Sunday, May 1, 2022

RPG Editors: A Love Letter

I love RPG editors and I think you should, too.

Seas of Sand, my perenially-almost-done setting guide, is now finally more or less done, at least in terms of the actual writing and editing process (art's a different beast, as is printing). And let me tell you, my editor (the esteemed Matthew K.) has been 100% absolutely essential throughout the entire thing. Likewise, when I was working on Lowlife and the Big Wet and one or two future projects, having a good editor is amazing. It's fantastic. It makes everything about working on RPG better. 

(What does an editor do, you ask? See Jared's guide.)

Here's why editors are great.

Reason #1: you don't need to worry if it's good.

You know how in writing class they always tell you that when you're writing a first draft, the goal is to just put something to paper, and then fix it later? You know how that advice always kind of felt like bullshit, because if it goes to paper bad it's almost worse than having written nothing? Well, with an editor, that's actually not a problem. 

The editor's job is, in large part, to make your shit better. You can hand them garbage, and they'll very patiently explain to you why and how it's bad, and the precise changes you need to make to fix it (which very often just means hitting "accept suggestion" in docs).

You can just write. If it's workable, it'll get fixed up; if it's terrible, it'll get cut; if it's great, it'll get polished. But you, the writer, don't have to think about any of that shit while you're writing. You get to just go off. 

Reason #2: problem-solvers.

When I hit a wall, like "how do I explain this weird rules concept" or "I'm losing my mind making sure these price tables all match up" or "what the fuck do I put in the next 96 entries on this d100 table?" you can go ask your editor and they will help you. They can do research, or sit with you and drum up ideas, or sift through your manuscript and hunt for issues. 

If you're very, very lucky, it's possible your editor will even sometimes just sneakily do a little bit of writing themselves. Fill in a table entry or two, rejig a spell to be way cooler, offer a basically-almost-done monster idea. That's only if you're quite lucky, though—if you expect them to do actual writing, you gotta pay them to do actual writing.

Either way, though, when all hope seems lost and the writer's block comes crashing down, your editor is there to help you solve your problems.

Reason #3: sanity check / hype beast.

If you're like me, you'll sometimes get very deep into a project, or some aspect of a project, and completely lose all sight of home. You bury yourself in the mechanics and ramifications and vast new possibility spaces emerging, and very quickly unmoor yourself, sometimes from the rest of the project entirely. It's difficult to get a sense of whether what you're working on is actually good, since you've just spent 72 hours straight staring straight into it.

At this point, it's your editor's job to come and tell you, frankly, "this is absurd and will never work." They might help you salvage or rework it, but sometimes it turns out what you made is far beyond mortal ken, and thus needs to be cut.

But! Occasionally, you'll spend three days working on something bizarre, and then your editor will come in and tell you that actually, this thing you made is really fucking cool. Then, they push you onwards and help you make it even better.

Your editor is usually both your harshest critic and also your most dedicated cheerleader.

Reason #4: quality control.

Your editor is there to fix all of your dumb mistakes. When I write, my stuff's often filled with stupid little errors. I miss words, I forget punctuation, I garble meanings, I get lost in the weeds. I vary my sentence structure wildly in tables and lists. I'll use a term, thinking I've already defined it, and then never actually leave the definition anywhere. My laid-out drafts have an occasional tendency to repeat paragraphs and titles. Orphans abound.

An editor fixes all that. All of the random tiny issues, they hunt down and solve. It's great.

Reason #5: connections.

Assuming you hire a (semi-)professional RPG editor, one who works in RPGs full time, there's a very good chance they'll know lots of cool people in the space. If you, say, are looking for a layout designer, your editor probably knows somebody; if you need an artist, they probably can help you find one; if you need a distributor, they might have the connect. 

(Obviously, this one's a little less true if your editor is totally new to the space—but still.)

While there are lots and lots of RPGs being published all the time, a relatively slim number of those have editors. (A small diatribe: lots of RPGs that list an editor really, in my opinion, have been proofread but not actually edited. Finding typos and errors and fixing unclear bits is valuable, undoubtedly, but fully editing—dev, line, and copy—is a very different beast. One that, I suspect, very few RPG manuscripts properly go through. Once you've gone through a relatively-rigorous editing process, there are lots of little tells to spot on a project that hasn't seen that kind of rigor.)

Anyway, all this to say the number of full-time or close-to-full-time RPG editors is relatively few, and thus most of them know each other. Once you make friends with one editor (probably because you hired them) you'll make friends with more, and thus make friends with lots of people—writers and artists and layout'ers and editors and designers and distributors, the kinds of people who you'll want to work with. The editors I've hired and made friends with have opened many, many doors for me.

Reason #6: good to great.

So here's the thing, right: a lot of what people talk about in regards to editing is in terms of taking something bad and making it good. Or, at least, finding the bad parts and fixing them. That is true, obviously; lots of what editors do is fix mistakes. 

Thing is, though, if your manuscript is already good, or if you just do lots of rounds of editing, your editor is there to make your manuscript even better. They take your good ideas, all the stuff that's been percolating in your brain for months, and they juice them up. They play up the good angles, create more game, push the exciting and engaging and interesting. 

Writers are often blind about their own work; they've been staring at the pages for too long, they lose the forest for the trees. Editors have their eyes open: they can read through a manuscript and immediately say "ah, these are the parts that work and should be amplified, these parts should be cut." It's those kinds of collaborative, deliberative decisions that can really transform a project from something kind of cool and innovative into something genuinely fantastic. 

RPG editors are amazing. Go hire one for your next project.


