Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Sword of Air Funded!" Or is it "Area of the Sword?"

Today's blog topic is an easy one: the Sword of Air Kickstarter funded this morning, hitting the $75,000 mark. This doesn't yet reach the goal that's more important to me, the 400-backer target that lets us pay off remaining royalties on the Swords & Wizardry rules pdf, but it's still the most significant milestone along the way.

Next time (reminder to self) I hope to write about compatibility across OSR products.

Sword of Air, for those not familiar with it, is Bill Webb's big adventure series from his home campaign in the late seventies. It has a big wilderness map and several locations that were the adventure locations. The locations are awesome; on the other hand, the way Bill had them tied together in his campaign was as part of a quest to assemble an artifact, which is a device I don't like, myself. In his defense, he wrote this in 1977 or some ridiculously early point in time.

My sense of it is that the locations will be much, much stronger than the quest, in terms of influencing the book's feel. Bill doesn't write railroads or plotlines, he writes locations, and he hates "storylines" in an adventure, so my guess is that, despite the "Sword of Air," this is really going to be more like "Area of the Sword."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Free Rules!

As a part of the Sword of Air Kickstarter (large mini-campaign with epic adventure designed back in the late 70s), we are planning to release the Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook as a free pdf instead of charging the $10 we used to charge for it. This isn't just a bit of marketing legerdemain: we will be foregoing almost a couple of hundred dollars a month because of this. However, we decided that we want to stay dedicated to the retro-clone concept by making the base rules available as inexpensively as possible.

In connection with the Kickstarter we are paying off (or already paid off) all the financial obligations attached to the rulebook, and will release it free forever afterwards.

This makes the people signing on to the Sword of Air Kickstarter kind of unique -- they are giving a gift not only to the other backers but to everyone. Everyone in the whole world who wants a copy of [our version of] the Original 1974-78 rules. We do have to reach 400 backers before the rules are released, but I'm pretty sure it will happen.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sword of Air Kickstarter Breaks $60,000

The Sword of Air Kickstarter is now at the "30 days to go" mark, and has a bit more than $60,000 in the bank. It hits break-even (and funding) at $75K, which it will almost certainly reach, at this point. This is going to be a pretty cool book, although I wish I could see a bit more of the raw material (which is all in Bill Webb's 3-ring binders, and I think he doesn't know how to -- or doesn't have a printer that can -- process a stack of pages into a scanner). I sympathize: as far as I know, my printer/software combination can't do it either. I have to scan into MS Paint as a graphic file. But enough about my computer-related whining, I'm drifting off topic.

(Pre-posting edit: most of the rest of this post ended up sounding like a fanboy post for Bill. It's not; but since he's the one writing Sword of Air, any sort of commentary on it ends up talking about Bill a lot. I didn't go in and change the post, I just inserted this little side-comment as my defense against the appearance of fanboyism.)

I have always thought it very strange that Bill doesn't list Clark Ashton Smith as a major influence in his adventure writing, although maybe I'm projecting since CAS is a huge influence on me, and Bill and I write a lot alike. I was on the phone with him a couple of nights ago, and his point was that he really doesn't design from the top down at all. He just writes adventures, and doesn't write them into any sort of world at all (except the originally-blank hex map he apparently started with back in the late 70s).

Indeed, he's basically writing Sword of Air by taking his old adventure binders, filling in any existing gaps on the big wilderness map (travel is involved), checking with Greg Vaughn that it doesn't violently contradict something in the Necromancer Games stuff, and then hurling it all into a blender.

I think, when you look at the structure of Bill's material (Rappan Athuk and Stoneheart Valley being the bigger ones), you can see that they were principally designed around the adventures. The backstory developed, to a large degree, from cool magic items and major villains in the dungeons, not vice versa.

So, that's my commentary on Sword of Air, for the day. As far as I know, it's not a project that I'll be working on very much, since I'm charging forward on Cyclopean Deeps now, hitting a thousand words a day on average right now. I've got a lot of catching up to do after the long, dead, dry spell of the imagination.

... and that's what I'm off to work on right now!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Grimmsgate - comments on a review

Bryce Lynch does awesome reviews, coming at things from some very particular angles that I almost universally agree with. In other words, most of what I write is written with (almost) the same goals that Bryce reads for.

