Monday, December 31, 2012

Why are the dice my tiny, plastic masters?

People... I have a problem. I love dice. I really, really love them. I love them to the extent that I have more sets than I conceivably can use. I love them so much that I'm thinking about buying even more of them. I love the way they look, the way they feel, the different ways that they can be stored (Bags! Tubes! Tins! Miniature treasure chests!). I have strong preferences for dice that are flashy. That's why I love the Chessex products, especially the ones with the really neat names like Borealis and Gemini. But part of me remembers the pitch Lou Zocchi makes for Game Science precision dice. I got a bunch of them as well. I even have several sets of the "funky dice" used in DCC, though I can't for the life of me believe that the d5 actually is usable. Eventually I'll get the d10 with 1-5 marked twice. They were out of stock the last time I checked. Two days ago. Did I mention that I have a problem?

Lots of tabletop RPG gamers have rituals related to dice. Some have "lucky" dice. Some have sets they use only for certain games or actions. Sometimes, when the dice are "bad," they get sacrificed. John, one of the players in my face-to-face game, has been known to walk out my back door and hurl dice downslope toward the pond. It's too far away to hit, so I don't think he's making a wish. I have a ritual as well. Well, really there are two: Selection and Designation. They occur at the same time, so I suppose it's really just two parts of the same ritual.

"Selection" means that, before any session begins, I find in my collection the dice (or dice sets) that are speaking to me that day. The colors must be attractive. They must match the mood of the game. I got to be feelin' 'em. That's the primary set. I Designate that set for all of the general rolls (e.g., skill checks, ability checks, saving throws, etc.). They may be of any color but red. Then I select a second set. These are the designated reserve set. I have these available because I sometimes act on intuitions regarding my chances. If I feel like a roll must be made with that set, it gets used. When the primary set is not acting properly, then the secondary set may get elevated to primary. It's all very arbitrary, and I am a fickle master. I'm surprised my dice aren't neurotic, frankly.

Now, I mentioned the red dice. These I refer to as "Blood Dice." They are the ones I use for combat. Usually I don't have a whole set of them at the table, just the ones used for the combat to-hit rolls. A red d20 or a red d% set. I'm not sure why I do this... perhaps it's an effort to appease the Khorne of the Dice Gods (Blood! Blood for the Dice Gods!). In any case, I have several reds to choose from. Lately I've been leaning pretty heavily on my Chessex d20, but occasionally it's the Game Science d20.

Short aside: By the way, has anyone noticed that the Game Science "red" d6 are actually sort of orange? They don't match the other red dice. It drives me freakin' bonkers. I even ordered additional red d6, thinking that they'd sent me the wrong color by mistake. Nope. Same ugly-ass orange-red color. Feh! So disappointing.

I've always wanted to have a set of really special dice (stone or metal), but shy away from the cost. Hell, regular plastic dice are already stupidly expensive. I mean seriously... a set of the Game Science funky dice is about a nickle's worth of plastic and they cost anywhere from $18 to $20-something. What the hell? Do I, then, not buy them? No, of course not. I buy THREE SETS! What can I say? They were "On Sale."

There is one thing, though, that I just don't get: Dice Towers. I mean I understand them as fetish objects, sure. They're usually very fantasy-RPG-themed, literal towers. I get that part. I understand the function of them. This helps to "randomize" the results (though how much that additional randomness ever factors in is debatable, I think). More to the point, dice towers take up too much room on the table. They add yet another step to slow things down. They, in my mind, interrupt the really important part of playing with dice. The part where I get to rattle them around in my hand and roll them. I get to watch them bounce around the table a bit before revealing their intent for me. Dice towers are like sex with a condom. Yes, they serve a purpose, and certainly have points in their favor, but they provide just a bit too much insulation from the object of the whole exercise. They are second best. Others may see this differently, certainly, but I'm not a fan.

So, when I use a die roller in G+ games, it's only with a heavy heart that I do so. I don't trust them. They're not charismatic. They are not my special friends. Next time I run a game, I'm giving people the option to roll their own, so to speak. Because... well... Dice!

So, yes, I have a dice problem, but I suppose there are worse problems to have.

Oh, and the oldest die I own? An orange d6 from my original D&D Basic Set (Holmes Basic, probably 4th printing), purchased in (I believe) 1979. I'm not sure where the others from that set ended up, though they really were of terrible quality. And that little yellow d4 was not something you wanted to step on. Seriously, they might just as well have set out to produce caltrops as dice. I may still have a scar to prove it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Where do they go when the dungeons are closed?

Oh, where do they go when the dungeons are closed,
And the lich's crypt stands stark and untenanted?
Do our heroes of might like to drink, fuck, and fight,
Or keep confidences with demons and other dark denizens?
Does each warrior have a hobby, 
And each cleric a vice?
Does the wizard like sailing, 
And does the thief breed show-mice?
Does the dwarf lay abed, 
Just a hirsuit sleepy head,
His axe put aside for the nonce?
And what does it cost?
How many silvers are lost,
On games of chance,
On ale and whores and feasts?
Are our dungeoneers civilized,
Well-kempt, well-bred, and polite?
Or are they just beasts,
Like the ones that they killed,
Who finance these revels each night?

Adam M. and I were discussing what happens to adventurers between their adventures. It's my thought that such people would be inclined by nature and by chance to spend some or their loot. Maybe they're slowly acquiring a lair of some sort. Surely, one must have bed and board to keep fit. Perhaps such folk have a pastime or interest of some sort over which they obsess. Or maybe they have vices trifling or troubling toward which they gravitate when there's nothing to stay their hands. Idle hands and all...

I want something mechanical to help players flesh out their characters in some way. I'm tempted to emulate Joshua Macy's approach in the SFX! mechanic for "shticks," which is to say let the player decide, within a certain set of parameters, what the thing is that he or she is doing. These are "typical" actions for that PC, and things that cater to their strengths, usually. It's a very flexible mechanic, I think I'd like something a little crunchier, with random tables and so forth. Unfortunately, I'm too damned lazy to create those, so am back to something a bit more flexible. That's just fine. My players are pretty high-imagination/low-maintenance.

This particular mechanic, though, is not really about strengths and capabilities, though certainly they could be in the mix. It's not about what you can do, necessarily. It's more about your motivations, both long and short term. It encompasses your habits, both good and bad. Some general questions could be asked to get started. A lot of RPGs do this, but usually just to add flavor to the character. Here are some flavor questions which could conceivably lead to something more crunchy, mechanically.

