okay, you're a furieux, so you must be from Furiondy, right?" In the face of this, the French people will characteristically become reduced to a sputteringly wrathful incoherence, and since they don't contradict the English speaker, the English speaker walks away saying, "Furiondy, eh? The food is good, but the waiters are rude."

Which brings us to the fact that the MOST English speaking of all English speaking anything are the halflings. When you live in places called things like "Westfarthing," it's pretty clear where you came from. So, the exodus-via-Chunnel that spreads English across Greyhawk as the common tongue is probably halflings. Why does every Englishman over about five feet tall die in the mind-flayer attack? It's because of hedges. All of England is criss-crossed by little hedges and fences that are no taller than five feet. So the short people can hide behind the hedges, but if you're taller, the mind-flayers can see you. Which is why it's only the short English people who make it to the Chunnel and drive through in their tiny Mr. Bean smart-cars to colonize the new geography of Greyhawk. Eventually all those smart cars decompose, since they are made of recyclable materials, and there's no sign of the halfling invasion. Yep, it's just like rock and roll, another British invasion. Only it's hobbits in small biodegradable cars.

Look people, this is real. Could I make this up?

The Greyhawkization - effect on various bloggers

Of the various folks out in the blogosphere, some are going to end up better off than others when the mind-flayer attack from space (see irrefutable evidence in earlier entry) reshapes the world into Greyhawk.

Chgowiz probably does the best of us, because he's pretty near Lake Geneva and we all know that Lake Geneva is the Free City of Greyhawk. The only problem is that Blackmoor is the highest-tech place in Greyhawk, so that's the leftovers of the Netherlands and Switzerland. Which means that Lake Erie is going to make a pretty big tectonic shift to be roughly south of Belgium. Hang on, Chgowiz, it's going to be a bumpy ride. He won't mind, though, because he's got a Harley, and who wouldn't want to drive a Harley across the roads of Furyondy? "Dude, was that a moathouse? Totally picturesque! Let's stop in that nearby little hamlet and grab some road-food, and we'll go check it out. Maybe have a picnic, and go fishing for crawdads or something."

John Bingham is in some trouble, though, because unless something happens to Italy it's going to end up right under Chgowiz and Lake Geneva. However, one can postulate that this might be related to the creation of castle Greyhawk and its tunnels. See, the Italians, down there under Lake Geneva, are going to try and dig their way out. Eventually, they will get to the surface and build Castle Greyhawk. How do I know this? Two pieces of evidence. First, Castle Greyhawk is a ruin. Have you ever been a tourist in Rome? Everything's a ruin. Colosseum, etc. It's all half falling down - that's just how they do it, apparently. It explains why the upper works of the castle are in such bad condition: subterranean Italian architects. Secondly, another piece of evidence for Italians digging their way out: the tunnels under Castle Greyhawk go in all kinds of crazy directions. It's Italian organization and project management at work. Does Rome have orderly, gridded streets like Manhattan? No. Do the dungeons of Greyhawk Castle have orderly, gridded tunnels? No.
Q.E.D. It's Italians.
It's even possible that if John Bingham takes the lead in this process, he will later be known as the Mad Archmage. Time to cowboy up, Johnathan - find a pointy hat and start wearing it now!

Melan is in even worse trouble, because he's on the wrong side of the Alps, so he's either going to get eaten by a mind flayer or become a vampire since he's in Hungary. I don't have high hopes because he's a brainy guy -- exactly what the mind flayers want.

James Smith of the Underdark Gazette is apparently in Alabama. That's not near the known world of Greyhawk, so I can't predict exactly what will happen to him in the Great Greyhawkization. However, I estimate that he won't be eaten by a mind flayer because -- let's face it -- Alabama's not going to be their preferred hunting ground.

You Canadians just don't show up anywhere in Greyhawk, so I figure you're toast. Mind-flayer city, unlike Alabama. Sorry, guys. I recommend that really quickly you all head over to Chgowiz's house and hang out until Lake Erie makes its journey across the Atlantic to smash down on Italy. Bring chips and sleeping bags -- Chgowiz isn't going to feed all you guys, there isn't enough room in his refrigerator, and it might piss off the Princess Bride.

That's all the useful advice I can give right at this moment, I'm afraid. Lay in a stock of guns, because the mind flayers are coming. Tin-foil hats might stop them from detecting thoughts, also. Put 'em on just in case.