He did a review of Grimmsgate, which is -- all in all -- a positive review ("better than 90% of the crap out there") but with some definite criticisms. Bryce's complete review is HERE. Since, as I said, Bryce and I agree on many of the standards for an adventure, here are my thoughts on the review:

By the way, I have cut lots of the review because I don't like it when people just reproduce someone else's work without giving anyone a reason to check out the other blog. It wouldn't be fair to Bryce if I reproduced the whole thing, so this is only a patchwork set of comments. Here we go:

"This is meant to be an introductory adventure. It has a starting home-base, a brief wilderness around it, and an adventure in an old temple to get the characters going.

Me: Keep on the Borderland is the model for Grimmsgate, because I think KotB nailed the elements that are needed for a good starting area.

"The ancient temple is … I don’t know, bland? It’s got it’s high points, for sure, but it’s not what I’ve come to expect from Finch. I’d call it an average effort (meaning it’s better than 90% of the crap produced) but I’ve got no time, space, or energy for average."

Me: I included this mainly because I quoted it above, so I wanted to include the qualifier as well. I actually get to Bryce's point later where he's more specific; this is in his intro to the review.

Bryce: The writing is a lot closer in style to Rappan Athuk than it is Tomb of the Iron God.

Me: I think that's true. I wrote several levels of Rappan Athuk, and from following that model I think I also wrote Grimmsgate from a particular writing perspective. Very accurate assessment. There's a bit more to it, though, based on the fact that -- even though I know it's going to be the exception rather than the rule -- I was writing for the younger reader, less experienced in playing RPG's. That affected the approach. Nevertheless, I'm willing to admit that Tomb of the Iron God (first level of it, at least) is probably better than Grimmsgate (other than the village -- I like the village).

Bryce: "The players somehow end up there. [the village]"

Me: I don't bother with the idea of not railroading the beginning of an introductory adventure (or even the start of a higher level campaign). The starting point can be arbitrary, IMO. My own Tomb of the Iron God campaign (experienced players) started with the characters naked next to a burning brothel, with the guards getting close and an arrest imminent. I don't like railroading once the campaign starts, but it might as well start interesting.

Which Bryce then nails:

"Some lame hooks are offered. The Priests of Law charge you with a holy quest to investigate … sorry, brb. Ok, back, had to go throw up."

 Me: Okay, the hooks are lame. In my defense, I needed some that would work with an introductory campaign, and this is an area where I was thinking about brand new players. But looking back at it, I think I used that as a crutch. Except the one mentioned below.

On the "abandoned house" hook, Bryce suggests:
"Maybe the players are a new knight or free farmers and are sent to the village … it becomes their holding in liege to their lord. That doesn’t suck nearly as much and would also seem to get the players MUCH more interested in the fate of the village. Might make a neato campaign. A mini-hex crawl."

Me: this was exactly what I had in mind with the "they are deeded an abandoned house" hook. I didn't want to make it a freehold for first level characters. Bryce earlier disagrees with the background idea that no lord would claim the land because it's too wild, but that's letting realism get in the way of gaming. The area is free, and the characters have a house in the village. I left it to the players to see the opportunity there. So I think Bryce is correct, but that he didn't notice that I actually did what he wanted, in a different way that meshes better with an intro module. :)

Bryce on the Village:
.... The bases are all covered: inn, smith, store, cleric too old to go adventuring but who has some good scrolls to use like raise dead."
 BUT he says,
"The village is plagued by read-aloud text that seems forced. “This is a well-tended stone building with a roof of wooden shingles. The sign over the door says The Hilltop Emporium.”

Me: While it's true that I could have just labeled each of these as "Farmhouse," and left the description to the DM, I wanted to give a beginner something to work with -- and also, I think this is a part of the "I just wrote lots of Rappan Athuk" hangover. I still can't decide if I agree with Bryce or not. I do remember writing these, and they were done fast, and they were done because some of the buildings had important descriptions and others didn't. So, many of these were done for consistency. So I think Bryce picked up on that, accurately. On the other hand, I think I was right to avoid, in a beginner adventure, an inconsistent approach (guaranteed that someone other than Bryce would decide it was an editing mistake or sloppy). Again, I can't decide if Bryce is right here or not.