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For what it's worth, I also do RPG editing. (I'm not nearly as talented as many of the ones on your favorite RPGs, but I'm also cheaper and my schedule is probably more open. I also do layout! Double whammy!)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Meeple: A Wargame

My friend Walid and I recently participated in a very brief game jam challenge: we got assigned three common game-prototype materials, then had to make a game in 45 minutes. Our materials were poker chips, "gems," and meeples. Thus was born the greatest wargame ever made:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MEEPLE!

Materials:

  • A relatively clear table (any size, immovable clutter is fine)
  • A whole bunch of poker chips
  • A whole bunch of gems
  • 14 meeples in 5 different colors

Objective:

Defeat the enemy team(s) my knocking all their meeples over. Ensure at least one of your meeples remains standing.

Setup:

  1. Gather 2–5 players. Each player must choose a meeple faction (see factions below). Any factions not chosen are not in play.
  2. Distribute each faction's meeples to their player, along with 5 gems.
  3. Randomly choose one player, who places one gem on the table. This is "cover." Then, the player to their left places a gem, then the player to their left, and so on. Do this until all gems are placed (this should be [players] × 5 gems in total).
  4. To deploy, randomly choose one player, who places a single meeple on the table. Then, the player to their left places a meeple, and so on. Do this until all meeples are deployed (typically 3 meeples per faction).
  5. To start the game, randomly determine one player to take the first turn. The player to their left goes next, and so on.

Basic Rules:

The game is divided into turns, one player at a time. On your turn, you can move and attack with one meeple: movement and attacking can be done in any order.

MOVEMENT
By default, a meeple may move 2 poker chips' worth of distance: place the edge of the poker chip against the meeple, then move the meeple anywhere along the edge of the poker chip (then do this again, since meeples can move 2 chips).
  • Meeples cannot move over any obstacles: if it's not flat terrain, they can't go there.
ATTACKING
To attack, place a poker chip down next to your meeple, flat on the table. Then, using the fingers on one hand, flick the poker chip across the table, attempting to knock down your opponents' meeples.
  • "Next to" is a little bit flexible. If you need a measure, hold a poker chip over your meeple's head: so long as your "ammo" poker chip would touch the measuring poker chip, the meeple can fire.
  • To knock out an enemy meeple, you must knock it over or off the table: if it slides or skids but remains standing, it is still in play.
  • The goal here is that the flicked poker chip is sliding across the table, not skipping or bouncing. Obviously, it's hard to control for these things, but do your best.
  • Any poker chips that are still on the table after attacking stay on the table, and cannot be moved. These cannot be moved over by meeples, as normal. (Artillery fire leaves craters.)
ON DEATH
If a meeple is knocked over, that meeple's player gets to place one gemstone on the table (as their faction's remaining meeples desperately throw down more sandbags).

Factions

There are five factions of meeples, based on the colors we had available at time of writing. Each player chooses one. Each faction has unique abilities 

WHITE MEEPLES (FAST ATTACK)
  • 3 meeples
  • During steup, white meeples always place the first gem and first meeple in setup, and they always get the first turn at the start of the game.
  • On their turn, the white meeples have four poker chips' worth of movement, which they can distribute however they please across all of their meeples. One meeple could move all four chips, one meeple could go three and one meeple one, or any other combination. 
GREY MEEPLES (BIG GUNS)
  • 3 meeples
  • If a grey meeple does not move on their turn, they can attack with two poker chips. These poker chips can be stacked, placed side by side, or otherwise configured oddly. They must both be within range of the attacking meeple, and the grey player may still only use one hand to flick the poker chips.
GREEN MEEPLES (ZOMBIES)
  • 3 meeples
  • When a green meeple is knocked over, it is not removed from play: that meeple cannot move, but can still attack. 
  • To kill a green meeple, you must knock it off the table entirely (at which point the green player can place another gem, as normal).
PURPLE MEEPLES (DEFENDERS)
  • 3 meeples
  • During setup, after all meeples are deployed but before the first turn, the purple player may place an additional 3 gems.
  • When a purple meeple dies, the purple player may place two gems, instead of one.
ORANGE MEEPLES (TANKS)
  • 2 meeples(!)
  • Both orange meeples begin play standing on top of a poker chip (make these poker chips a different color than the ones you use to attack and move with). These are the "tanks."
  • When an orange meeple moves, it moves with the "tank" poker chip it stands on. 
  • If an orange meeple loses its "tank," it can move over to its lost "tank" poker chip and "re-enter" by climbing back on top of it.
  • Orange meeples can climb on top of any other poker chips on the table (but cannot move with them—only tanks are mobile).

Tips & Advice

  • Play with as many players as possible. Write new factions if you need to.
  • Building lines of cover with gems is only sometimes helpful: a poker chip flicked hard enough can shatter lines of sandbags.
  • Having a few pieces of immovable terrain (desk lamps, laptops, a backpack) can really spice up the drama. Ricochets are a huge gamble but can be extremely effective.
  • Friendly fire is very possible and extremely costly. 
  • It generally gets harder and harder to land shots as the game goes on, requiring improvised strategy.
  • When you flick the chips, you sometimes want snap your finger out from your thumb ("the classic"), but sometimes you also want to just heavily-nudge the chip with a finger ("the putter") if you're at short range or need a lot of control.
  • Alliances are very useful.
  • Go fast. We played multiple games of this in under an hour. 
  • Squat down to level your eyes with the table to get the best sightlines (that's how you know it's a real wargame).
Good luck!

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Character Options as Reward: A Campaign Pitch

A few months ago, I started a sporadic game of UVG with my roommates; all pretty casual, pretty goofy. 

During character creation, they asked me: "Hey Sam, do we have to play humans? Aren't there like, weird freaks out here? Can we play as them?"

This gave me pause. UVG has an interesting issue with regards to the "gradient of weirdness," where if you aren't careful the very first session in the Violet City can be totally off-the-wall wild, and thus none of the ensuing weirdness the Grasslands have to offer really sticks. We had a touch of that already (their starting loan came from the Grand Isopod Bank), so I was hesitant.