What do you want out of life, in a permanent sense?
What do you want right now?
What do you really love?
What do you love maybe a little too much?
How are you living when you're not on the road?
What are your habits and what do they cost you to support?

So, for example, let's consider my DCC character Berzerker Joe. Joe's a warrior (naturally, with that moniker). He's strong and agile, but not above average in any other way. Maybe he likes to go to the gladitorial pits. Maybe he likes to drink, wench, and brawl. Maybe he has a little lady (or man). Maybe he's saving up to buy a bit of land. Certainly he has daily expenses. What does he do to satisfy them?

So, as Joe's player, I see him (a chaotic warrior) as very much living in the now. He's a serious Conan of Cimmeria fanboy, but that's another matter. Let's answer those questions, above, to see what we can figure out about Joe.

For long-term goals, I could see him wanting to found a mercenary company, and have a chapter house in Mustertown. Just a place where he and his company could crash at night, with a lock on the door and maybe some guards (0-level guys who are looking to advance in the company). He'd like to have a reputation as a badass. He'd like some great stories to tell, eventually, should he survive. He'd like to make that one big score, and be set for life. Hell, maybe he could get a place inside the walls of Ur-Hadad if he gets lucky, and settle down with a hot shield maiden.

What does he want right now?
Joe wants a beer. (Carousing tables!)
Joe wants to get laid. (Nope. Not going all FATAL on you. This is getting handwaved.).
Joe wants to get some new armor and maybe a horse. He wants to maybe go hunting tomorrow. (And these things cost money. They can also be used as mechanism for gaining new knowledge/skills or acquiring items "on layaway.")
He wants to play tonk and roll the dice, see if he can pick up a little scratch. (Integral game of chance, here?)

What does he love?
Joe really loves a good bar brawl. (I probably would not use this. No combat without player involvement.) He also likes betting of the gladiatorial games. This expense can vary, wildly, depending on his Luck (Integral gambling mechanic rears its head again. I should leave this one to Adam M. Hey, Adam, invent a game of chance native to Ur-Hadad, and a mechanic for resolving it, preferably opposed rolls.)

What does he love a bit too much?
Joe really loves the ladies of the night just a little too much. He's just a simple guy and hadn't seen a lot of pretty, sophisticated ladies before he got to Mustertown. He gets infatuated with particular girls every once in a while, and some of them are infatuated with him as well, whether for his dashing charm or his steady supply of silver and other gifts. (This could involve both Personality and Luck checks in DCC. Could have Charisma and Wisdom in D&D. I don't have a clear picture in my head at this point how to approach this mechanically.)

How are you living when you're not on the road?
Right now, he sleeps in an inn. He likes to get a private room when he can, but often has to settle for the common room. He hates the common room. It's full of thieves. So, where you sleep has a variety of potential outcomes (I'm not sure I want to get into the mechanics of how particular physical effects based on rest actually work. However, if one rests in a place of one's own, one may recover faster in various ways--e.g., from Spellburn or wounds, or what have you). The food may be better or worse, and the booze as well. (I could see random diseases, hangover, and other fun stuff happening with this. It should have a distribution curve with a very strong central tendency. The extremes should be rare but with actual impact on the PC.) The accommodations can be more or less secure. (Want to sleep in the common room? There's a chance you get robbed.)

So, there are some motivations leading to some mechanics. Still kind of sketchy, and leaning in the direction of waaaaay too many little fiddly bits. I'd like it to be a bit more streamlined, something that can be handled in 15 minutes, not an hour). Well, let's start with things that exist in threes. Three is a magic number, as you probably already know, so that's auspicious. Three categories is what we need: Goals, Needs, and Vices.

Those three broad categories are useful for my purposes, in that they also provide three areas into which points can be put, once bought. That's right. There's a point-buy system in the offing, with points bought affecting the which die in the chain you get to use.

I'm thinking that it might be nice, especially with DCC, to allow characters with less potential (in terms of stats) to benefit more from this system than those who are more gifted. Seems like a fair trade to me, and makes this guy (STR 4, AG 7, STAM 3, PERS 5, INT 6, LUCK 4) feel a little bit better about his lot in life.

However, we must consider that the broader functions of this mechanic should provide some tensions among themselves.


Goals are force multipliers: They are capable of helping the character out. Generate a positive number here.

Things you can put your money into, long-term. Things you can put effort into, long-term. Things that you can build for the future (and to improve your current situation). Every PC should have at least one of these. These outcomes, if invested in, should pay off in the long term (how long, ultimately, depends on the goal). This interacts with Vices, and is its opposite. Good outcomes here negate bad outcomes there, and vice versa.

This should be a base d6, with a dice chain, and the potential to explode.


Needs are constants. They may be set at a level and produce fairly steady results for that level. This is either a positive or negative number.

You need to eat and drink, to have a place to rest, to be entertained in some way or to improve oneself or to acquire things you need to live your life. Every PC should figure out what they need to spend money on when they're not munching iron rations in a dungeon somewhere. This should include choices for room and board, which may change if a housing Goal is met, for example. It should also include other things. Maybe we can bring in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs here:

Bio-basic needs (food, drink, sleep)
Safety needs (shelter and clothing)
Belonging (being in a gang or club, being part of a fellowship or family)
Esteem (for self and from others)
Self-Actualization (being all that you can be)

This hierarchy is so thoroughly Modern, that it seems silly to apply it to a fantasy RPG setting, but whatever. Joe's self-esteem will not be undermined by such concerns. For sake of ease in application, I'll simply say that Esteem and Self-Actualization get dropped. They're harder to model. The others equate, roughly, to:

Bio-basic: Your lodgings and food. Spend more money to avoid problems. Spending excess money can, in rare cases, make it easier to meet Belonging needs (potential contacts, more loyal henchmen, club dues, etc.)

Safety: This reduces simply to either getting robbed or not. The more you spend, the less likely the outcome. It gets subsumed in the same roll with other needs.

Belonging: This has to do with the company you keep. Good company means you have more and better friends to help you achieve short and longterm goals. Bad company means you tend to pursue your vices more than your goals, with predictable consequences.

In any case, meeting needs means avoiding negative outcomes. You gotta pay a certain amount to make that happen. Failing to, or being unable to, means that it's more likely you'll have a negative outcome.

