Friday, April 29, 2011

Network Linkages in the Conspiracy Sandbox

Taking up where we left off with designing a character-focused sandbox this morning, we now add in the dynamic parts of the octopus that give it life.

Before we get much further, let's tick off the things you'll need to have for this campaign scenario before play begins:
  1. An overall idea of the goals and nature of the conspiracy.
  2. A roster of the NPCs and their rankings inside the organization (the subject of the last post).
  3. A symbolic mapping of the network's communication links (this post).
  4. A timetable, schedule, or other mechanic (random events and the like) for the conspiracy's actions and movements (next post, if there is still interest).
  5. Ideas on how to present hooks and entry opportunities for the players to unravel the network (next post).
Communication Links
How the network communicates is essential to its working—and vitally important to how the players explore the leads and dead-ends along those lines.

Top Secret gave six ways for each character node to interact with each other (note the legend on the network map below):

Direct two-way. The two characters can meet and talk directly to each other at their own discretion. Both parties know the location and identities of the other. In our example, Rebekah the Black (M1) has such a link with her subordinate One-Armed Jiri (L1) . One of the agents, Carlos the Dwarf (A2), has a direct (and stupidly indiscreet) relationship with his flunky, F5. I add in a solid line with arrows pointing between the two for each case below.

Direct one-way. One of the NPCs, the one where the points away from, can communicate at his discretion with the other. The pointed to NPC doesn't have the location or means to communicate with the other conversely. This is the preferred method for the lieutenants with their more trusted agents and flunkies (A2, A3, A5, A6, and F6). I add in one-way lines for them.

Transmitted” two-way. The same as direct two-way except that all communication is “transmitted” in our fantasy case by magical means: magic mirror, crystal ball, telepathy, message-carrying flying beast. Since it's an awfully long way to walk between outer Outer Kutalika and the Capital City, Rebekah and Mogg (L2) use flying monkeys to communicate with each other. I add the appropriate squiggly line with two arrows.

Transmitted” one-way. Same as above except only one party can contact the other. The paranoid songstress Rebekah deals with her flunkies, F3 and F4, in this manner with talking talisman.

Drop two way. Either NPC can communicate with the other freely by dropping an object or message at a predetermined hidden location(s). The two lieutenants have a message drop at public bath houses with their two flunky messengers, F1 and F2.

Drop one way. The same as above, but only party can send messages. Mogg and sends one-way messages and instructions to one each of their less-trusted agents, A1 and A4, this way.

Here's the completed network map. 

Obviously, this can get very complicated (this is a very simple network), but the pay-off is having a handy easy way to navigate relationships in a meaningful, layered way. (One way to simplify would be to make each node a full team rather than just an individual NPC, a circle of assassins in one town or a covey of witches in another. )

Nurturing an Octopus in Your Sandbox

A few readers asked for more explanation of the Top Secret-derived, character-based sandbox from Wednesday's post. As you might remember, that kind of sandbox was essentially a campaign scenario based around non-linear, player-centered exploration--and elimination or infiltration--of an “Octopus”, the Cold War jargon used by the game to describe a complicated espionage network.

Rather than bore you with a long, abstracted exposition of the various symbolic quiggles and layers of such a beast, I am just going to go ahead and build up over two an example as applied to our fantasy rpg flavor of choice. Let's put on our imagination caps and imagine that we are wanting to introduce a Dark and Sinister Conspiracy into your campaign—and that the players have chomped down on your hooks and are set to battle such a force.

Let's return to the Archsyndocracy of Outer Kutalika. This wee, modest realm is newly threatened by the machinations of Rebekah the Black, a young and ambitious songstress, who has organized a far-reaching network of ne'er do wells.

The ultimate goal of Rebekah's octopus is to install magical amplifying devices in every city plaza, town square, village green, and mole-man burrow in Outer Kutalika. The devices will broadcast her flat, nasally-sung ballad “It's Freyday”--a song so insipid that it boils the brains of all who hear into a stinking, malleable pile of goo--at an appointed time when the two moons converge.

TS's campaign rules set out four hierarchical layers of NPCs for an octopus: Administrators (A), Operators (O), Spies (S), and Cut-outs (C) . Each letter tended to be matched by a number on a roster list, so for the main administrator you'd have a designation of A1 for instance. Each layer will have more power and knowledge of how the octopus runs and for what ends.

Let's translate the lingo into something more appropriately, fantasy-like for our example. At the top you have the Masters/Mistresses (M). Like the shadowy bureaucrats of TS this layer is peopled by either a single, lofty individual or a small, tight cabal. These are the key leaders, if eliminated the network crumbles. In our example Rebekah the Black is the sole diva. Her designation is M1.

Below her are the Lieutenants (L), the stand-ins for the Operators. This is middle management, mostly out of the field directly, but involved with the day-to-day running of the agents. Rebekah has only two lieutenants: One-Armed Jiri (L1) who is in charge of the operations in inner Outer Kutalika and Mogg the Mendicant (L2) who is in charge of outer Outer Kutalika.

Jiri and Mogg both run a crew of three Agents (A) (it's been a long week, if you can think of a more evocative piece of nomenclature, I am game). These dudes do all the dirty work: planting the devices, lacing the town militia's soup with black lotus powder, kicking cats, etc. Mogg's team is made up of the Black Ratter (A1), Carlos the Dwarf (A2), and Sister Anya (A3). Jiri's team is Trellis (A4), Makkabbe he Hammer (A5), and Kugel the Not-Lucky (A6).