At the time, this is what I told them: "For now, no. But, if you recruit a weird freak into your party, like a para-human or an ultra or a vome, then any characters you make later can be one of those." 

This was, on its face, a pretty straightforward solution. If/when their current dudes died, their new ones could be different, they were encouraged to recruit strange freaks they met on the road, and the gradient of weirdness was preserved a little longer.

Recently, that solution got me thinking. What if you expanded this idea? What if more character options were gated behind progress through a campaign? What if this was, like, a major part of the campaign?

THE PITCH

It's megadungeon campaign. You've got a big pool of players, a proper adventuring company, maybe 10 or 20 or so. You pile them all into one server, get everybody excited.

A half-day's travel out of town, there's an old castle on a seaside cliff. Rumors of unholy magic, foul beasts, and piles of gold. The classic. 

by Red Hook

A first, you tell everybody to make regular old adventurers: Thieves, (Orthodox) Wizards, Clerics (of the Light Undying), and Fighters, all human. Bog-standard.

But, you tell them the same thing I told my UVG roommates: if they recruit any weird freaks inside the megadungeon, they can use those as options for their new characters (since, let's face it, it's pretty likely they'll die at some point in these dungeons).

STARTING OUT

So they play a couple sessions, and they meet some goblins. They fight a few, thrash a miniboss or two, and then meet Snargle. Snargle's a coward and a wretch, a little runt of a goblin, but the party takes pity on them, and decide to recruit Snargle to the adventuring company. Now, anybody making a new character can a) just play Snargle, or b) roll up a new goblin.

Fast-forward a few sessions, and the party has just rescued three dwarves who were going to be sacrificed to an undead god, who get recruited into the party. The company can now roll up dwarves—but that's not all! One of these dwarves is a Fighter (nothing new there), but one is a Berzerker, and one is a Rune-Carver Cleric. Now, they've got a whole new class to play (berzerker), and there's a new set of spells that clerics can take, rune-carving spells.

Over the course of the new few months, the party also recruit a couple of fish-people (one of whom is a Mariner, and one of whom knows the Lore of the Depths, a bunch of Wizard spells), a goblin Assassin, and a pale elf Cleric of the Whispering Moon.

So, six months in, new characters can now be humans, dwarves, goblins, fish-people, or pale elves (they can't yet be automata, orcs, ghouls, or minotaurs, not to mention all of the non-humanoid monsters). Their martially-inclined characters can be Fighters, Thieves, Berzerkers, Assassins, or Mariners. Their Clerics can worship the Light Undying, the Whispering Moon, or practice Runecarving; their Wizards know both Orthodox Lore and the Lore of the Depths (plus whatever scrolls they've found).

You can see how, over the course of months or years, the options available to players would continue to expand, until by late in the game there could be dozens of options. You can also move beyond mere classes and species—you could have feats, ritual spells, micro- or prestige- or multi-class options, new starting equipment packages, and just about anything else you want. The rule stays the same: to unlock it as an option, you've got to bring one (willingly) home first.

WHY I LIKE THIS IDEA

Several reasons.

First, it's just strong incentive to explore. All players love new options, and so by dangling the hook of "you could play a weird fish-man, but only if you brave the Icy Coves," they're suddenly very interested in going to dangerous places and meeting dangerous people. 

Second, it's a good way to take the edge off of characters dying. A lot of my D&D players tend to be fresh out of 5e, so they're very averse to risk-taking, and I'm always trying to nudge them out of the nest. Getting to play a freaky pale elf or dwarf berzerker next is a good way to ease the sting. 

Third, it provides a very natural way to ease into the gradient of weirdness. I like players being able to play bizarre characters, but I also don't like the party always being the center of weirdness-attention, which can happen sometimes in games with lots of options. This way, before any players can start to be weird, they have to deal with that weirdness first. 

Fourth, and this is connected to the third, it's a good way to get players hooked into the overarching conflicts of your campaign. If, say, the orcs and the pale elves have a long-running blood feud over a mithril mine, your players will learn that pretty quick. Then, if a player wants to play a pale elf, they'll know, firsthand, that any orcs they meet will hate their guts on sight. Likewise, if chaos dwarves tend to be mutated freaks (especially their pyro-mongers), players using the Lore of the Chaos Flame will understand the risks involved with mutations. By essentially demanding a level of investment before players get their toys, you make sure they're, well, invested.

Fifth, and this is my metroidvania/darksouls brain at work, you can gate certain options behind requisite PC choices. If it takes six dwarvish hands on the ancient glyphs to open the Screaming Rust Gate, well, the company better recruit three dwarves. Likewise, if the Greater Depths require traveling through a mile of icy water, you'll either need fish-people or spells to protect you against that kind of stuff (which you probably get from the fish-people). If they want to access the deeper levels, they need to solve challenges that require solutions found on the higher levels. 

There's other, lesser reasons, obviously—it lets players make cool theorycrafted builds but only after eating their proverbial vegetables, it encourages not just murdering everything they see—but those are the main ones. It encourages exploration and risking characters, it eases the gradient of weirdness and worldbuilding engagement, and it unlocks interesting dungeon designs. 

I haven't really run a campaign like this, obviously. But the more I think about it, the more infectious the idea becomes, and the more I want to design and run this kind of megadungeon. We'll see if I can find the time. 

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Three Subsystems For Things You Already Have Subsystems For

Presented in order of confidence, most to least.

RESTY HITPOINTS

Here's a system for HP I've been screwing around with for a little while. (As usual, dS is "dice size," so +1 dS changes a d4 to a d6, and -2 dS changes a d12 to a d8.) This is mostly stolen from Jared Sinclair's 6e.