This should generate a small number that affects the Goals and Vices in some way. I think maybe when you spend money to deal with what you really need, it affects the dice chains for Goals/Vices.

Make this a 2d6 mechanic, with 7 being the "neutral" outcome. Anything higher, and you get to add to the Goals dice chain. Anything lower, and you add to the Vices dice chain.


Vices are force multipliers in a negative sense: They can undermine a character's ability to take care of him or herself, and thwart the accomplishment of goals. Generate a negative number here.

This is where you spend your money in ways that don't really advance your goals and needs. A PC may be a drunk or an addict, bet too much on games of chance, dabble in arcane magics of dubious utility, or whatever it is that he or she does to blow off steam. A PC should always have at least one vice.

I think these get modeled like Goals, but in a negative sense. With goals, the more you spend the more likely a good outcome. With Vices, the less you spend in this category, the more likely a bad outcome. So, it's not so much that you're spending to indulge your vices, more more that you are spending NOT to indulge them.

Again, like Goals, we start with d6, but this time spending money makes the die chain go down. We have the potential for exploding dice as well.

Putting It All Together

Between adventures, have the players tell you what their PCs are doing with their wealth.

First deal with needs. A certain amount must be spent to avoid bad outcomes by satisfying Needs. Make this approximately 10% of wealth held by the PC. This will get you in at d4.

Spending more can move the dice chain up to d6 or even as high as d8. Spending less can drive it down. Spending only 5% drives it down to d3 and spending 0% drives it to d2

Roll the resulting die plus a d6. Anything higher than 7 allows you to either (a) increase the Goals dice chain one step or (b) reduce the Vices dice chain one step.

So, the default would be d4+d6. Spending and extra 5% would get you 2d6. Spending an extra 10% would get you d6+d8. Spending an extra 15% would get you d8+d8. Make this the upper limit.

Spending only 5% would reduce the die to d3. Spending 0% makes it a d2. It would be really hard to have good things happen if you don't spend money.

Next, the PC can "bet" an additional 10% to move the dice chain in either Goals or Vices. For Goals, this would move the dice chain up. For Vices, it would move the dice chain down. Thus, each dice chain would vary from d4 to d8. The die used is also affected by the "Needs" roll, as described above.

These two dice (on for Goals, one for Vices) are rolled as opposed, and as exploding. Each point of one cancels out one point of the other. If the total is anything other than zero, then either Goals or Vices is activated, and there's a table of outcomes which I've not written yet.


Berzerker Joe decides he's not going to spend any extra money on his Needs. He'll go the bare minimum (10%). He gets a d4 to go with d6.  He rolls a 2 and a 3, respectively. That's a 5. A five is less than the 7 he needed. It will drive his Vices die chain from d6 to d8.

Joe decides go ahead and spend the extra 10% at this point, hoping to generate a better outcome, despite his bad choices (this could represent things like bribing authorities or buying drinks for a group of people who might otherwise beat and rob you). He chooses to use that to drive his Goals die up to the d8 level. He could also have driven the Vices back down to a d6.

So, now there's an opposed roll between d8 and d8. He rolls a 7 for Goals and a 3 for Vices, so neither of them "exploded." The final result is a net +4. This is a positive outcome. Presumably this will contribute toward the accomplishment of a Goal or, alternately, get converted into a financial or other material gain. He did something moderately successfully and gets modestly rewarded.

Now, I'm not entirely sure where to take it from here. I'm thinking that a table is needed, one going from a central zero-point, out to +20 and -20. This would for the most part cover the dice chains used for Goals and Vices, even taking exploding dice into account. I'll work on that later.

In basic outline, I'd like to give players options for both learning new things, adding or subtracting from their material wealth, causing or curing various ailments. Adding to or subtracting from attributes (in rare cases). There are a host of possibilties. Mainly, though, it's like to see it result in them being able to make (a) a choice about what happens and (b) convert the outcomes into something that is about the character's ongoing story, for good for for ill. Maybe he makes a friend or enemy. Gains or loses wealth. Get a discount or a markup on some materials or on a piece of property. That sort of thing would have to be determined specifically according to the PC's stated Goals/Vices.

So, what do you think about this mechanic? Is it fun? Is it boring? Is it fucking stupid, and why don't I just shut up already? Any ideas of other things to do?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Preview: The Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God

Okay, so I've taken a few days to recover from my furious Zappadan blogging marathon. It was an interesting experience for me. I had to blog every day. I had to blog about the same two general topics every day. I had to make connections between the those two topics every day. I had to do it for 18 days. Not every post was a gem, mind you. But there were a few nice ones.

By and large, I succeeded at those tasks. Yeah, I missed a day when I got overwhelmed by pre-vacation work concerns. Yeah, maybe one or two posts were only loosely connected to each other. Fine. That's just fine. The overall result was an excellent exercise in writing as a craft. I remember a quote I heard a few years ago that's stuck with me. I thought it was an Arthur Miller quote, but can't find the source of it. In any case, when asked when he found himself inspired to write, he said that he finds his inspiration at about nine a.m. when he arrived at his office, and lost it promptly at five p.m., when it was time to leave.

For all of our notions about talent and inspiration and whatnot, what many people seem to forget is that a lot of what gets mistaken as great individual work is founded on all of the prior work. People who produce a lot tend to produce better quality stuff over time, simply because they both (a) have more chances to do so and (b) have more chances to improve their craft over time. So, hopefully my foray into forced inspiration helped me to progress as a writer.

Okay, so it's time to pimp the next Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign arc: The Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God. This is my second foray into writing DCC modules and I think it's pretty decent. One problem I'm having right now is trying to decide whether or not my players will be able to "beat" the module. Now, to be clear, there are two issues here: The less important one is "balance" between the PCs' capabilities and the challenges represented in the module. The more important one is that the outcome of this adventure, should they not "win," will have far-reaching consequences for the adventure setting, most of them unpleasant.

I'm trying to be careful not to spoil it, as some of my players probably will read this. Hi, guys!

So, as a more general question to any of you out there who have written original adventures, how much do you worry about overpowering your players, TPK, Pandora's Box effects springing from the less-successful outcomes? For my part, it's something I think about, but then go, "Fuck it. This is DCC, not 4th ed. Even if they are unsuccessful all die, it will be awesome."