More about Dutch Drow and our Greyhawk future

My earlier post explains the basic existence of the Underdark, and why it originated in the Netherlands. Netherlands! That's underlands, if you didn't notice. The early history of Greyhawk is full of foreshadowed prophetic coincidences, and the early history of Greyhawk is us. There's no question about it any more.

The existence of a crashed starship in the Barrier Peaks? Evidence. Place names across Greyhawk that sound kind of Belgian-Flemish? Evidence.

Here's what is going to happen to us, so be prepared.
Dutch scientists create lightless agriculture.
Meeuws and three other Dutch bioengineers have taken the concept of a greenhouse a step further, growing vegetables, herbs and house plants in enclosed and regulated environments where even natural light is excluded.

Mind-flayer starship (we know they do this - witness the Barrier Peaks) flies close to Earth and destroys civilization with radiation and stuff to turn it into a cattle-planet, only they miss Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, probably because of the Alps being in the way. It has already done its scouting pass.

A small near-Earth asteroid (NEA), discovered Monday night by the NASA-funded LINEAR asteroid survey, will make the closest approach to Earth ever recorded. There is no danger of a collision with the Earth during this encounter.

The object, designated 2004 FH, is roughly 30 meters (100 feet) in diameter and will pass just 43,000 km (26,500 miles, or about 3.4 Earth diameters) above the Earth's surface on March 18th at 5:08 PM EST (2:08 PM PST, 22:08 UTC).

Obviously this was only a scoutship, because there aren't enough ten-foot squares in a ship that's only 100ft in diameter. The big ship is lurking out there, though.

Also, all that spacewar stuff is going to change the geography around, which is why Belgium and Switzerland end up on the Eastern Coast of a continent instead of a Western Coast. So, the bombardment is going to be really bad if it makes water and land switch places. We can deduce this, though, from the map of Greyhawk, and we know we are Greyhawk because of this Dutch underground agriculture thing. It follows perfectly.

Basically the only radiation effects on the Dutch are going to be those pointy ears, but some of them are so radiation-burned that their skin turns black, and it's a heritable trait, which is enough to make some of them say, "Screw this, we're going under the ground, (which used to be a sea hereabouts), and be safe from the radiation." The other Dutch that only got the pointy ears are more sanguine about their chances on the surface, but just in case they do what anyone would do, and try to stay in the shade as much as possible, which means disappearing into the forests. Duh. They're the elves. That's why no one can speak Elvish: it's Dutch.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, people just become really short from the radiation GNOMES OF ZURICH! only the foreshadowing is wrong and they are dwarves instead. It's natural for echoes of the future to be wrong. Gnomes probably come later. The Swiss origins of the Dwarves explain the whole "we like gold" thing, and suggests that the Monster Manual omitted the fact that dwarves probably like chocolate. Gnomes probably come from interbreeding between the Swiss and the Dutch, I guess.

The rest of the world is like Gamma World for a while, only there is a lot of natural selection going on because of the mind-flayers treating everyone like brain-cattle. Because of the natural selection we get spells, with which we start pummeling the mind-flayers until the mind-flayers say, "Screw this, we're going underground with the Dutch because we have diodes too."

Which basically leaves the surviving humans out there with the mutants (goblins and rust monsters and things like that), except for the Dutch living in the shade of the forests and a bunch of short Swiss bankers tunneling around madly in the Alps until they decide to diversify into some other mountain chains and end up pretty much all over the place.

Get ready everyone. Greyhawk is coming.

(Next up: results of the Great Greyhawkization on various bloggers)

Vault of the Drow: EXPLAINED! Drow are future Dutch.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
Arthur C. Clarke, "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

Nobody can whine any more about the ecology of the Drow or the underdark. Indeed, I have found a few clear conclusions based on the link I will reveal below.
1) The elves are the descendants of Dutchmen.
2) So, therefore, are the Drow.
3) Greyhawk is a future world.
4) The Drow make use of diode technology.

Here, my good friends, all is explained. Does the italicized text sound familiar?

Meeuws and three other Dutch bioengineers have taken the concept of a greenhouse a step further, growing vegetables, herbs and house plants in enclosed and regulated environments where even natural light is excluded.

In their research station, strawberries, yellow peppers, basil and banana plants take on an eerie pink glow under red and blue bulbs of Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. Water trickles into the pans when needed and all excess is recycled, and the temperature is kept constant. Lights go on and off, simulating day and night, but according to the rhythm of the plant — which may be better at shorter cycles than 24 hours — rather than the rotation of the Earth.