At the bottom of the heap are the Flunkies (F). These are expendable servants of all three layers. Flunkies are useful as go-betweens inside the network or for throw-away actions (a one-off and risky assassination, for instance). Their knowledge of the structure and goals of the network will be little to known. They are so likely to end up skewered on the business end of a blade that we won't even bother to give them names: F1, F2, F3, F4, F5, and F6. F1 and F2 are go-betweens to help Mogg and Jiri communicate ; F3 and F4 are used by Rebekah for odd jobs; F5 is a contact for Carlos the Dwarf; and F6 is used by Jiri to keep tabs on Mogg, who he mistrusts.

Our little cabal is complete. 

Here's how it looks on our symbolic network map below before we fill it in further. You will note that I put Rebekah the Black (M1) at the center of the web with her two lieutenants, Jiri (L1) and Mogg (L2) close by. I then divide the network by the Lieutenants sub-networks (conveniently two different geographic regions) with their agents arrayed. I then fill in the flunkies close to the people they serve.

My next post will deal with filling in the rest of that map with the communication links, timetables, and other bells and whistles that make that give this kind of character-based sandbox game its real zing. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Character-Based Sandbox Campaigns

On the face of it, Top Secret is an odd place to keep digging for experimental bits. Back in the day it was—as most of the historically-themed second-generation games—an awkward cousin of the TSR family. Nowadays with little to no current following, we can safely and sadly say it's in the dustbin of gaming history.

Still Top Secret, in it's pre-TSR publication days as Spy World, had it's roots in the mid-70s creative explosion of experimentation with rpgs and as such you can still mine curious bits from it that may either shine a light on alternative paths not taken or be of use for classical play campaigns here and now. ( I pointed out a few months back on this blog TS had trace elements of early concepts that mostly dropped out of the fabric of rpgs: competition and GM-player role blur.)

Another interesting coulda, shoulda,woulda-been TS concept was the idea of a character-based sandbox campaign (as opposed to the mostly location-based sandboxes that we many of us know and love in classic-play D&D or Traveller). I say coulda-been because while the idea of a game based on the non-linear unraveling and exploration of a character-based espionage network was explicitly laid-out in the campaign section of the original rules, game-play and the published modules became quickly centered around the commando raid-like clearing of Bad Guy facilities.

Which is a shame because an interesting space between the old location sandboxes and the heavily-plotted nightmares that marked each successive edition of D&D was lost. Let me back up and break down that forgotten piece.

TS's campaign rules provided several ways to portray a network of NPCs. (For ease of reference I present the page in its entirety on the right here, click to embiggen). There were several layers of the network from the Administrators at the top (which in Spy World were originally playable characters) .

More interestingly there was the use of six different types of communications links inside the network complete with symbolic notations for each: a line with arrows pointing in both directions for a direct connection or a broken line pointing in one direction to signify a dead drop.

In theory, this would be used to make a symbolic map. Instead of hex or area location maps linked by roads, tracks, and rivers you had nodes based on the various agents linked by how they are interfacing with the rest of the network. Play presumably would revolve around eliminating, duping, tracking, spying seducing, etc. each personage along that network in an attempt to break or infiltrate it.

You saw the attempt to use this model in the introductory module, the infamous Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle. Its implementation was a muddle though; the scenario taking place in a fictional spy-ridden Cold War neutral town nestled between East and West typically ran as a locale-based town and dungeon crawl with an awkward attempt to graft the network rules on top.

It wasn't until the release of the Top Secret Companion with its sample campaign scenario Operation Meltdown did you get the full effect of Merle Rasmussen's, the game's creator, intentions. In that scenario, you had a timeline for a conspiracy by a globe-trotting network of baddies spanning the fence from ninjas to South American Nazis.

But the timeline wasn't a plot railroad as much as it was a timetable of events that would happen if the players didn't intervene through their romping around in a non-linear. The focus of play was the team of players jetting around the world, figuring out which person fit where and how to muck up the plans. They could fly anywhere with the help of their various spy agencies, adventuring was completely independent of both the box cars of an adventure path and the restrictions of locale-based sandboxes. Interesting stuff.

To give you a graphic representation here is the comm links diagram for the adventure:

The style of campaign play has an intriguing amount of potential for a fantasy campaign too. 

Say you set a hook, the players uncover a vast conspiracy of forces in the Archsyndocracy of Outer Kutalika to awaken the cosmic horror of long, dead elder gods. They chose to follow this hook and you draw up a network like above for a network scattered around the locales of your campaign world (you could seed it with agents living or visiting dungeons or other traditional adventuring locales to pad out play).

Or take something smaller and more confined, but filled with NPC intrigue: the Golden Khandive's  royal pleasure barge; a drafty, snowed-in fortress; the gizzards of a sleeping god; or what have you.

Food for thought in the sandbox.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Further Adventures in Humanspace

I continue to try and put at least a few bucks where my mouth is regarding playing in Tekumel-derived settings, albeit mostly in the non-canonical mutant offspring, Humanspace Empires.

The Drune generously gave me the thumbs up on my tardy request to join one of his two playtest play-by-post campaigns, Spaceswords & Glory, the story of an Imperial Navy crew of a 1000-ton spherical space xebec, Deeds of Glory (Májikhajiyel). A related blog is now online for folks wanting a ringside seat here.