Hmm... what else can I say about this adventure? Here's a short list:

This is gonna be a groovy mystery.

Oh, sexy Velma... you will be mine.

There will be a new patron and a new god.

Sorry, kids! No spoilers here. I want it to be a big surprise.

There will be more grimdark elements than last time. 

But seriously I hate these douchebag turtles.

One scene I debated about including is particularly disturbing to me.

Like, getting into Baby Kobolds/Raggi territory with this one (Hi, James! Hi, Zombie Gary!). I don't watch horror movies. I'm not interested in horror movies. Nonetheless, what happens in this adventure is thoroughly horrible, and it's include as, frankly, the reason for why we fight the encroaching darkness. I want my players to feel some measure of outrage at The Adversary, at their lot in life, at the fact that they're gonna be marching through miles of jungle in fantasy fucking Vietnam. Yeah, this is gonna be gooooood.

This adventure was written as a movie script. 

When I set out to write this, I intentionally did it as if it were a film. It's got a strongly visual theme in my mind, and I looked at a lot of pictures on the Internet to get the right feel for it. I know what this place looks like, smells like, sounds like. I'm ready to capture some fucking imaginations, people!

The outcome could potentially change the world, and in a very, very bad way (for humans).

So, this is Ur-Hadad. Ur-Hadad is not a nice place. It's a dangerous place. It's a post-Apocalyptic place. It could very quickly become the very Hell you thought we'd already overcome. The Metal Gods are not the only gods in creation, and those who are down are not always out, gods or mortals. Failing in their mission, the PCs will have failed both Men and Gods. No pressure, though. Just don't fuck up.

We're using real dice.

I have come to a conclusion. If I'm going to fail, it will be while rolling my own dice, not while waiting for someone's random number generator to stab me in the fucking back. Dice rollers are all well and good, but I've got dice. You've got dice. Let's use our dice. I won't lie to you, and you won't lie to me. Unless you want to, because that's what makes it fun for you. It really doesn't matter. But: I'm not going to fudge the results. Monsters like to score a crit every once in a while, too. Who am I to deny them their fun?

I've used a forced writing technique with this one, as well.

As I mentioned, the band High on Fire provided song titles for the various scenes in this "film." Not every one of them fits well, but I've tried to make every one of them fit somehow. With titles like "Frosthammer," "Snakes for the Divine," "Master of Fists," and "Serums of Liao" how could I possibly go wrong?

This is gonna be SO! MUCH! FUN!

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Last Day of Zappadan: Some thoughts on the "Bio-Challenged"

I've been pondering what to do for my last Zappadan post for some time now. How do you go out with a bang? So, I was on my way to have lunch with the wife, and "Zombie Woof" (off the Overnight Sensation album) comes on the stereo.

I got a great big pointed fang
Which is my Zomby Toof
My right foot's bigger than my other one is
Like a reg'lar Zomby Hoof
If I raid your dormitorium
Don't try to remain aloof . . . 
I might snatch you up screamin' through the window all nekkid
An' do it to you up on the roof
Don't mess with the ZOMBY WOOF 
I am about as evil as a Boogie Man can be! 
Tellin' you all the Zomby Troof
Here I'm is, the ZOMBY WOOF 

Then I had it: This is about the undead, or "bio-challenged," if you're being polite.  I remember from some time ago that somebody posted the "Jesus was a Lich" thing. So, what kind of things could we consider bio-challenged. Surely there's zombies, and ghouls, and ghasts, and wraiths, and wights, and ghosts, and vampires. We all know about them. Then we could look at machine enhanced corpses, like the servitors in the Warhammer 40k world.


Cherub Servitor

They're always pretty cool, and really help to pull a room together when you're decorating your galaxy-spanning, post-Apocalyptic empire.

What really separates the best of the bio-challenge from the rest? Simply: Autonomy.  The best of them are able to plot and plan, to make for themselves a place in the world. They do it, not because of hunger (like zombies and ghouls) or because they are commanded (like servitors), but because they have a terrible vision for world domination.


That, of course, is if you assume that all of the bio-challenged are OUT TO GET YOU. I do not believe that to be the case.

In Zappa's life, he was a musician, composer, band director, political activist, performance artist, and sort of kind of an absurdist philosopher. His legacy in death is such that idiots like me have a holiday festival in his honor. Whether you admire the man or like his music, you gotta admit that it would be pretty cool if people did that for you when you died.

Like this guy. Not sure if you've ever heard of him...

What constitutes "life" after one is dead, anyway? Is it actual mobility? Is it a vision of world domination? Is it that others still do things in your name, even if those things have pretty much NOTHING to do with anything you ever asked of your followers?

I made a mistake and I sinned!

Well, I guess Zappa's "life" after death isn't really that kind of thing. It's more like an extended wake for the dead. He lives on in his work, and his fans, and of course in his only two begotten sons:

Hi, Dweezil and Ahmet!

Born of man (and woman, of course). Died a man. But his his music lives on. He left a hell of a legacy, people. This is the stone truth. Everybody knew that Frank was a musician. Everybody had respect for the man. Hell, his progeny are still spreading the word.  Listen to this shit right here:

The kid's got some chops, don't he?

Because of all things...

Music is the best!

 I bid you a peaceful Winter Solstice in the name of the Musician, the Band Director, and the Spirit of Conceptual Continuity. Happy Zappadan, people. Happy Zappadan.

Oh, and as for that other holiday, well... I suppose I could learn to like it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Zappadan, Day 17: Doomsday

So, tonight is the eve of destruction. How are all of our friends for whom it's already December 21st doing? Okay? Thought so. So, on this momentous occasion, as we consider the prospect of imminent death, laugh at dumbasses who take this crap seriously, and do whatever else it is we normally do, please try to avoid any yellow snow.

See you tomorrow. Probably.

Zappadan, Days 16: The Odds Ain't 50/50

Well, I'm a bad Zappan. Due to an incredibly long and difficult work day, I missed my Zappadan update, yesterday. I have a good one too, I think. So, I'll do this in two installments today. One for Day 16 an one for Day 17.

Frank figures the odds be 50/50.

Let's talk about dice and odds, particularly for those die rolls that produce a non-linear result.

First, thanks to Adam for the inspiration for this post, especially his discussion of probability distributions. Now, please understand, I am NOT a math guru. I did get through three quarters of calculus in college (got a B, a C, and a D+, then changed to a non-engineering major, thanks very much...). However, I've always been interested in probability and dice rolls.