When you sleep, roll [level]dX. If the new total is higher than your previous HP, that's now your current HP. Resting will never lower your HP.

By default, dX is a d8. Here's what can change that:
  • -1 dS for each of the following: you go to sleep while...
    • wet
    • cold
    • exposed
    • hungry
    • thirsty
    • sick
    • in your armor
    • without a bedroll
    • seriously wounded (like, from a death & dismemberment table, not just regular combat damage)
  • +1 dS for each of the following: you go to sleep while...
    • having just finished a hot meal
    • in a real, actual bed
    • freshly cleaned and groomed
Max dX is a d20; min dX is a d1.

WHY THIS IS COOL

All that camping shit players love to ignore really matters. You need a bedroll, and a tent, and a mess kit, and a fire, and clean water, and a place to actually fucking sleep. On the flipside, buying a room and meal and bath is suddenly extremely worth it, because it's the quickest way to get back all your HP.

Imagine, for a second, the level 3 adventurer that just crawled out of the sewer-dungeon after having their gear stolen by frogpeople: they're wet, cold, and hungry. That's a d2, meaning until they can find a good place to sleep, their new maximum HP is a big ol' 6. 

By contrast, imagine that same adventurer spending a night at the inn in town: they're warm, they're fed, and they took a bath with real soap. Their die is a d20, meaning their max is 60 HP. Which, you know, is ludicrous, but that'll take months or years of resting to reach (because, remember, it's not additive—new HP only increases if it's higher than the old).

I also like this because it captures the "resting for longer is good and necessary sometimes" thing that Grit & Flesh does without needing to mess around with secondary HP tracks. 

INVENTORY EXHAUSTION

Here's an inventory-exhaustion system I've been screwing around with for a while. This is mostly stolen from Grave and Boots Full of Mud.  

You've got your inventory slots, yeah? Use those. (You might want to give players a few more than normal—I usually do CON + STR these days.)

Whenever you take a point of exhaustion, fill one inventory slot. If you end up with more filled slots than you have inventory space, you start slowing down and eventually can't move anymore.

Here are some things that mean you take a point of exhaustion:
  • Crossing a gradient line of elevation (cf. Boots)
  • Crossing a river
  • Traveling every hour past the normal daily amount (usually 8 hours)
  • Traveling a watch (4 hours) at a faster pace than normal (usually +1 mph)
  • Staying up for a watch (4 hours) when you should be sleeping.
  • Exhaustion-attacks and certain illnesses, like plague bugs or whatever
  • Pulling a stunt and an attack on the same turn in combat (cf. Grave, basically imagine baby's first Action Surge)
  • If you're playing 5e, have things that normally deal 1 Exhaustion (zerker's frenzy, for example) deal 1d4 slots or 1d6 slots or something
If you're using my resty HP, clear exhaustion every night equal to highest single die rolled. 

WHY THIS IS COOL

It makes exhaustion this extremely palpable thing that suddenly really matters, but also doesn't involve fucking around with either your HP or some additional track. It bites you where it hurts, but it's easy to predict. If your players are paying attention and managing their travels well, they'll be fine; if they get lost or lose their focus, they'll suddenly have no inventory to work with and that sucks big time.

If you use the stunt-exhaustion thing from Grave, which I like, it also means you get a cool Thief / Fighter distinction solely based on inventory: thieves wear light armor and carry light weapons so they can do lots of cool stunts in combat; fighters wear heavy armor and carry heavy weapons so they're more reliable, but every stunt they pull matters a lot more.

It's also just very... hackable. Modular. It's dead simple to add in more effects that inflict exhaustion, or have magical healing clear exhaustion, or whatver else.
 

CALLED SHOTS ONLY

This is a weird one. It doesn't play nice with resty HP, since it doesn't actually use HP (lol). Entirely untested.

Use your sandwich AC for attacks, where you've got to roll equal-to-or-under your attack stat but over your opponent's AC to hit. 

Every time you attack your opponent, say where you try hit them: torso, a limb, their head, or whatever. 

Their AC changes based on where you hit them:
  • Torso: +0
  • Limbs: +3
  • Head or neck: +5
  • Smaller specific part, like eyes or hands: +10
Here's what armor adds:
  • Leather, +2 AC
  • Chain, +4 AC
  • Plate, +6 AC
  • Dragonscale, +12 AC
The armor your opponent wears only covers so much. A breastplate protects only the torso. A helmet protects the head, but almost never the eyes. There's a constant dance of figuring out where the best place to hit them is.

If your attack is equal to or 1 more than their AC, it's a graze. A glancing blow. Cuts, scrapes, bruises.
If your attack is 2 or more than their AC, it's a hit. A solid strike, it'll do damage. Broken bones, flesh wounds, serious injuries.
If your attack is 5 or more than their AC, it's a critical hit. Severed limbs, crushed rib cages, heads rent in twain. 

There's no HP here, just diegetic damage. If something would kill someone, it kills them. Bear in mind that a graze to, say, the eyeballs is going to do a hell of a lot more than a graze to the ribs.

WHY THIS IS COOL

There's a dance to every fight. Imagine my opponent: they've got a breastplate, leather gauntlets and greaves, and a chainmail coif. If I attack their torso, their AC's about 4. Decent odds for me, but even a solid hit is not guaranteed to knock them out of the fight. If I attack their head, their AC's about 9, but even a graze will do serious damage. If I attack their sword-arm, their AC's about 5, and a solid hit will seriously dampen their ability to hit me. 

It means that every swing in combat is a gamble, a decision. It probably does slow each turn of combat down, but it means each turn can potentially end the fight. There's no whittling-down of HP real slowly until the monster drops dead—you either kill them, or you don't.