My own ridiculous addition to the crew is a Pygmy Folk navigator nicknamed Lil' Chompy. His backstory (likely to the meet the fine guiding editorial hand of the Gamemaster):
Khompskpsk is the closest transliteration for the formal name of the Nininyal nicknamed “Lil' Chompy” by fans of its series of trashy vid-novellas. Growing up a sheltered and privileged hermaphrodite of a 31st Credit Rank Trade Collective (Vermillion sub-shade) on Alpharetz, he left the comfy confines of the clan burrow in early adulthood after failing spectacularly in the clan business of administering nanosecond financial transactions on the trans-dimensional derivatives market. Lil' Chompy has showed extraordinary verve and romanticism for one of its species swinging from career path of derring-do to another (or so his tall tales claim)—fighting moisture bandits on Planet X and rustling Gacháya on the Shen outer rim—before settling on the ultimate adventure: the Humanspace Imperial Navy.Some claim that his series of Serganent Rokk Clone vid-novellas such as I Serve the Autocrator and It Came From Marb IV are derivative and stolen straight from the pages of real life characters he knows, but Lil' Chompy keeps his beak tight on such matters.
I still have an open offer for those wanting to play a Humanspace pick me-up at North Texas RPG Con, contact me off or on-site if interested. (I also hear rumors that there might be a Jakalla underworld game going on premise, but we will see how that develops.)

The Fantasy Game

You might have heard this question once or twice (or countless times): do we have too many sets of old school rules being produced? My own head swings indecisively back in forth between “yes, please by all that's unholy stop the madness” and “let a hundred flowers bloom” positions.

Sifting through the massed ranks of posts from the cutting room floor (discussed yesterday), it surprised me--given that ambivalence--to remember that six months back I was thinking of synthesizing a number of the subsystems I had been jacking around with on this blog into an unholy beast of my own.

Like the Domain Game, the Fantasy Game (yes, as Jim the Wampus noticed yesterday the tongue-in-cheek working title was based on the likely apocryphal story about D&D's own working title) was supposed to be less about being a complete system—that likely no one would ever play—but a collection of variant sections that could be plopped piece by piece into someone's campaign.

After yesterday's round of input, I had thought I would clean it up and post as something fully digestable. Memory, though, is a funny thing. Not only do I not remember where some of the ideas were going, truth be told, I didn't even remember typing this out when I rediscovered yesterday.

So instead of a bang-you-over-the-head complete vision, here's a gamble and experiment on my part that can be taken in two ways by a reader: 1. a window into how game design ideas can develop in different tracks over time on a blog (you'll see my bracketed comments from this morning interspersed); or 2. an “open source” outline of a project which you can feel free to add, subtract, modify, riff, comment, or (more likely) ignore completely.

Alternative character generation system
    1. Quasi-Traveller, background and event-oriented though, not adult career. Childhood and young adulthood events determine dice pool for attributes. [This system was realized here]
    2. Players have choice of background (urban, rural, barbarian, demi-human, exotic) [Brad of Skull Crushing for Justice has been developing something along these lines.]
    3. Random equipment table option [modified from my LotFP one]
    4. All characters with INT 15 or over start with one cantrip (0-level Magic-User spell)
    5. All characters with WIS 15 or over start with one orison (0-level Cleric spell) [I had helped develop some old school-feeling 0-level spells for Basic Fantasy RPG around this time.]
Alternative class advancement
      1. Characters start at 0-level. Neutral alignment, chain armor max, only weapons that do d6 max, d6 hit points.
      2. First level obtained at 200 experience points. In consultation with GM (based on performance), player picks class and alignment.
      3. First level characters can only be picked from the standard Basic or OD&D classes.
      4. At 4th level player can choose to continue in standard class or pick a new sub-class that the PC qualifies for [Thinking on split classes progressed here.]
      5. At 5th level the PC can choose to start a career in a “leader set” class.
Each sub-class would add a certain amount of exp to level advancement. Maybe same for all classes or each parent class. Each subclass would have new abilities and some restrictions.

Champion/Noble Warrior
Beast Master

Rune Caster
Witch Hunter

Magic User
Elemental College (Fire, Earth, Water, or Air)
Black mage


Leader Set Class
War Lord
Spy Master
High Priest
Merchant Prince
Guild Master
Court Mage

Optional game play mode in which campaign can be played between two different sets of PCs in alternating sessions.

Typical adventurer set. Played as normal D&D. Footloose characters who will occasionally work for the second set

Leader set. PCs start as leader level class: military, noble, religious, wizard, guildmaster, gang leader, merchant prince, barbarian leader etc. PCs create missions and design/build locales that the other set can play in. Gameplay more similar to Birthright, but with less abstraction [Domain Game grew up out of this germinal].

  1. Adventures limited to one season per year.
  2. Charts or mini-games for: Matters of the Heart, Wee Ones and Family Relations, Business Investments, Research and Training, Religious and Arcane Affairs.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Cutting Room Floor

I hit 500 posts last week—not published posts mind you, those only stand at half that number—but 500 hundred drafts that have not seen the light of day because I gave up on them before I hit that shiny, red post button. Some are outright rants brimming with whatever flavor of the month passion, some flit from thought to thought, some are painfully long with slow expositions, and some are just painful.