In this case, I want to look at a new way to do skill rolls, substituting for the linear d20 mechanic a different non-linear mechanic. In this case, we're talking about using multiple dice to produce results with a "central tendency." A roll of 2d6, for example, does not produce equal odds of getting any result between 2 and 12. Instead, because of the way the dice themselves are built, rolling a 7 is more likely than any other result. When one looks at the curve for the distribution of probabilities, it is decidedly bell-shaped. It also moderates the very wild swings we see with using a straight d20 mechanic, where a 1 and a 20 are equally likely, and both have the same probability of coming up as any other result. They're extreme results, so I've never liked how that works. They should be relatively rare. We can harness this tendency to change the way skill or characteristic checks work, and have a very, very simple mechanic.

When making a skill check, you could instead roll 2 dice instead of just a d20. I thought at first that 2d6 would be fine, but then started thinking about how attribute modifiers might be brought in. They could, for example, shift the resulting number up or down to fudge the results toward or away from rolled number. So, if I'm playing DCC and have a 14 Agility, I have a +1 modifier. I can use it to shift the roll upward by 1. If I have a negative mod, it shifts down. No mod, and I can't shift it at all. With 2d6, this shift is pretty radical. However, if I move to 3d6, the upper limit of 18 is not only very close to the 20 on a d20 roll, it also follows the same distribution as the roll for PC attributes. What a lovely bit of symmetry. If a PC's characteristic is very high or very low, then he or she can shift the roll up to 3.

For example, let's say I have a character whose Stamina is 18. This is a pretty tough PC. If the PC has to make a DC 10 Fortitude save, using this mechanic, then it's very likely that the PC will be able to do so, and only a very low roll (which is less likely using at 3d6 mechanic) will result in a failure. This makes a lot of sense to me, as we're dealing with a badass character. Of course he or she will shrug off what would affect most PCs. If that same PC's Agility was 3, then then an Agility check would always be tough. The most likely results are a 10 or 11. For a target of 10 with a a minus 3 modifier, that would make it fairly unlikely that the DC 10 result could be achieved. This, again, makes sense. Klutzy McStumble with his 3 Agility would tend to fuck up any challenging Agility check. Only under the most unlikely scenarios would he have wild successes. This is very different than a straight d20 roll, which grants an equal probability of an extremely high or extremely low roll.

So, does this make sense to you as well? Do you see any obvious holes in my idea?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Zappadan, Day 15: Diseases, Imaginary and Otherwise

Here's a little ditty about how marketing people at some point decided to create problems to associate with their New! Improved! solutions. It's a satirical examination of the role of marketing, posing as actual science--Throw a labcoat on that actor and he's a doctor!--to extend the consumer's attention to things which had never previously been a concern (bad breath, stinky feet, that "not so fresh feeling"), and, most importantly, to sell them a product, preferably one that can be marked up to something like 100 times the value of its component parts. This is the modernist equivalent of the snakeoil saleman.

I think maybe it's worth commenting here that we are very good in the gaming community at imagining how physical harm might be done with spell or sword, but pay much less attention to the other minutia of daily existence for human (and demi-human) beings. How often do your PCs have to deal with things like allergies, crummies in the tummy, a bad head cold, diseases acute and chronic, and that sort of thing.

While I recognize that many systems account for these things, as well as similar effects engineered with poisons, it has not been my experience that these things really make it into gameplay, unless of course it's as an adventure hook of some kind (e.g., Plague Rats of Nurgle, or some such thing). I think there are some good reasons not to include them. They're mundane, for the most part, and kind of depressing. They kill the whole heroic vibe. Conan with explosive diarrhea is just not as awesome, somehow. Oh, good. Now I'm going to have to live with that image in my head. You will too. You are welcome.

In some video games (Skyrim comes to mind), you can get diseases, of course. Then you simply go to Ye Olde Potion Shoppe and buy a potion and *poof* you're cured. That's not really a very difficult effect to overcome, except possibly at very low level, when you're pretty much broke most of the time. Once you have a bit of gold, it really isn't much of a big deal at all. That seems sort of a wasted effort, to me at least. If diseases don't actually do much harm, and if they're so easy to cure (and instantaneously!), then what really is the point of have them as elements of gameplay?

On the other hand, what if you have diseases that are dangerous, contagious, and either difficult or impossible to cure without specialized help (like a cleric of some god of healing/purity, etc.). That is, what if not every healer is able to heal them? What if there is an object or substance that is required to cure them? Then things are more complicated. That creates a quest. That could result in some neat gameplay.

However, that doesn't really get at the more mundane forms of disease, like the common cold, not to mention such diseases as are common, uncomfortable, but generally not deadly (e.g., chicken pox). As anyone probably knows, a bad cold can lay a person out for days at a time. Some forms of the flu are very, very dangerous. If an adult catches some childhood diseases, it can be deadly or can lead to side effects like sterility. So, these sorts of things can have short-term effects on the person's ability to do routine things. They might affect the person's overall state of health, and thus their ability to deal with new problems that affect one's health.

When you GM a game, do you ever use diseases in these more mundane ways? Do your PCs ever get a bad cold? Do they get STDs if they go out whoring? Do they suffer from hangovers from overindulgence in alcohol (or the Purple Meat, for that matter)?

For myself, I'd have to say I'm on the fence about these things. Yes, they add more "grit" and "grim-dark," and more "realism" to the game. Fine. But I also worry that they're just another book-keeping nightmare for the GM, or that players might just see such things as the GM being a dick (and just to be a dick). So, I tend not to use diseases and other disease-like physical effects. Perhaps, though, I've been wrong to do this.

Diseases are often terrifying. They can be deadly. They can become the center of one's universe until (and unless) one recovers. Even when that happens, there can be long-term effects. What if, for example, polio was a thing in your game world? That could create all kinds of problems for PCs. What if epidemics of influenza, cholera, smallpox, The Plague, etc., were common, or at least real threats to the PCs and their efforts in the game world? There's another potentially interesting way to create an interesting in-world effect.

Further, what if the PCs themselves become vectors of the disease in question, either because they are affected or because they are carriers of it (Thyphoid Mardok the Barbarian)? More potential in-game complications would be possible in such a situation.