It also means you can make combat into more of a puzzle. Take a dragon: its weak spots are its eyes, its mouth, and whatever hole it has in its diamond belly-armor. Those are hard to hit, but are always going to be easier—and deadlier, probably—than trying to punch through dragonscale. 

Again, this is completely untested, but it's my hope, my suspicion, that this kind of system enables combat to be less about cronching numbers against each other and more about figuring out ways to exploit your opponents' weaknesses. Hopefully.

--

Let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

1d50 Things I Learned in 2021

An end-of-year retrospective, in no particular order.
  1. Trying to match colors across Photoshop and InDesign after the fact is a nightmare. Write your color codes down early, in CMYK, then stick to them across both.
  2. Mixam's page cuts are not that equal, even from page to page: what you put in the bleed genuinely does matter, even if it seems like it doesn't.
  3. Picking two or three colors (one of which can/should be black or white) as your page background, main body text color, and spot color is a very cheap and easy way to make your basic PDF stand out.
  4. In New York, unless you 100% absolutely for-sure positively know it'll be amazing and worth it, never pay more than $1 per slice of pizza.
  5. Good game text is what keeps people playing your game, but good presentation and artwork is what gets them to start at all.
  6. Almost every RPG written by beginners (mine included) is over-written. Most paragraphs can be sentences. Many sentences can be cut. Never explain anything just to explain it.
  7. Relatedly, almost all indie RPG designers (like other indie game designers, to some extent) are writing for a niche crowd that has already played RPGs. Yes, your game might be played by your mom who's a total newbie, but the person running/facilitating that random tiny indie game has read and played fifty other RPGs. Stop explaining what an RPG is.
  8. A monster that normally talks but suddenly can't is spooky. A monster that normally can't say a word but suddenly starts talking is terrifying. (Did you know ghouls can talk in most systems?)
  9. As a broad rule of thumb: wizards that travel = good; wizards that stay in one place = evil. 
  10. Unless you have the same person doing writing and layout, make sure your writing is entirely done before you go to layout.
  11. International shipping is crazy expensive. Budget at least 1.5 times what you think you should for it.
  12. Inform 7, the interactive fiction tool, is a rough ride. Parser games in general are rough.
  13. Maps are always useful. I've never looked at a map that came with my RPG and said "nah, this is useless." High-quality maps are among my most-used and most-prized RPG tools. (Top of the list currently are kahva's topographical maps and Tim Denee's Doskvol street maps.)
  14. Languages in RPGs are deeply under-explored, and people are eager and excited to use them more. Not in the sense that we need more fantasy languages, but we need new and interesting ways to use language, on a mechanical and roleplaying level.
  15. I hate reading paragraphs in RPGs. Maybe I'm just spoiled with Mosh and Mork Borg and slim little hacks, but I'm just so tired of opening up an adventure or system and just seeing paragraphs and paragraphs of text.
  16. Putting player characters in positions of power—lords, elders, commanders, cult leaders, presidents—is a good way to give them agency. Even in a system where, on paper, all power lies with the GM, giving the player characters lots of in-fiction power is a good way to get them impacting the game in big ways. 
  17. Lots and lots of "generators" in RPGs are less-than-helpful. I want a step-by-step instruction list or a mad libs fill-in-the-blank or a worksheet. Give me something I can like, fill out for my game. Stop making me do all the legwork. 
  18. Use your good ideas first; don't save your good ideas for later down the line. You'll always have more good ideas, so don't hold out on the good shit early.
  19. Editors are fucking amazing. I've only hired a couple, but every time I've gotten an outside editor to look at my work, it's improved many times over.
  20. Bigger is always cooler. A dire bear that's 22 feet tall? Cool. A dire bear that's 75 feet tall? Rad. A dire bear that's 450 feet tall? Fucking awesome.
  21. College and university campuses are a very useful scale for thinking about medieval / fantasy cities. Walkable, and small enough you can walk from one end to the other in half an hour or less—but you also will never see inside every building, nor will you ever meet every person. 
  22. There's no substitute for legwork. Legwork on the part of the designer—making maps, stocking dungeons, writing out descriptions for things, actually doing the work—is what makes RPG projects actually good. Stop giving me seeds of adventures and actually spell out the adventure for me.
  23. Unless your game is actually going to be in brick-and-mortar stores, back-of-the-book text is useless. Put another table or a quick reference or something on there instead. 
  24. I sort of knew this already, but I still feel like I'm processing it: in terms of dice, multiplication is slower than subtraction which is slower than addition which is slower than comparison. It's faster to pick the highest of 2d6 than it is to add 2d6 together.
  25. I listen to more Spotify than anyone else I know.
  26. If you can't pick a font, start with one of Vignelli's six and figure it out later.
  27. Trying to make tables in multiple layers, with the lines on one layer and the text on another, is a giant pain in the ass but also lets you do some very cool things with weathering and distressing and stuff.
  28. In both RPGs and video games, it's easier to mimic physical action than anything else. Give your players tools to jump, swim, fly, leap, swing, zoom, merge, and so on. 
  29. When you make a Kickstarter thumbnail, keep it simple: big text, big image, bold colors. Too many look cluttered, and that's bad.
  30. There's something a little ineffable that emerges with longer campaigns. A campaign that lasts one session feels different than three sessions, which feels different than 12, which feels different than 50, which feels different than 200. I find myself wanting to run longer ones more often.
  31. Reading before bed is absolutely cracked. Just overpowered as fuck. Reading for 30 minutes and sleeping for 7.5 hours makes me feel better than sleeping for 8. Just busted as hell.
  32. Sean McCoy's paragraph < list < table < diagram < illustration hierarchy is really, really good. 
  33. Turns out the key to making good french toast is to add a little vanilla extract and cinnamon to your egg + milk, then let the bread sit in there for longer than it feels like you should. You want the bread almost fragmenting; instead of fishing it out of the bowl with a fork, use your spatula and tilt the bowl so you can lift the whole thing out. The more milk + egg your bread soaks up, the juicier and fluffier the toast will be, and the better it will taste. And really, it's almost impossible to overdo the vanilla and cinnamon.
  34. Watercolor brushes in Photoshop are a really good way to add just a smidgen of texture to a page background, or to any illustration. Slightly offset the color (usually a touch darker) and just paint over your main body color.
  35. The RPG space is a bizarre cottage industry. Relative to other creative fields, there's no distribution, no publishers, no networks, no pipelines. Just like ten thousand enthusiasts trying to do everything themselves. I have no idea how to fix this, but it's an issue.
  36. Everything they talk about on Trying To Be Kind. Killer podcast.
  37. Undead are way scarier when they're something you saw when it was alive. A corpse in a dungeon that sits up is a little spooky; a goblin that you definitely kill and then sits up anyways is way more alarming.
  38. I'm tired of "TV Show X, but as a game!" Both in the official licensed sense and in the "strongly inspired by" sense. 
  39. The existence of Morton's List, the game written by an on-again-off-again ICP member that was banned from GenCon and is essentially Crime: The Game. Truly a wild time.
  40. Many dungeons don't need to be on grids. Flowcharts work fine. (Unless your players will be doing a lot of digging / warping through walls.)
  41. Subsection headers can be written as [Page #].[Subsection #]: so subsection 4 on page 16 would be 16.4. Mosh does this, it's not hard, it's easy to reference, it looks very cool.
  42. GM screens are a nightmare to make. Do not try to make them unless you somehow have a printing industry connection the rest of us don't.
  43. K6BD rocks. Turns out everyone saying it rocks for years was right.
  44. Secrets are a good way to make macguffins interesting. A magic rock is boring. A magic rock that has to be kept secret because otherwise the Inquisition will be after you is suddenly very fun. Players having to decide who they can trust is always good.
  45. A 100-foot cliff is a challenge for low-level players. A 1,000-foot cliff is a challenge for mid-level players. A 10,000-foot cliff is a challenge for high-level players. A 100,000-foot cliff is a challenge for anyone. (For 5e players, consider adding an additional 0 to each.)
  46. Tinfoil hat on: system design is prevalent because systems are a means for the designer to directly influence the game; content is meant to be changed and thus does not allow the same level of authorial control. System design is, on some level, an authorial power trip (also supported by all of WOTC and their marketing team).
  47. Brutalism is rad. I'm a fan.
  48. Random encounters in dungeons and wilderness zones are time pressure: more time in the dungeon means more chances of encounters means more chances of death. Move fast and you're less likely to die. Time pressure's often lacking in RPGs, and is usually good.
  49. One of the best ways to learn layout is by trying to mimic existing RPG material. I learned a ton from trying to make my own Blades, 5e, and Mosh character sheets.
  50. There's a difference in "system" between mechanical game-system and diegetic world-system. If I say "food is currency," that is a mechanical game-system, since you like pay for goods and stuff with food and thus there are some complicated currency-per-day systems, but! it's mostly a diegetic world-system. The people in this world use food as currency: the emergent behaviors from that rule make the game rich and interesting, because it's rooted in the world itself.
There were, obviously, more things I learned this year. But this is good enough for now. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Greater America