Every once in a while I resurrect one—the Dad and Vietnam story from last week for example—polish it up and put it out there. Those posts are invariably missing one key element to make them work: a good hook into something larger or broader of interest to readers; a solid lede to give it punch; an observation to push it out of being trite or overdone; and so on.

To date I haven't run out of something to say—just ways sometimes to express it in a way that my worst critic—myself--can stand.

Want a window into my jumble? Here we go. Here are the headers and ledes from four cutting floor posts (all over three months old).

Outtake 1:
Character-Based Sandbox Campaigns
On the face of it, Top Secret is an odd place to keep digging for experimental bits. Back in the day it was—as most of the historically-themed second-generation games—an awkward cousin of the TSR family. Nowadays with little to no current following, we can safely and sadly say it's in the dustbin of gaming history. Still Top Secret, in it's pre-TSR publication days as Spy World, had it's roots in the mid-70s creative explosion of experimentation with rpgs and as such you can still mine curious bits from it that may either shine a light on alternative paths not taken or be of use for classical play campaigns here and now...

Outtake 2:
House Rules: Learning As You Go
One learns many things experientially while in the GM hot seat. In the heat of (simulated) battle, you quickly learn that many of your best-laid plans work in ways you never intended positively or negatively—or just plain don't work. In fact, it's often the oh-so clever ideas that you so proudly clap yourself on the back on that often are the biggest offenders...

Outtake 3:
The Fantasy Game, D&D Variant Game
[No pithy lede, mostly a long outline]
Alternative character generation system (slightly more detailed version of website system)
    1. Quasi-Traveller, background and event-oriented though, not adult career. Childhood and young adulthood events determine dice pool for attributes.
    2. Players have choice of background (urban, rural, barbarian, demi-human, exotic)
    3. Random equipment table option (modified from my LotFP one)
    4. All characters with INT 15 or over start with one cantrip (0 level MU spell)
    5. All characters with WIS 15 or over start with one orison (0 level Cleric spell)...

Outtake 4:
Spellcaster Demographics
How many spellcasters live in yon town? It's something we don't often think about on a deep level--or at least admittedly its something I rarely think about--but it is a demographic yardstick with profound implications. Campaign thinking in D&D seems to hang on the magical consumer economy for player characters. The distinction between low and high fantasy settings thus revolving around the frequency of magic items, the relative likelihood of a magic “store”, the availability of magical services from NPCs, etc...

Why post them, you conveniently ask?

Simple, all four of these are candidates for Lazarus treatment. Which ones deserve it? (If any, after all a good friend is one who tells you have a big dollop of toothpaste dangling on your chin.) 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Black Hobbits: Variant Classic D&D Class

A variant class inspired by posts by two of my favorite bloggers here and here.

Black Hobbits
Requirements: DEX 9, CON 9
Prime Requisite: STR and DEX
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 8

From Monsters! Monsters!:
“[Black Hobbits] does not refer to their skin tone, but rather to their political affiliations. They are physically the same as other hobbits, but are not nice people...Unlike normal hobbits, black hobbits hair is black and wiry, and they are fully bearded (like dwarves).”

Black hobbits are outwardly plain, ordinary halflings--who have secretly devoted their dark little hearts to the cause of Chaos. Indeed their devotion to the cause runs so deep that all black hobbits are required to join the local branch of the Chaos Party (though the inherent divisiveness of such an organization has lead to a vast confusing array of splinter groups, internal tendencies, factions, and rump groups.)

Black hobbits share the same abilities and limitations as their comfort and law-loving brethren, though they possess a few special abilties particular to their class. At second level a black hobbit learns the ability of Agitation, a skill in which they can temporarily raise their Charisma score to 18 once a day when exhorting others to perform acts of mischief and mayhem. At 4th level they can do this twice a day, at 8th three times.

They also gain the ability at third level to manufacture little round black bombs, a small hand-held explosive device that deals out 1d8+1 damage in a 10-foot range. They can make one such bomb per week and 30 gp worth of material. At sixth level they can begin to make two bombs a week.

Black Hobbit Level Progression
Hit Dice (1d6)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Distant Mirror of Fantasy Religion

Growing up, there were three topics my mother, the Southern Lady, instructed me to avoid in polite company: money, politics, and religion. Like much of the rest of her advice, I spent a good chunk of my life ignoring her missive (often proving her right), but not in gaming. Except for the occasional lapse of passion, I have tended to studiously avoid those hot buttons with my fellow gamers.

However, today we are going talk about religion; how it plays in our campaign worlds and how its shape in those worlds often reflects our own attitudes and approaches to the subject.

Last night, over a glass of cheap Portuguese wine (or three) I hunkered down to read M.A.R. Barker's essay “Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit.” It's a thoughtful 28-page piece arguing against the usual hodgepodge, sloppy introduction of gods, mythos, and religion into fantasy rpg campaigns. Barker, fortunately, also spends a good chunk of the article getting at the range of questions a world builder can and should ask to have a deeper approach. (The essay is available here for the slightly too-high price of $4).

One observation he makes--which jives with my own recent thought train about how our gaming can often be a distant mirror of the world we experience—is that: “both science-fantasy fiction and fantasy role-playing games are created by and for people of THIS time and THIS generalized Western European heritage...It has to be underlined again and again that we are creatures of our own cultures, bound by them, limited by them, and unable to produce anything that really transcends them.”

While I bridled and got huffy a little at the cultural determinism of that statement, it did produce one of those little cartoon light bulb over the head moments.