Oh yes, we all know where there are eerie pink glowing plants and tricking water. Nobody's fooling us. We know exactly where this trend leads. It leads to spider worship.

Here is the full link.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Razor's Edge 2: Conversions

I was writing in an earlier post about converting Pathfinder modules to our older systems; not because I expect anyone to be doing that at this point but more because of the baseline assumptions about what constitutes old-style and should thus be converted.

For me, the parts of any module that don't inherently need conversion are the backstory about what the place is and why it's now dangerous, and the tactical set-up of the map/monsters.

On the other hand, the monsters themselves may need adjustment, as I discussed in my previous post. There are a couple of other factors involved, though, in adapting a modern module into the old-style rules.

First off is the level of characters for which the adventure is designed. There is a particular feel to an adventure -- killing a powerful, evil wizard works best as a higher level adventure because of its feel. Giving a brilliantly thought-out way for a lower level party to kill an evil wizard, even if it's a way that doesn't have a problem like a powerful NPC ally, STILL doesn't feel right if the adventure's concept doesn't feel low level.

I had this problem surface, by the way, with the "Tower of Mouths" adventure I wrote for Knockspell magazine. More than one of the readers told me that going into a totally abandoned wizard's tower in the middle of a city didn't feel like a really high level adventure (at least, not the way I'd written it). So for that adventure I ended up reducing the threat levels to toggle down the adventure -- not because of any problem with the adventure itself, but to make the situation match up with the character levels.

In Pathfinder and 3e, the game is designed to go to higher levels, which means that the whole bell curve where game-threat is matched to game-feel doesn't map directly from PF to OD&D or vice versa. It's close, but you have to watch for it, especially at the higher levels.

Thus, I tend to approach conversions as kind of a holistic process. I start with the monsters. I screw around with the methods I mentioned in the earlier approach: avoiding a monster group that is entirely leveled-up, toning down monsters that are too leveled-up relative to the "standard type," and making sure that several of the encounters involve monsters that offer different types of threats at one time.

The result, since I've been working more from feel than from numbers, is that a lot of these encounters will vary pretty widely in terms of how difficult they are. That actually kills two birds with one stone, because it removes the "game balance" which is generally advocated in more modern games. I want that gone anyway. However, I still have to make sure that the right ones are the difficult ones. In general (generally), a module should go from easier to harder as the adventurers move through it, assuming that they follow the most likely pathway. This definitely isn't a firm rule, but it's a rule I'd have to have some reason to break if I wanted to break it.

Which leads to the fact that, again, since I've been working from the feel rather than the numbers, the resulting set of encounters might or might not fit the character levels for which the adventure was designed in the modern system. I change -- if it's necessary -- the character level to fit the difficulty, not the difficulty to fit the character level.

Finally, there's another issue, which is that modern game systems (a) don't necessarily resolve traps based on player skill, using a die roll instead, and (b) traps and similar difficulties are often made more difficult to match the character level in a modern adventure.

Problem (a) isn't something I've really had to deal with, since the Necromancer Games authors are already on board with the idea that a trap or trick needs to be fully described. It's a poor author, even in a modern game, who just describes a trick or trap as a die roll. Thus far, I haven't run into it. Part (b) requires some changes. In general, even a high level old-style adventure contains only a couple of "more than usually difficult" traps, locks, or whatever. The whole point of being a thief is that you have a higher and higher chance to open locks. If the locks routinely get more difficult, your chance of opening them never changes. That sucks. So I remove lots of references to "difficult" inanimate challenges, and make them standard. I keep in mind, though, that it's cool to make some of these into unusual challenges - variation is the spice of an adventure, and the thieves should encounter some difficult stuff (and some easier stuff, but I tend to forget that). But the difficult stuff should be the exception rather than the rule.

Nevertheless, in several cases, I have to beef up, not necessarily the description of a trap's trigger and appearance, but I do generally have to add in the description of the clue-to-disarm and the disarming mechanism. Those tend to be glossed over in modern modules; again, in the Necromancer modules this has tended to be less of a problem than it would be if I were converting some of the other 3e material that I've seen. The Necromancer writing style tends to provide a lot of this description even though it's technically not necessary within the structure of the modern rules.