... "the shopkeeper has delusion of grandeur. All of the little NPC’s running around have some nice personality to make them memorable without being over the top. The descriptions of the people are very well done, communicating themselves strongly in just a sentence or two. "
... "But then it’s wrapped inside of shit."

 Me: I think Bryce means the rest of the introductory material, based on paragraphs, maybe also the wilderness. I don't think he means the whole module, based on the "better than 90%" evaluation. :)

The complaint about the intro is that it's a block of read-aloud (18 lines). Here, in the general case, I totally agree with Bryce. Long read-aloud text is crappy. It directs the DM's attention away from the players, and turns good material into a dry recitation. 18 lines is about the outside limit of what I could possibly stomach. Probably less. So, why is it in there? It's because of that "Introductory Module" consideration, and I actually still agree with the way I did it. Let me just quote Bryce's discussion -- again, go to Bryce's blog, he is probably the best reviewer out there.

"Better to play out a little journey, not taking too long in it, and present the information in the read-aloud naturally. Because the information is GOOD. The characters pass weird shit on the road on the way. Bones in a circle around a human skull. A small red-stained wicker basket abandoned by the side of the road. A shallow unmarked grave. Some REALLY good creepy shit to sprinkle in an adventure to Pigstye. Ruined by being wrapped in a block of text."

Here's why I kept that in boxed text: it's once again because I was trying to get a very clear, firm "This is the Starting Point" beginning, precisely and uniquely because it's an intro. Bryce wants what I normally try to do: a sort of wishy-washy set of cues that can be picked up anywhere by the DM, like a string to wind and unwind, rather than what I did in Grimmsgate, which is more like a brass band with cymbals to mark the very official BEGINNING. I was following, although not blindly, the lead from Keep on the Borderland. Read-aloud text is normally, for me, the trade-off between making sure that I, as the DM, don't forget a key fact and have to backtrack (I have DM ADD because I get so excited when DMing) -- or on the other hand, the fact that more than 10 seconds of read-aloud is an excitement-killer. For the intro adventure, I opted for giving the crutch to the DM -- an experience DM can assimilate 18 lines and do it in his/her own words. A beginning DM might not know how to start at all. So I provided a start.

"The “Wilderness” map is small. It has four places of note on it. ... None of these encounters are fleshed out much at all, just a sentence or three. This leaves them pretty open to interpretation by the DM to flesh out for additional adventure. So, not really something appropriate to the adventure at hand. "

 Me: Not sure if this is a criticism or not, but it's an accurate description of what I wanted to do.

Bryce on the Temple:
It’s arrayed around a hill with multiple entrances, ala the Caves of Chaos. That’s great! It’s a thoughtful feature, especially the hidden entrance in the woods. The majority of the temple though, under the hill, is one LONG hallway with smaller hallways and rooms hanging off of it. It immediately smacks of ‘linear’ but is slightly more thoughtful than that … but not by much.

Me: Done on purpose. In retrospect it could have had more complexity, but I didn't want to add too much. There's Quasqueton and then there's the Caves of Chaos, as my favorite models for a starting adventure. I wanted to go with the Caves as a model for this one, and I have to admit that's partially dumbing down the challenge of exploring and the attendant risks. Skyrim was playing in the background in my house at the time, and I was really impressed with the graphics. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Skyrim aesthetic crept into the map. Not by much, and I still stand by the map, but Bryce definitely identified something that's going on, whether for good or ill. If I treated beginning players based on an assumption that they can't surmount Skyrim, then that's a weakness in the module. Not sure if that's actually the case or not.

"Lots of lame read-aloud text in the encounters, but not a lot of interesting things. There are a decent number of ‘flashback’ ghostly images showing the temples past. This ranks just slightly higher than ‘diary entries’ in my ‘things I loathe’ list."