Yes, I can imagine and enjoy even the seemingly alien religions of exotic settings (cough, cough, Tekumel), but my own worlds' religions mirror sometimes closely, sometimes distantly my own attitudes about things supernatural. When I think about it, the Hill Cantons are firmly in the former camp.

See I was raised a good American cafeteria Catholic. My family slogged its way to a mass every odd Xmas or Easter and tended to pick and choose what it followed and didn't. Settling into adult life, I have tended to bounce back and forth between a skeptical agnosticism and an appreciation (if somewhat heretical) of the solace of the Church. Add in a Special Lady Friend who is Jewish and a failed attempt to write a novel about the Hussites, then you get something of the vague ballpark that is my spiritual life.

Now back to the HC. Vaguely renaissance Counter-Reformation Catholic Church check. Heretical movements in said Church check. Looming cosmic chaos check. Hosts of cosmological add-on bits and pieces taken what I had been reading that year check, check, and check.

Now here's where the strange twists--also part and parcel of my spiritual ballpark--weave in. I have often described the cosmological fabric of the campaign to be something like: imagine if Jack Vance wrote a Lyonesse-style fantasy about Bohemia in the mid-renaissance. Remember in Vance's work, religious doctrine is often treated like he treats most human mores, he exaggerates their absurdities mostly for comic and satirical effect (mostly gently).

Vance also tends to stretch the fabric even when working with an-almost historical setting, alongside early medieval Christianity in Lyonesse you have a crazy quilt of historical pagan and utterly fantastic religions. It's hodgepodge, but hodgepodge that works alongside that reoccurring theme.

Thus while the Supernal Orthodox Temple of the Puissant Sun Lord has a (mostly off-stage) trace of menace with its monopoly on gunpowder (thanks to Piper's Lord Kalvan) and the intellectual life of the lands outside the Weird, it is mostly an institution characterized by an inward obsession with layers and layers of absurd-seeming theological differences.

The players have helped co-create and perpetuate this through most of the life of the game, most notably Desert Scribe whose fiddly scholar of a character, Mandamus, who feels confident enough to extemporize about this or that element. Confident because he knows that I will play along to that spontaneous creation with great relish (I think).

In one exchange, we follow the lively disputes of the many temple schools on the correct way to make the circular sign of Sol Invictus: whether it's three fingers moving in a clockwise fashion with a pinky flourish at the end, four moving in counter-clockwise sans flourish, or as the ultra-orthodox demand with the whole hand. In another whether the Sun Lord's chariot has two or four wheels. To which Brad's now-dead Cugel character retorted incredulously with “now you just are talking about a cart.” I can barely choke back the laughter at the table.

There is more to set out here to bolster the close mirror case as they stand-in for interlocking pieces of my own mental architecture: the bickering heretical sects of the Morning and Evening Star societies who follow the spurned female deity; the heavy themes of astronomical happenings and numerology; the world-weary pathos of the older, forgotten gods, etc. But I think you get the drift.

Maybe this rings all wrong for you out there. Maybe your own campaign's approach to religion doesn't reflect the idea sets you trundle around in your head in the slightest. Maybe this navel-gazing just bores you full stop.

Or does it? Do you get beyond the bounds of your own time and place or is it a mirror reflecting some piece or the other of your life?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fantasy F*ckin' Vietnam

Fantasy fuckin' Vietnam.

Some of you may remember the above phrase. A couple years back it took on a life of its own in classic D&D circles, hanging around just long enough to spawn a killer dungeon-style adventure and a great deal of vitriol about its ostensible offensiveness.

As used it was supposed to signify the dead-at-any-moment life of old school dungeoneering. The kind of play where you inched along the corridor, 10-foot pole in hand probing every foot of the floor, walls, and ceiling for traps. The kind of play where losing a limb prying open the lid of a chest was as quick as a death by an arrow from your flank. It was the gaming mirror of then still-fresh cultural memory of the stress, paranoia, and grittiness of the Vietnam War.

For me the phrase had a deeper resonance, transporting back 30-something years to my childhood. The war permeated that life. Not the actual war, the US-backed puppet regime had collapsed at the barrel end of North Vietnamese tanks a few years before, but its aftermath.

My father was a Vietnam vet. Not a “I scrubbed B-52s on Guam” or “flew F-16s in the Texas National Guard” kind of vet, but a Purple-Hearted combat veteran of the First Cavalry. I always felt that he hated the war though, what it did to him body and soul--he still carries shrapnel in a shoulder to this day. It haunted him, but he spoke freely of it and even let it enter our play with him.

On long hikes he'd send me or my brother, stick in hand, to walk point--several yards in front so that the sudden blast of an imaginary mine or grenade didn't wipe out the “squad”. Hike done we'd jog back to the car jody-chanting: “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, living my life full of danger.”

And I played D&D with the man.

Somewhere in the summer of 1981, I ran a few sessions as a DM where he played a first-level mook of a Fighting Man, fittingly called the Tunnel Rat, alongside my brother's bland-by-comparison elf. He played the game with every bit of a rigor that phrase conjures up for latter-day REMFs.

He pored over the equipment tables, grilling me on the properties of this or that item. It took him about five seconds to grasp the killing power of the standard molotov-like flask of oil. He bought 20. Groking the need to travel light and mean he skimped on armor and the excess weapons so common in our summer camp D&D experience. He bought dogs instead.