THE PITCH

It's a road-tripping campaign set in the late '90s. You start somewhere on the East Coast, New York or DC or Boston, and have to go west.

It starts out normal enough. You pile into the station wagon starter vehicle, load up all your gear and crap (250 inventory slots!), buy gas and food, and count up your last precious dollars (currently $389 across all four party members).

You take the I-90 West. 2 hours to Albany, another 2 to Syracuse, another 3 to Buffalo. You decide to push on another 3 to make it Cleveland. You pay $60 for a motel with two queen beds; there are some fanfic jokes, and you decide two of you will sleep on the floor. It's another $45-odd for gas, and $20 for road snacks.

Next morning, it's 5 and a half hours to just south of Chicago, where I-90 turns into I-80 and keeps going west. 4 and a half hours from there to Des Moines, where spend $55 on a motel room with shittier art. Another $40 for gas; you splurge and go to a diner, spending $30 on a huge breakfast for all of you.

It's 2 hours to Omaha; mid-morning by the time you leave.

You see the sign, same as all the others:
Thanks for visiting IOWA!
Then, you see the next sign;
The state of WINNEMAC welcomes you!
What?

You keep driving. Maybe it was a joke?

Then you see the license plates: WINNEMAC, they say, "The Barley State."

After 20 minutes of driving, you pull off I-80 into the town of Cooley, WM. Population: 4,302; ZIP code: 24519. It's a normal farm-country town: couple of gas stations, a post office, town hall, a handful of strip malls. They've got a Starbucks and a BK, but they explain the nearest Walmart is a couple of towns over, in Nadleville.

Eventually, you notice the flags: they've got a lot of stars. A lot of stars. Same ol' 13 stripes, but dozens more stars than the normal 50.

You buy a map. It looks something like this:



--

A CAMPAIGN IN GREATER AMERICA

It's a modern-ish campaign, as much or as little magic as you'd like, but set in an impossibly-large United States. It's some 10,000 miles to get from coast to coast, and you all now find yourselves as strangers in a strange land. 

Except it's not actually a strange land. They still get CNN, you can still buy a Coke, they still drive Fords. There's just... more. More states, more land, more mountains, more people, more.

As GM, you are of course welcome to populate the now-vast interior of the US with whatever you please. Bizarre roadside attractions, strange NPCs, the wear & tear of long-distance travel, dungeons hidden in shopping malls—the works.

The main difference now is that your players won't know all of it. Every new state line is a mystery; every new highway is unfamiliar.