And then, there's often some description of skill checks in the modern modules. These I treat with a whole variety of changes, based usually on the tactical importance of the skill check. Some, I totally ignore as completely unimportant to the module. If there's a book in some foreign language that might or might not be readable based on a "knowledge check?" Who cares. Elves and magic users can read it. Or it's totally unreadable without a spell. Whatever. On the other hand, if climbing a wall should tactically involve a risk -- I might use either a saving throw or even (gasp) an ability check if I think character level ought to be irrelevant to the task. In the process of converting inanimate threats, I tend to focus (as I did with monsters) first on the tactical importance of the challenge (whether to use a check at all) and then on the description that's given (what sort of check to use, which is usually 1d6 or a saving throw), and then I tailor the game-threat to match the description (how hard is the check - is there a penalty or a bonus, or is it preferably just normal).

I guess that's it. But the interesting thing is what the process says about what old-style gaming actually is. It's probably not a complete list, but here are the things I work from:
a) Often monster encounters have numerous monsters compared to modern games
b) The differences between the types of threat offered in a mixed-foe encounter is more distinct; the threats are quite different in terms of tactics, and create bigger tactical decisions. There's not the subtlety of five-foot steps, attacks of opportunity, reach of weapons, etc., but the broader brushstrokes of the tactics -- the big tactical decisions -- are clearer.
c) Monsters tend to have less variation within a species in the older games. This fits again into (b) above. They move in squads (or couples, or individuals) that have considerably different tactics and capabilities from group to group than in a modern game where the monsters have more subtle gradations in their tactics and skills -- and more of the monster have these gradations instead of having squads of identical monsters.
d) Traps and tricks have relatively rich descriptions, so the DM can figure out what happens when the players need information and then start tinkering. That information is more necessary. This also isn't a problem in all modern game writing, even though it's there more for flavor than in the old-style approach.
e) Game balance less important - duh, we all know that one.
f) Character level needs to match up with the epic-ness or lack thereof of the module's theme. That's true of modern modules too, but the character levels don't map onto each other.

Whew - I don't think I'll need a part three on this one. I believe I covered it all. :)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

And now for something completely different: Dungeon Ditty

With all due credit to the mastery of Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame, I present my dungeon version of Ratty's Ducks' Ditty.

Dungeon Ditty

All along the corridors, and
Through the ancient halls
Monsters are a-wandering:
Out swords, all!

Giant rats, flail snails,
Umber hulks a-quiver;
Kuo-Toa out of sight,
Lurking in the river.

Slushy green slime awaits
'neath the idol's grin:
This, the demon's larder,
Is deep and cold and grim.

Hirelings form, and level pikes!
What do we see?
Serried ranks of skeletons,
Three by three

High above the surface,
Rocs whirl and call,
We are down a-dungeoning,
Out swords all!

(I take full responsibility for the above nonsense).

The actual Ducks' Ditty is:

All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!

Ducks' tails, drakes' tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!

Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roach swim—
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.

Everyone for what he likes!
like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!

High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call—
are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!

Kenneth Grahame

The razor's edge: converting systems

How This Topic Came About
As most people know, the way Frog God games is able to offer inexpensive old school modules is because of the effective subsidy that comes from Pathfinder players. It also works the other way around -- both game systems "share" the cost of a module's production -- but from our perspective it still operates as a subsidy.

This happens because a FGG module is initially produced for one system, then is also adapted for the other. The end results can be quite different, but they can share the same interior art, which cuts that part of the cost per module in half.

How This Creates a Judgment Call
The adaptations can run very deep in terms of the changes being made -- they aren't just a set of mechanical changes to stats. As a result, there are some judgment calls to be made, and what's particularly interesting is that these judgment calls require the adapter of the module to have a fairly clear idea of what the parameters of "old school" really are in terms of creating a real document for a real DM to use at a real gaming table. In other words, what do you need to change and why?

Monster Advancement
Many Pathfinder modules (and this is true for 3e as well) rely on the concept of powering up the "standard form" of a monster in one of a few various ways: size (obvious effect); templates (adding a set of skills and attributes based on a concept like "cursed," or "shadow"); or character levels. This is something that appears in old-school D&D as well, either in a fairly random sense ("THIS skeleton breathes fire, because ... it's ... well, it's a FIRE BREATHING skeleton!" -- no real explanation needed) or in a relatively formalized sense ("Drow have cleric levels") or based on a simple "some are stronger" concept (most humanoid monsters have leader types with more hit dice).