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency. At first my brother's PC walked point. When that nearly ended with his death at the hands of a goblin ambush, he switched to running his dogs into rooms and closing the door before running in on the attack. When that stopped working, he doused the dogs with oil set them on fire and loosened them into the massed ranks of his opponents (a sardonic nod of my head to him in that tongue-in-the-cheek post).

There wasn't a trap in the place he didn't find, and little in the way of anything hidden missed his eye.

The game was tense, adversarial even. It brought out a side of him that scared me a little. I think sometimes we forget that games—especially such demanding ones as the role-playing variety--aren't always leisurely fun, sometimes they mix passion and a welter of emotions in them. Those sessions certainly did, but I treasure them because they taught me something about the man.

They brought me closer to him through the language of a game I loved—and they taught me how to be one mean mother when I was at the table. Thanks Dad. 

A Wee Bit More on Jumpstarting a Tékumel Revival

Looks like a few more virtual fronts are being opened on the ether to tackle the Tékumel revival question.

Brett Slocum has set up a new blog, The Eye of Joyful Sitting Among Friends, and is involved there with a parallel discussion to yesterday's. He has a rather simple solution: play more with whatever system you have on hand. I would urge readers interested in such esoteric matters to hop over there and weigh in.

Along the same lines, Howard of the Tekumel Project has launched another blog, Heroes of the Age, to discuss gaming on Barker's planet. Check it out here.

Speaking of playing in the setting more, I am looking to set up a pick-up game of Humanspace Empires at one of the open-game sessions at the North Texas RPG Con this coming June (where I will also be playing in Steve Marsh's EPT game). Drop me a line if you are attending and have any interest in playing.

Less-lazy post coming later. (Because I know you hang on my every word.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

What Tékumel Could Learn From Glorantha

Tékumel fans have been making a lot of noise recently around a perennial subject: how best to revive M.A.R. Barker's almost-famous setting. The rarefied, usually-quiet Tékumel list is a-thrum with exchanges over what product vehicle would best spark said revival.

Most seem to be advocating for a switch to a modern, bigger-tent game system (d20, Pathfinder, or Savage Worlds), others pushing for a system-neutral re-release of source material or a sprucing up of the primal game system Empire of the Petal Throne.

While my sympathies lean to the latter camp, I find myself wondering if any of these noteworthy projects are enough. Could any of them on their own weight deliver this lovingly baroque, sword-and-planet world to a broader audience?

I am certainly no expert myself on rpg product development—and it's really a very foolish person who looks to me for my unsolicited armchair advice—but I keep thinking that Tékumel needs something broader and more ambitious if it wants to widen its niche. To be exact, I keep hoping that Tékumel took some cues from the recent history of its distant cousin, Glorantha.

Tékumel and Glorantha share a good deal in common on the face of it.

Both settings sprung Pallas Athena-like from the heads of brilliantly creative--and detail obsessed—single creators (Barker and Greg Stafford) years before a game could give them expression. Both evolved in the 1970s variant game systems out of the OD&D mothership (EPT and Runequest)—and both posited (and delivered) themselves as much deeper explorations of fantasy worlds than vanilla D&D. Both of them also wandered in the wilderness for a while intellectual property tangles after their respective heydays-- EPT after being cut loose from TSR and Runequest after the Avalon Hill debacle.

But for all those similarities Glorantha fared better.

While its public profile is still pretty modest even by the diminished standards of the tabletop rpg hobby today, Glorantha does have some kick to it. It has, for starters, not just one living game, but two. Instead of detracting from each the two game lines seem to complement each other by satisfying two different fan niches: Mongoose's confusingly-titled Runequest II for the lovers of the game system proper and Heroquest for the hardcore, narrativist lovers of Third Age Glorantha. Tellingly both games are pumping out a stream of attractive new products.

Meanwhile on the side you have an almost-bewildering array of clone projects giving other living game platforms for people interested in gaming that world: the streamlined RQ-lite systems of Openquest and now Doomquest (thanks to the Stafford-dedicated recent issue of old school zine Fight On!) ; the high crunch of Steve Perrin's SPQR, or the abstracted new edition of BRP.

On top of all that you have the (perhaps soon) re-release of one the best introductions to Glorantha ever devised, the computer strategy game King of Dragon Pass. By virtue of being a computer game—and a smart-phone app to boot—its highly likely that it will help bring audiences back around the setting than any tabletop game, no matter its success in this period, could ever muster.

Thinking of all those things I find myself dreaming about a similar revival for EPT. Something like...something like...

[Now you have to imagine here a dreamy harp playing and the camera lens shaking around to signify a Gilligan's Island-like dream sequence.]

...Something like if you took all the stirrings of the current contemporary Tékumel corners and yoked them to revamped historical legacy projects for a full-court press aimed at the returning tabletoppers of the rpg “Baby Boom” of the 80s.

Let's parse out that mouthful.

What if you started with two new-old living games. Say on one level for the old system-lovers you took the old EPT rules cleaned them up, reformatted them, and added in some new art here and there. It's not an audience of the thousands that some seem to have stars in the eyes for, but an attractive OD&D variant game is highly likely to attract an audience in the hundreds (yes, let's be real). And hell the rules are already written.