So, to sum up, I think I'd like to use more diseases in my games, but not as short-term, forgettable, or otherwise inconsequential factors, but as part of the game world itself. This would include in-game effects on the PCs of course (e.g., stat drain, penalties to actions and/or saves, long-term effects on the PCs' physiques, etc.). It would also include things like determining if, how, and for how long outbreaks of particular diseases would occur. It could also, and I think this is the really interesting part to me, make consequential the choice of where one eats, drinks, and sleeps. Why pay for an inn that is of higher quality? Because eating bad food with filthy peasants can make you sick or dead. That's why the extra coin is worth it. When the choice of an inn is (potentially) a life and death choice, then it makes even mundane in-game decisions consequential.

If you include other things that could affect characters, like lack of sleep, saddle sores from long rides, the consequences of marching long distances in worn-out boots, failure to launder one's clothing resulting in infestations of nits and fleas, getting the drizzling shits from bad water or food, then all of a sudden you've made the world a deadlier, dirtier, and less pleasant place. You cleric becomes more than a healer with a club. He or she must also consider healing and health in a more holistic fashion (avoiding disease is a good way to avoid having to heal it). Players then become a whole lot more particular about things that normally get hand-waved in many games.

I suppose that getting things to that level of detail could slow down play or make the world to much like the real world for comfortable assumptions to rule the day. Hell, I may not even do anything like this for just those reason. However, having such factors be a part of the game will certainly make it more immersive, lead to enhanced role-playing, and help to add complexity to players' approaches. It won't be all about killing monsters and taking their shit, though of course these will still be primary. However, those will be means to an end: PCs are tired of living in disease-ridden squalor. That's why they are willing to face all of those terrifying foes. Because they know, in the end, the foes most likely to kill them are the ones they can't see. Some creatures are horrendous, but they are easy to understand, and the solution is usually no further away than the point of a spear or edge of a sword. Pestilence, disease, starvation, and myriad other aspects of Death, however, get short shrift in a game that's all about the war aspect. And that's a crying shame. Death must have its due, and it will take its due however it can get it. By blood or by pus, by sword, disease, or famine, Death will have its reckoning. That seems like something worth having in an Old School game, even if they are only imaginary.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Zappadan Day 14: Baby Snakes--The Movie/Concert

In anticipation of my upcoming adventure for The Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad (working title: The Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God), I bring to you something a little bit different for today's Zappadan festivities: A short film, "Baby Snakes: A movie about people who do stuff that is not normal."

Oh, I suppose the connection between my campaign and the film is a bit tenuous, but it does in fact have the word "Snakes" in it, so there's that. I like that it gives me a sense of the various parts of the creative processes that went into making music and making art and making them together. I really dig that kind of thing. Even better, all of this is being done analog, as the digital technologies of the 1980s and onward simply didn't exist at the point when this was made (1970s). But seriously, this is pretty nifty. The music part of it is only the beginning. There's stop action animation (claymation style) along with a lot of cool studio and production bits, candids, and other stuff.

If you like documentaries, then you'll probably like this. (Individual results may vary. For erections lasting long than four hours, you may need additional partners. A moose once bit my sister. Moose bites can be pretty nasty, you know.)

So, presented without further comment for your viewing pleasure:

"Baby Snakes: A movie about people who do stuff that is not normal

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Doom of The Sinister Shroom

I had a chance to play a session of DCC with my face-to-face group yesterday. I'd toyed with the idea of trying to finish writing The Mysterious Temple of The Serpent God, but 'twas just too much stuff to do in too little time. Instead, I thought I'd try Doom of the Savage Kings, which Jason had given me when he got his DCC rulebook (the black with gold foil one).

So, we started them back in the village of Redflood, collecting their rewards from the Crypt of the Lizard King. They had armor, horses, a not-inconsiderable amount of treasure, and a chance to equip and attract new 0-level characters. All of them except John took at least one. John had four first-level guys survive from last time, mostly by running away at the last battle, if I recall correctly. Kevin had three new zeroes, and Jason had his 1st level halfling and two zeroes.

I was all ready to get them on the road to Ur-Hadad when it happened. John (for whatever reason) had, in fact, been hooked by the plot hook I left at the tailend of Crypt of the Lizard King. He wanted to know what the hell was down that crack in the bottom chamber of the Crypt. The other players were game, so off they went. I, of course, had planned on running a completely different adventure, but this is life in the sandbox. Right?

Luckily, I already knew what I was planning to run if someone went down into that crack, and I'd already set it up in the "optional" component of that dungeon (which I had not run in the face-to-face setting). They were on their way to the Pod Caverns of The Sinister Shroom. I mean how sinister can a shroom get, anyway? They could handle it, right? Well... yes and no.

They began by lowering one of John's characters into the crevasse. It ended up being close to 100 feet to the bottom, and there was rubble in the bottom which presumably fell during the earthquake. There was also an opening into a larger cavern filled with giant, bioluminescent mushrooms. The rest of the party got lowered, one-by-one into the cavern, followed by the last character, who needed to make a check. It was successful.

Once on the lower level  the Elven Sage used a spyglass (with infravision) to confirm that there was, indeed, a wharf on the other side. Much discussion of techniques for crossing the water ensued. The river itself exited the cavern, and presumably you don't want o be swept away by it. So, eventually they cut down a mushroom and one of them tried to cross using it as a wee fungal boat. He also was secured to a safety rope held by the other players. The mushroom coracle capsized, but John's character managed to seize the rope he'd brought with him as he fell in the water. He also discovered that, though swift, the river was only about 5 feet deep. He managed to ford the river and secure the rope to the other side. the rest of the party followed him.

The wharf was carved into the wall of the cavern.  It's about 80 feet long and 20 feet wide, with three tunnels leading off from it. The middle one has a stream flowing from it. they chose to follow that one. 

I made them map it. This is the first time I've done that with the face-to-face group. John was assigned the task of mapping while Jason took the notes off which I'm cribbing in order to write this post. Thanks, Jason!

The tunnel leads to them to a cavern with two pools, one large and one small, and another tunnel leadign to the northwest. They went to investigate the smaller pool, and behind them a giant frog emerged from the larger pool and attacked the party.  It never got another chance.  John's four characters did 22 points of damage in the first round of combat and killed the giant frog. They found 5 corroded copper pieces in the pool, and gutted the frog to check its stomach contents. Nothing but blind fish in there.  