Me: This is one of the reasons I like Bryce's reviews. On this point, I actually totally disagree with him on principle, however. Yes, there seem to be letters and visions in every module written by everyone for all time, and it's old. Nevertheless, I think it's absolutely key -- especially in a beginner's adventure (where the players are also less jaded with finding letters) -- that the players can discover bits and pieces of the backstory that might or might not have a bearing on the challenges they face. I know exactly where I get this opinion. I was caught up in D&D for all time by the bits and pieces in B1: In Search of the Unknown. Quasqueton. It's adventure-module magic for a beginning player, and there's none of this in the Caves of Chaos, so I put it into the Temple in Grimmsgate. Maybe it's a bit hokey, but if I were to re-read B1, so is a lot of the delivery system in Quasqueton as well. But as a beginning adventure, I KNOW that this stuff works because it worked on me. So on this point, even though Bryce and I agree on most ways to judge an adventure, I disagree here: I think this sort of thing is actually crucial.

Bryce likes some stuff:
 The art, which I seldom mention in reviews, does a great job at conveying the flavor of the cannibal-type monsters: gaunt, tall, horrific. The main villain is well atmosphered as well, with clouds of ash about his person, etc. Centipedes are described as bright green and shiny. Very nice imagery on the monsters. Well, SOME of the monsters. It’s inconsistent. Not all centipedes get that description, and the manes demons get none at all.

Me: Crap, the last comment is dead on target. I think that might have been time pressure on the final pass that I do (I call that last pass "surgery" because the whole book is open on the table for repairs and additions). That's not an excuse, if that's what happened. I do recall that in the middle of writing I got a bit stressed about the deadline, but I don't remember consciously rushing anything. Reading through, I'm not upset by the way this turned out, but Bryce is right on target -- not all the monster descriptions are consistent. (Although consistency alone isn't normally one of Bryce's complaints, so I think really what he's saying is that he wanted more of what he saw as good stuff, not consistency for consistency's sake).

"The treasure is a great disappointment. The gems are just “4 gems worth 100gp each” and the magic items are just generic “mace +1″ or “sword +1.” After reading an aside in the module about you can add flavor by creating your own monsters (the mole-men cannibals) to then encounter this blandness in magic items is a real shame."

Me: Completely Guilty. On this point I fucked up. Again, it may have been a rush at the end, although I really don't remember a rush. But once again, the way I do treasure is (with a few exceptions when I get an inspiration) to do generic coin-numbers and magic items to get a fix on how MUCH. And only then do I go in to make them more interesting, and it appears that I mostly missed that step. Unless I did it because it was an intro module, but I don't recall deciding to do that -- I think this is a plain screwup.

All in all, I think it was a good review in terms of pointing out places where I didn't really hit the mark, and Bryce also tended to like the parts where I thought I nailed the goal. And then the 2 places (intro text and flashbacks/letters) where we disagreed about what the goal should have been.

Thanks, Bryce!

Edit: As a current event, I should mention that Frog God Games has a Kickstarter going, for Sword of Air. Please visit!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

New Website for the Frog Gods!

In summary:
We have a new website.
We have a new Kickstarter.

And I, while all the other members of the Frog God team are drinking champagne and eating truffles, am working away at Cyclopean Deeps. Good news: I wrote an average of 1,000 words per day over the last 5 days. Bad news: see above, no champagne or truffles.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Busy Day as Semi-Pro Gamer

 So, yesterday the Sword of Air Kickstarter went live, and that always involves a lot of interactive, social-media types of activities, plus I am busy working on the next installment of Cyclopean Deeps. I alternated back and forth yesterday, and it occupied enough of the day that I consider myself to have been a semi-pro gamer yesterday.

My next post will either be more about Sword of Air, or it will be about Napoleonic wargaming, because there's some of that on the horizon.

Next installment of Cyclopean Deeps, by the way, is Dreaded Domes of the Serpentfolk.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Announcing Sword of Air

New Kickstarter for Frog God Games! Sword of Air is a combination big-adventure and mini-campaign from Bill Webb's campaign that he started back in the 1970s (and still runs). So this is going to be vintage old-school stuff, especially if you're getting the Swords & Wizardry version.

I'll probably write more about this soon. Kickstarter took us by surprise with a fast approval of the project, so I'm a bit slow.

Cyclopean Deeps Update

I just finished Chapter 4 of the Cyclopean Deeps, at long last, and sent it to Skeeter for the process of edits and layout. Woohoo! People are going to like this one.

I realize that by not updating this blog often I'm sort of drifting out of the public gaze and into the writer's garret, but for the time being I'm cool with that.