Now if you really wanted to be ambitious with that audience you could start to release a few high-profile supplements I believe guaranteed to have as much appeal as the rule set above: the much-coveted Jakallan underworld, the lengthy and excellent Swords & Glory sourcebooks; perhaps even a porting of the deep, interesting Temple-based magic of S&G.

On the second level you could have another living game for the hardcore based on an even-simpler system: the super-lite, almost rule-less story-focused mechanics that Barker himself used for a time. (Ironically of which I first read in the program book of a Runequest convention.)

And now here's the other pillar that I think is as just as necessary as the products above—or more—an explosion of creative hobbyist energies canonical and not around the setting. 

Here we can already see the seeds: the creative, consistent play and preservation efforts of the Aethervox Gamers up in the tundra; the Tekumel Project's excellent, drop-dead gorgeous range of figures; Victor Raymond's runnings of Jakallan underworld games at recent conventions; The Drune's efforts to expand the space opera pre-history of EPT into a fully fledged game of its own with Humanspace Empires; and the list goes on (and my typing hand tires).

Idle, pointless dreams perhaps, but hope does spring eternal.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

W is for Why Blog?

Why blog about roleplaying games? Seriously, why bother?

You certainly aren't going to make much--if any--money off it, the next Great American Novel (or Great American Mega-Dungeon) isn't likely to arise from it, and ego gratification is just plain silly considering the subject and audience.

So why do it?

Every other week these questions float through my head when I sit down in the two-hour period I have allotted in my life to this here blog. Before in life just about every publication I touched whether it was a punk rawk zine, college newspaper, online news service, or monthly magazine had some rather obvious over-arching reason for me doing it: up end the cultural/political apple cart; start a career; turn a buck; etc.

I have noticed that my own motivations for running a gaming blog have shifted in rapid zig zags over time in a way that I never have experienced before.

The Hill Cantons blog for most of it's life has been a sporadic, modest affair. I launched it way back in March of 2009 as a convenient tool for the 13 players in my West Marches-like drop-in/drop-out campaign (note that all of my posts from that time are house rules and session reports). Over time the blog evolved into the public face of my house rules tinkering, I would post here and there when an idea hit me sometimes with lapses months on end.

The motivations were rather simple and obvious: using a practical tool that added a little color and fun to my post-game session wrap-up. Gradually it also began to be a space was something like a public sounding board for my house rules. Then house rules bled over into tinkering with whole sub-systems like all those iterations of variant classes, character backstory and random equipment generators.

But then I guess something switched in my head last September.

Writing is not at all like riding a bike, at least for me—and it's mostly not about listening to a muse (though every once in a while she whispers sweet-nothings in my ear). It's a discipline, it's getting up and doing it over and over again until when you do it, it becomes second nature.

Unfortunately, when you stop doing it, it atrophies—sadly quicker than the process of building it up. Which is where I was at in my life after switching gears from the madhouse of the newsroom to the life of a professional political “plumber”. Last Fall, the blog became a means to regain that discipline.

Overall it was a helluva success, at least in terms of that goal. Not only did the daily posts start up, but they gained a momentum—and they kept opening up doors. One thread lead to another and the exploration has become obsessive—and dare I say fun.

It's the quest for granularity broadly speaking, a vector for more and more immersion with each layer. It's something that both drives me nuts for little apparent, material gain, yet is also immensely gratifying. And best of all as I have built it, you the readers have showed up day after day too, added your own thoughts, struggled with this and that idea, and made for some great gaming.

So here's to another six months of riding the tiger with all of you.

I get bored hearing my own voice and I find myself as curious as always about why you out there blog. I don't just wonder about why I do it, but I wonder why all of you do it. What's the demon that puts you in front of that computer everyday? What do you draw from this? Why keep on keeping on?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Good Bad Fantasy

Among Orwell's best essays is a gem from 1945 titled “Good Bad Books”. In it, he talks at length about various low or middle brow “bad” books that are “the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.”

He targets many of them as being frankly about escape: “They form pleasant patches in one's memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life.”

Orwell goes on to spend sometime drifting over the brilliant clumisness or trainwreck reasoning of this or that early 20th century writer before hitting on an essential truth about the durability of this kind of writing: “The existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration. I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English.”

I could write you a river about all the good bad books in my life--all the rough-edged punk rawk travel monologues of Aaron Cometbus or the savory manly-man cliches and tropes of Bernard Cornwell—but in a short on-and-off again series I patiently queued up I'd like to explore that rather obvious good bad heavyweight contender in our D&D-loving lives: the fantasy novel and how it influences our gaming. 

We are not talking your literary over-achievers here: no Lord Dunsany, no Eddison, no Gene Wolfe, and lord knows no Tolkien. 

Let's take one of the heaviest of the heavies for starters: Robert E. Howard.

Howard was by every definition of the phrase a hack writer. Paid by the word, he churned out an endless stream of them before the flash of his revolver cut it all short. And to be sure a good chunk of it like many of his boxing stories were just plain bad bad. But the Conan stories were something of a pinnacle of good bad pulp fantasy.

I could fill up several blog posts on how the stories influence this or that bit of my thinking as a GM--the effective description, for instance, of adventure setting dress whether it's ages-lost ruins, a bejeweled tower, or a dusty exotic caravan city—but how about a focus on one biggie: action pacing.

During sessions I often write in my ever-present spiral notebook a few “stage notes” about how to improve my performance as a GM. A few months back I scrawled in the margin “describe action and combat more like REH” (that thought launched this ship). Given the abstract nature of D&D combat, a good GM is invariably looking for ways to flesh out the narrative bits, I am certainly no exception.