The party exits through the NW tunnel, and the passage split again, W and N.  They went west.  The tunnel went another 40 feet, then split again going S and W. They went south to a cavern with a chasm splitting the floor of the room East and West (with a passage visible on the other side).  The chasm was 10 feet across, and looked to be very, very deep.  The characters could see shelves at irregular intervals and lots of small bones further down the chasm. They dropped a big rock down it. Nothing happened. Instead of trying to cross, they turned back and headed down the W tunnel. There, they found a cave-in. Most of them were smart enough not to fuck with it. No so with John. So, he triggered another collapse, each of his characters took damage, but not a  lot. I believe one of Kevin's characters also was wounded. John's cleric did his best, but poor rolling resulted in an ever-expanding disapproval range, and he soon left off with that.

Party left the rubble alone and went N. They found another cavern, this one split-level with a weird red moss growing on a cliff which went up to another level about 20 feet above. The healer makes a lore check against Intelligence, and totally kills the roll. The knows that it's “glue moss” and is incredibly sticky. The healer harvests some to potentially be used to help seal wounds. I ruled that it could add a bonus to healing checks by the cleric.  

John's thief tried to climb the wall of moss and got stuck.  He is cut down and falls for 2 damage.  His cleric heals him. This marked another success. Feeling his oats, he tried (I believe) to heal another character. I can't remember if he was successful or not. They decided not to climb the cliff. Instead they took the passage to the east, which led eventually to what appeared to be alcoves set in the N and S walls.  North alcove has leafy pods in it, some with the remains of humanoid-shaped plantlike creatures (They knew right away they were dealing with Pod People. This is a veteran crew.).  As the investigated the S alcove they found rotten shelving holding various jars and boxes. After investigating a couple, they found a box with some copper pieces and an ancient gold piece, Elven in origin. The Elven Sage examined it and noticed that the coin's back was imprinted with an image of the Elven trickster god.  The cleric cast Detect Magic, and discovered that the coin was magical, as were a few of the other items. The coin is known now to be magical.  The blue liquid bottle on the shelf was magical.  Earthenware mug on the shelf (shaped like a gargoyle head with a sealed lid)  is magical.  Metal sphere with small corked hole is magical.

Their pokings about had roused some Rogue Pod Men. I had them roll a Luck check to see if anyone heard them coming. Luckily, they did. 

From the Book of Jason: 
Sounds from down the corridor.  5 plant type creatures appear (man-sized with large orbs for eyes with pulsing veins that stand out on their foreheads).  Initiative is rolled. 
Chuck, John's 1st level warrior, has the spear, helm, and armor of the Lizard King. He went on a roll with that bloodthirsty weapon and managed to kill two of them almost immediately. Sadly, three 0-level guys met the same fate. Finally, they dispatched the Pod Men (tough buggers they were, with average hp of 15 or so).

In the end, each and ever zero-level guy had died. Kevin spent the last of the adventure playing John's 1st-level thief. However, they found a LOT of treasure here on the 3 level of the Pod Caverns of The Sinister Shroom, where their search garnered the following: 

                    200 silver pieces
                    300 copper pieces
                    2 gems (50 silver, 75 silver)
                    25 gold pieces

That gold is worth a LOT. It was supposed to be platinum, but we're on a silver standard here. Still, it's a ton of money. The current exchange rate is 1000 copper=20 silver=1 gold. Actually this was because I couldn't find my house rules document. Otherwise I would have said it was:

5 cp = 1 sp250 cp = 50 sp = 1 gp2500 cp= 500 sp = 10 gp = 1 pp

Adam runs this differently than I do. I can't remember his exchange rate. I think he makes copper a lot less valuable, but can't remember how much so. In any case, if my players are playing, the exchange rate I'll use is 250/50/1/0.1.

In any case, that's where we ended for the night. All were a bit blown away by the lethality of the location. I reminded them that I hadn't set out to make them go there. Not only that, they actually chose to go there. It's not a safe place to go. To be clear, I never expected that they'd go there at all, having "cleared" the Crypt of the Lizard King, but apparently the siren song of that particular plot hook was too strong to resist. It's okay, though. They got rich as fuck, even if they did take heavy casualties. 

As an aside, I have to say that I'm a bit fixated on the nice, round numbers for treasure quantities. Gods damn you, 2000 Copper Pieces Meme! Do these creatures all get their coins in bank rolls?

We're waiting for the Giant Rats to pick these up. 

Zappadan, Day 13: What is your Conceptual Continuity?

Yesterday's Zappadan post was about original influences. This one is about virtuosity. In this case, it's about virtuosity on that instrument that is king to all other instruments, the electric guitar--Yeah, yeah, I know it's not really the King of All Instruments, but work with me here.

The following track consists purely of guitar work. A couple of the tracks feature Dweezil Zappa (the first and last, I believe), while the rest of them feature FZ himself. I've already told you about how Zappa was a band leader, and should be understood as such, but I don't think I've really given enough attention to the guitar work for which this man was responsible.

This is one long song, assembled from various solos. A lot of it is not really my thing (I tend to prefer my guitars loud, heavy, and fast. I prefer my solos more in a classical (or blues) than a jazz vein. Nonetheless, I can listen to Frank Zappa play guitar all day long. Here, then, you have the opportunity to do it for about an hour. Throw it on as some background to whatever else you're doing. Wallow in the fluid complexity of it all. Flow from one riff to the next. Listen to the distinct layers of sound in the compositions, with percussion, bass, et al. in complex harmonies, always moving forward, always maintaining Conceptual Continuity.

What is this hippie jam-band shit, anyway? I mean I don't much go for that sort of thing, as a rule. For some reason, though, Zappa makes everything all right. I can listen to this. It's FZ, and it's awesome.

Now, the thing: Each of us, as gamers, as players and/or GMs, have a "voice" in how we approach gaming, whether it be in the sorts of characters we play, the features of our campaigns, or whatever. We put our greasy, cheetoh-stained fingerprints all over everything we touch. Sometime this means chaos: I want to do all the things! Sometimes this means having a signature: I play thieves and only thieves! Sometimes this means having an aesthetic: All my campaign worlds are grim/dark (or gonzo/silly, or whatever)! The point being that we have our little affectations, our comfortable bags of tricks and tropes.