--

1D100 MORE STATES

  1. Jefferson (JF)
  2. Greyter (GT)
  3. Fargo (FG)
  4. Tates (TS)
  5. Raxlan (RX)
  6. Green Rock (GR)
  7. Doramos (DO)
  8. New Nantes (NN)
  9. New Madrid (MR)
  10. Bestings (BE)
  11. Shandle (SH)
  12. Trimeda (TR)
  13. Las Forodas (LF)
  14. Columbia (CM)
  15. Delmarva (DM)
  16. Absaroka (AB)
  17. Sequoyah (SQ)
  18. Cumberland (CU)
  19. Lincoln (LN)
  20. Kinney (KI)
  21. Madawaska (MW)
  22. Westmoreland (WL)
  23. Cascadia (CS)
  24. Van Zandt (VZ)
  25. Franklin (FR)
  26. Dade (DA)
  27. Acadia (AC)
  28. Elizabeth (EZ)
  29. Yazoo (YZ)
  30. New Holland (NO)
  31. Gwinnett (GW)
  32. Pinckney (PY)
  33. Sawyer (SY)
  34. Roberdeau (RO)
  35. Randolph (RD)
  36. Fremont (FE)
  37. Winnemac (WM)
  38. Keystone (KS)
  39. Ambarino (AM)
  40. LeMoyne (LM)
  41. Disraeli (DI)
  42. Mercer (MC)
  43. Tristana (TR)
  44. Guarna (GU)
  45. Barona (BR)
  46. Pawtucket (PW)
  47. Mucklewam (MU)
  48. Pala (PL)
  49. New Tyne (NT)
  50. Brigham (BG)
  51. Clingan (CI)
  52. Spaight (SP)
  53. Boerum (BM)
  54. Wolcott (WO)
  55. Tilghman (TI)
  56. Ynez Island (YI)
  57. Seneca (SE)
  58. Soboba (AB)
  59. Tuscarora (TU)
  60. Kingsland (KL)
  61. Wyandotte (WD)
  62. Jackson (JS)
  63. Habamotalel (HB)
  64. Augustine (AU)
  65. Cazneau (CZ)
  66. Fuller (FU)
  67. Hugueiana (HG)
  68. New Flanders (NF)
  69. Aghaboe (AG)
  70. Saragossa (SG)
  71. Hesselblad (HS)
  72. Coushatta (CH)
  73. Lagoverde (LV)
  74. Jennings (JN)
  75. Beveridge (BV)
  76. Knox (KX)
  77. Ostend (OS)
  78. Kickapoo (KP)
  79. Odawa (OD)
  80. Manzanita (MZ)
  81. Nansemond (NA)
  82. Passamaquoddy (PM)
  83. Quinault (QU)
  84. Walacasco (WC)
  85. Marchant (MH)
  86. New Sicily (NS)
  87. Calisota (CL)
  88. Ames (AE)
  89. Mickewa (MK)
  90. Oconee (OC)
  91. Tippecanoe (TC)
  92. Boone (BN)
  93. Ventnor (VN)
  94. Lyndon (LY)
  95. Cyrenia (CY)
  96. Ephesia (EP)
  97. Claviers (CV)
  98. Hacklesbad (HC)
  99. DeWhett (DW)
  100. Dyer (DY)
A lot of these names—like real US states—come from indigenous American Indian tribe names. If you live in the States, please donate to your local American Indian rights groups and organizations.

--

APPENDIX N

  • All Gas No Brakes, now Channel 5 News with Andrew Callaghan
  • Grand Theft Auto, particularly San Andreas and V
  • Kentucky Route Zero
  • Overland
  • That road trip I took with my friends back in the summer of 2018

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Slush Pile 11.21

In the style of Throne of Salt.

#

CRUNCHY-ASS ARMOR

Armor has a single stat attached to it, called "Armor Value," or AV, which ranges from 1–6 (usually). 

When a weapon's damage roll equal the armor's AV, the damage is negated. That means if you roll a 4 on damage against an AV 4 target, they take no damage.

Here's a sample AV chart:
  • AV 1: padded cloth
  • AV 2: quilted coat
  • AV 3: leather gambeson
  • AV 4: lamellar armor
  • AV 5: chainmail
  • AV 6: full plate
Critically, you can wear multiple kinds of armor. However, you can only wear 3 armors at once, and those three cannot be fully contiguous. AV 1 / AV 2 / AV 4 is fine, or AV 2 / AV 3 / AV 6, but not AV 4 / AV 5 / AV 6. 

Armor takes slots equal to the highest AV, +1 for each additional armor. (Plate, chainmail, and a quilted coat takes 8 slots.)

Bladed weapons deal 1d4 + 2 (dagger) // 1d4 + 2 and 1d4 + 2 (longsword) // 1d4 + 2 and 1d4 + 2 and 1d4 + 2 (greatsword). 

Blunt weapons deal 2d3 (cosh) // 4d3 (hammer) // 5d3 (big hammer) // 6d3 (maul).

Stabby weapons deal 1d6 (arrow) // 2d6 (spear) // 3d6 (pike).

#

SPEAK NOT THE NAME OF THE BROWN ONE

a brown one

Don't speak the name of the brown one. It will summon him. 

Honey-eater, tree-climber, fish-hunter, man-killer. All are the brown one.

The brown one is a god amongst men: as we do not say the names of the gods, we do not say the name of the brown one.

If you wish to face the gods early, speak the name of the brown one. It will summon him.

#

DELTA HUNGER

Within the heart of every living person lies a primordial desire, buried beneath a hundred generations of civilization and a lifetime's worth of training.

This desire is beneath shelter, beneath safety, beneath sex. It is the desire to eat. To devour. To take a living thing and consume its strength. To feed.