In lieu of me continuing to hurl quotes at you to build my case, indulge me with this little exercise. Pick up any collection of Howard's Conan stories you have available—if your hand is on one of those cheeseball post-humous collections not written by REH put your hand down, you are disqualified—if you don't have any on hand scoot over to Gutenberg to read “Red Nails” here.

Skim along until you find the first battle, chase, or other scene filled with danger. Read it aloud, let it along your tongue. Read it again or proceed over to the next.

How's that? Hit a good bad nerve? A little embarrassing, yet satisfying? Come back and tell me about it. Now channel that kind of terse pacing—and violence—into your next session.

Friends and not-so friends, what's the good bad fantasy book taking up space in your life? Why? What piece of that author's work can you see playing a direct influence in upping your game?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The New Encounter is Out

Issue four of the Classic D&D fanzine Encounter is out and I feel totally unabashed in pimping it to readers. (This time around I didn't contribute anything, so I am free and clear of “enlightened self-interest”.)

Why do I like it so?

Well, for one it's free (the right price) without being cheap. The downloadable PDF is first-rate with a nice crisp, three-column layout. Cover and interior art is evocative and well-placed. Editing is tight and the magazine overall feels like it breaks free of the kitchen-sink info-glut common with our side of the hobby.

More importantly, the content quality is quite good too and getting better with each issue. This issue has a number of highlights: a Dark Crystal campaign setting write-up (yes, the weirdo muppet fantasy movie, Dark Crystal) by Encounter editor Jesse Walker; an excellent streamlined set of rules for running D&D for young kids by local Texas boy Jimm Johnson; and a nicely-done article on using Norse-myth-inspired dragons.

Download it here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ditching the End Game

Let me tell you how I really feel: the End Game sucks. Not the gameplay of course—that would mean that my current obsessive project would be an exercise in extreme masochism—but the phrase itself.

I am not exactly sure when the phrase passed into the common parlance of the old school blogosphere. Perhaps it was this post on Grognardia two years ago that brought it into being. The original post was inspiring to me, for back in the day I loved the notion of kingdom-carving as part of the arc of character development.

And in many ways my own first experience with this kind of play was the classic AD&D End Game. When my first PC, Evaro IV, reached “name level” we promptly cracked open the holy of holy books, the DMG, and read aloud to the group, “When player characters reach upper levels and decide to establish a stronghold and rule a territory...” The operative word was “when” for us, not “if”. This was clearly what you were supposed to do with a high-level character.

Dutifully, I rolled on the requisite follower chart; packed up the utility belt of magic items and other belongings; and slogged out with my band of brothers to a lonely wooded hex in Greyhawk's Wild Coast (told you it was classic vanilla). Monster lairs were cleared and the foundations of a great keep laid. Wilderness clearing, patrolling, and attracting new colonists were the business of the random encounter charts in the appendices of the DMG—in general it was about the most by-the-book experience as we could muster back then.

I not only had a blast, but it whetted my appetite for an endless string of increasingly complex and immersive computer strategy games to come (please god, stop Paradox games before it designs another Europa Universalis-type game again).

So what the hell is my beef with the End Game?

It's with the proscriptive nature of the term. Months ago in the discussion and debates around domain-level play that led me down the road of perdition to the current Domain Game, Rob Kuntz took me to task for using the very phrase I am bagging on today. At that time he said:
“1974 OD&D never posed an "end-game" that was "retirement" and "winding down". The "end-game" connotation is strictly a "New" (and revised/tacked on) phrase which is interpreted in some strange way as being both an end and a retirement. It's just the campaign portion extending itself dynamically...”

The more I see the phrase used the more I agree with him. For what it implies is a very linear, dull even, way to approach this portion of gameplay that limits its open edges.

By coupling it with a certain point in the power arc—and one in the glacial pace of our adult campaigns we are unlikely to ever see—we put play of this kind in a tight-lidded box conceptually. It's akin to buying so much into the B/X and BECMI D&D marketing decisions to put wilderness travel and adventure into the second booklets, that we all decided to call it the “middle game” and limit participation it to being something only for characters levels 4-14.

Absurd, right?

You play a character for years adventuring the hell out of deep dark dungeons, far-flung wildernesses, other planes of existence even and then your great hero is stuck becoming a graying bean counter in some dreary stronghold as his life fades to black—or worse morphs into an NPC tool for the DM.

Borrrrrring. No wonder you hear any number of voices explicitly saying it's not for them.

D&D was originally (and brilliantly) conceived as a game with few edges and had little in the way of proscription about what a character should or shouldn't be doing in his career.

There was no End Game in Arneson's Blackmoor, It started in fact as the great clash of armies and rulers and the players throughout its existence found themselves playing all kinds of roles in the realms of that campaign. Here was a high priest or town merchant, there a vampire.

The classic kingdom-carving phase when players moved off the southern edge of the map to that famous hex map from Outdoor Survival grew dynamically out of the machinations of the players. It wasn't the end, it was just another big leap into something new—and something fun.

As the Domain Game rolls forward I am all for figuring ways to subvert the End Game. Decoupling it from rail-car linear boxes and creating avenues to expand domain-level play to all levels.

After all we have a world to win—even if it only exists in our imaginations and Sunday afternoons.