So it can't be said that OD&D or AD&D are totally different from 3e/PF at a fundamental level when it comes to monster advancement. The 3e/PF advancements are all subject to official monster-advancing rules, which has a "wrong" feeling for me, but from the players' perspective, that's a hidden factor. They see only the monster's outer facade, not the webwork of rules and numbers of the actual stats. What they perceive from their perspective is roughly similar to what we, as OD&D/AD&D players, see from our side of the DM screen as well. That is to say, monsters with abilities over and above the standard "type" for that monster.

However, there is a difference, I think, in terms of when monster advancement is used. This gets into that unpleasant territory where everything I say is subject to a, "Yeah, well, that's how you do it, buster" type of criticism; where I appear to be making vast generalizations; and where I might sound like I'm criticizing a "new school" attitude by means of a straw man argument. My point, though, is that when you are making a conversion from a modern version of D&D into an older version, if you want to do it right, without using rote formulas, this is exactly the territory you must enter.

I'm going to make the sweeping generalization that 3e and PF use monster advancement in two particular ways that are different from the old style. First, monster advancement is treated as more common -- that is to say, monsters are generally seen as having more variation in size, HD, and skills across the entire species, whereas old style monsters are seen as pretty similar within one species. Result? The standard type tends to disappear in 3e/PF into little more than one of the possibilities -- it exists only in the monster manual as a baseline for modification. This happens for various reasons related to the structure of the games: 3e/PF generally don't promote mass combats because of the complexity of combat (at a structural level, PF is closer to a skirmish wargame, while older style leans a bit more toward squad-level rules). Also, the combat-balancing rules internal to PF/3e mandate giving the DM more tools for fine-tuning the difficulty of an encounter. There are a bunch of other structural "nudges" toward monster advancement and the way it is used, but since I'm already generalizing with flamboyant abandon, I won't make an artificial excursion into the reasons.

The conclusion to be drawn from the previous paragraph is that when converting a 3e/PF module, I have to be alive to the fact that in order to maintain an old-style feel to the module, one of my tools is to back down the number of individualized versions of any particular monster type. Increase the number of "regular" ones. Sometimes by quite a bit, which leads me to a second point:

In addition to the commonness of advanced monsters in PF, the degree to which they are advanced is a huge difference. In fact, I think it's by far the more significant distinction between the systems. You can, without blinking, have an orc that's a 10th level fighter in PF. For old-style gaming, that simply strains not only the traditional method, but the nature of the monster. Orcs are fodder, attacking in masses with their "reckless hate." That's the feel of the monster. They aren't individually very powerful, not even the chieftains. There's an upper limit to the concept of "an orc." If you need something more powerful to throw into the mix, you don't advance the orcs by much -- what you do is to add in some ogres, perhaps an ogre mage, perhaps a (still-weak) witch doctor, perhaps even a renegade human character-type. There are plenty of ways to increase the difficulty of an orc encounter, but generally it's done without advancing the orcs -- and CERTAINLY not by upping the power of ALL the orcs in the encounter. We don't tend, except in those situations where the rule is made to be broken, the entire power level of a monster type.

Hence, a second tool for converting a PF module (when faced with an encounter in which all the monsters are stepped up) is to create two or more tiers of power. This means adding grunts, leader types, and possibly a spell caster so that the tactics of the players have to account for the varying capabilities of these different types. The tactical side of an encounter, to my mind, is vastly enriched by having a mix of opponent capabilities. This is still the case in many PF encounters, I should point out, but what I'm talking about is making those tiers VERY distinct from each other in terms of what they can do. The differences between different opponents in a PF encounter is relatively more subtle than it is in an old-style encounter. In the old-style approach, you often see a very big distinction between (a) the rank-and-file who charge the party, weak but hoping to overcome by numbers -- or else showering arrows down and dying in droves at the same time; (b) the enemy spellcasters who rely on the others to shield them from melee, and (c) the tougher hardpoints, like ogres in an orc encounter, or the orc sergeants.

The big distinction between combat tiers in terms of tactics and capabilities is a distinct characteristic of old-style encounters -- again, partly because the system is more capable of quickly handling combats that involve masses of grunts.

Okay, that's all for now, and I really only covered one issue -- the advancement of monsters. Probably I'll weigh in later with something about encounter/game balance, the "feel" of levels, traps/locks, and other matters that are involved with conversion.

Just to leave you with this point, though -- I'm not so much talking about the methods of conversion as I am talking about what the conversions tell me about what I think old-style gaming really is. What defines it -- what makes me actually alter something in a PF module to make it conform to an old-school style, even though I'm totally aware that someone else might approach it completely differently.

And so, until next time! Same bat channel, and all that stuff.