(0) Appetite
Eat someone. Enjoy the taste.
You can eat raw meat without penalties or danger.

(1) Hunt
Kill someone. Eat them. 
You can drink blood like it was water, and eat meat like it was bread. You learn the spots to hold on someone's neck to squeeze the life out of them like juice. You grow broad in the shoulders.

(1) Palette
Go a week eating nothing but human flesh.
You can eat an entire person in one sitting, and it will feed you for a month; you won't need to eat or drink anything else. You grow thick around the middle.

(2) Grind
Bake bread from someone's bones: use the marrow for water, ground bone powder for flour, and the bones themselves as coal for the oven.
You grow strong, strong enough to snap someone's bones with your bare hands. You can sling a thrashing person over each shoulder and carry them both without issues. Your thighs, upper arms, and neck grow heavy and muscular.

(2) Pantry
Keep someone alive for at least a week, eating a new part of them every day.
You can smell when someone's afraid, even if they're hiding it. You can smell fear from up to a quarter-mile away. You grow tall, more than seven feet, rolling with muscle and fat.

(3) Butcher
TBD
Something about preserving people for a while

#

TOWER OF BABYLON ANTI-DEPTHCRAWL

Stolen from Ted Chiang.

Based on the math he gives us, the tower's about 50 miles high. The radius of the tower is between 5.5 and 6 miles: with a full day's walk, a person climbs roughly one vertical mile each day.

The base of the tower is all construction; the lower tower is crops and plants to feed the builders; the middle of the tower is sun-baked; the upper tower is more construction villages and hanging gardens; the top of the tower is near the dome of the sky.

Make a d150 table, roll a d50 on it every day, and add your current height in miles. The very bottom is all builders, the middle is encounters and birds and things, the top is angels and mystics.

#

LESSONS FROM THE MICRO-MEGADUNGEON

Things I learned from running the earliest version of Beneath Harlowe House:
  1. Make it dense and tight. When you think your hallways are narrow enough, make them even narrower. Compress vertically: lower ceilings, collapse upper levels, make them crawl on their bellies. Make them lose sight of each other around corners.
  2. Get them lost. Make them draw their own maps, and have passageways twist and wind. Being underground because you're looking for money is bad: being underground because you literally can't find your way out is terrifying. (Also, the elation of having your map-guesswork suddenly be correct is a joy for players.)
  3. Scarier is better, but this doesn't need to be complicated. They'll have to start leaving certain pathways unexplored if they want to reach the bottom: play on those fears. Have strange noises echo throughout. Have monsters leave "offerings" in places they know the players have gone. Leave clear evidence that they're being followed. Don't show the monster until it's ready.
  4. Embrace the physicality. What are they wearing? How much space do their packs take up? Can you fit a sword in there? How thick is this wall? When they lost that lantern, where did it roll to? What's the ceiling made of? 
  5. Leave it voluntary. If the campaign says "they must go into the spooky hole because the Sword of Flour & Flame is down there," players know they have to. If the players say "let's go into the spooky hole" even though they know they don't have to, it means they might actually fucking die.
  6. Slow burn. For the first two sessions of Harlowe, my players didn't even see a monster. When they finally saw one, it was only because Phlox's character stayed outside after dark—and even then, it was just indistinct, elongated scuttling.
  7. Multiple trips. It's fine if they want to leave and come back
  8. Actual impact. Let them dig new tunnels, if they want to take the time. Remember thine hourly encounter rolls.
  9. A sudden trapdoor is fucking terrifying. If one character unexpectedly drops down two levels into the dark, and now they're almost out of HP, and they can hear monsters coming, players lose their fucking shit.

#

CHARACTER CONCEPTION vs. CHARACTER PERCEPTION

5e players hate rolling stats.

When you set out to play an RPG, you often have some kind of character conception: an idea of who you want your character to be, how they'll behave, where they end up. This conception more or less never survives contact with the table.

At the table, you only have a character perception: the gathered info on how your character actually behaves in practice, what character traits they literally show in play.

Dissonance between these—how you imagine your character to behave vs how they actually behave—usually annoys players.

OSR games try to deliberately break you of any conception by rolling for stats, rolling for history, rolling for random trinkets or quirks or whatever. You know ahead of time you can't conceive of a character because the chargen process is so non-player-determined.

5e, culturally, embraces character conceptions, though. And so 5e players hate rolling stats. 

#

ALL ONE STAT

You have one stat: stamina. It starts at 10. 

When you make a check, roll 1d20 under stamina. You have inventory slots equal to stamina. Your speed in feet is equal to stamina times 3. When you take damage, you lose stamina. 

Every full day you spend resting, roll 1d20: if it's higher than your current stamina, now that's your stamina. 

If you reach 0 stamina, you die.

#

RITUAL MAGIC TRADITIONS

magical traditions in the style of my slow ritual magic: each tradition has its own sites, trappings, and performances. Necromancy uses full moons, anatomy textbooks, and ritual removal of organs; pyromancy uses the noonday sun, burnt incense, and ceremonial salt-burning. 

Go one step further: each spell has its own list of sites / trappings / performances, but there are some overlaps between them. "Illusion spells" are only a tradition because most of them happen to share foggy days, steel wool, and spinning of veils as their sites, trappings, and performances.

This is just a fuckload of legwork for a designer to build, though.

#

LANGUAGES AS SPELL LISTS

Different spell lists based on the languages you speak. Draconic gets you fireball and flight and fear. Deep gets you tentacles and telepathy and water-breathing. Terran gets you earthbind and wall of stone and whatever else.

Tie the number of languages you know to your Intelligence. A more powerful age is a more Intelligent mage not because their spell save DC scales off of INT or whatever, but because they literally know more spells and thus can combo them in interesting ways.

#


More to come, eventually.