When I play in games with my various groups, I notice the different "personalities" we collectively bring to the proceedings, and the various quirks of players and GM. They give each group as sense of identity and "location" simply by being what they are, and by being different from each other. I get the sense that FLAILSNAILS conventions have made this dynamic even more interesting by "crossing the streams" of different conceptual continuities, sometimes with spectacular results, as in Zak Smiths recent Warlords of Vornheim games.

In this new world brought about by the hangout gaming, the Constantcon Phenomenon, presents us with an incredible opportunity to play, display, and learn about a dizzying array of play styles, to sample from a veritable buffet line of games, players, GMs, and campaign worlds, and at the same time to put out into the world those core and key concepts that make our own styles conceptually continuous, and distinct from those of others. It's a good time to be alive.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Zappadan, Day 12: On the importance of context

Today I will present without too much additional comment a full concert video from a Zappa show in Barcelona (1988).

I got to see Zappa live in 1984, at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall in Portland, Oregon. I was 15 years old, I think. I drove up with my friend, Dale, in his '64 Ford Falcon. It was snowing that day, and we were fearful that we'd not be able to make it. But we did, and it was awesome. It was one of the best shows I've ever been to (along with Oingo Boingo), and a formative event.

The lesson, here, is one of context. A lot of the videos I've presented during this series were single songs or interview clips. Taken in isolation, they say something particular. However, they can also be understood in a broader context of history and as parts of a larger "text" of Zappa's (and his cohorts') works and lives. Those additional  parts are largely ignored in watching the singleton videos. Seeing a full concert is a bit more encompassing, though even it doesn't really look at the longer span of the man, his bands, and their collective history as a musical act from the 1960s onward.

When we look at the various games that we, as a collective of gamers, play, we have a tendency to hack, tweak, excise, or otherwise manipulate the various rulesets. We houserule everything, almost by reflex. Yes, sometimes we caution ourselves that it's important to play the game as-written before doing so, but I think that doesn't always happen. I'm not saying that it's a mistake not to play it as-written, mind you, but it is something different than was was intended by the author(s)--and, no, I'm not going to get into broader discussions of authorial intent. Suffice it to say that I'll assume that the games as-written were made purposefully to work as they do.

If we approach those games humbly, accepting them as-written, we might not find the game we really want to play. But we do get something from which we can learn if we're not too caught up in our own cleverness, in form of a relentless foisting upon the games our own proclivities and quirks. We may lose something vital that's only present when we play the rulesets in their original form. I'm wondering if perhaps this is part of the urge to recreate The World's Most Popular RPG in it's original form, or from it's original authors' intentions and notes, or whatever. We're trying to see the thing as itself, free from the accretions of decades of tweaks, changes, modifications, additions, supplements, houserules, etc. We are trying to see the face of the creator, as it were, and there to glean some essential experience and/or knowledge not available to us otherwise.

I, for one, am doing my best to play Dungeon Crawl Classics as-written. When my cleric can't make a spell roll, it sucks. When he can do so, or when my warrior (Thumpy McStabsalot) crits a monster back into the shadowy hell from which it sprung, then it's awesome. If I tweaked these rules to make the outcomes less quirky and random, it simply wouldn't be the same game. DCC is about Shit Happening. Sometimes said Shit is pure epicness with awesome sauce. Sometimes it's a greasy shit sandwich on stale bread. That's DCC. That's what it brings to the table: The opportunity to create an epic tale of might and magic... and of suckage and haplessness. It makes for some great stories. And it is freakin' awesome. They meant it to be that way, and that's how I'm playing it.

This is not to say that all rulesets are equally well thought out or playable. They're not. But I think it's pretty important to play them through the first few times with a sense of humility and curiosity, to be attentive for the unique facets of each ruleset, as-written. That makes for excellent opportunities to learn and become wiser, to become gaming wizards in the original sense of that word:

c.1440, "philosopher, sage," from M.E. wys "wise" (see wise (adj.)) + -ard. Cf. Lith. zynyste "magic,"zynys "sorcerer," zyne "witch," all from zinoti "to know." The ground sense is perhaps "to know the future." The meaning "one with magical power" did not emerge distinctly until c.1550, the distinction between philosophy and magic being blurred in the Middle Ages. As a slangword meaning "excellent" it is recorded from 1922.

So, now... watch the Great Wizard Zappa as he goes about his work. There's something to be learned.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Zappadan, Day 11: Cover Band

The following is one of my favorite covers done by Zappa. The song (Whippin' Post) is originally by the Allman Brothers, with whom some of my aunts went to high school.

Nowadays, it's pretty rare for a big musical act to do covers, at least in comparison to what was the norm in before about the 1960s. Before then, it was not uncommon for bands to do "their version" of a whole lot of songs. Hell, even Elvis's "Hound Dog" was his take on an old standard by Big Momma Thornton. In the jazz and big band eras, people were expected to play the old standards. Only the very best (or most popular, I guess) musicians were celebrated for their original work.

When I was growing up, cover bands were most likely to be found at something like a high school dance or frat party. Often, among my crowd, they were targets for mockery--They took the songs we already hated and played them poorly. Redd Kross (then Red Cross) in all of their middle-school wisdom has adequately documented that:

But, done well, a cover song can be just as good or better than the original. While Battalion of Saints' version of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" isn't Motorhead (duh), it's still as close to a shrine to Motorhead's version as I've ever heard:

I like this version as much as the original, if for different reasons.

Bringing it back to the subject of gaming, I could make the argument that the OSR's various versions of old school RPGs are like covers of songs we all know and love (to whatever extent). Retroclones are covers, to be sure. But even new twists on old themes like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Stars Without Number, with their clever twists on that theme are, at their hearts, the old standards done for a new time. There are even cases, as with "Adventures Dark and Deep," where the "new" version is found by going back to the roots (in this cases Gygax's writings about his intentions for updating D&D).

Over the years, my thinking about cover bands, copies, or whatever you want to call them has changed. I kind of like going back to roots. Maybe it's a case of terminal nostalgia. I'm in my early 40s now, and I have some history to look back on, for sure. However, there's something else there, something for which I don't necessarily have words (for once). It's just cool. I like it. Now, I don't love everything old (disco still sucks!) and I don't think that every cover is a good one. However, I don't just reflexively go "Yuck! That sucks!" when I hear this sort of thing.

Also, when I see new versions of old things (and old games for that matter), my reaction is to look deeper: What's old? What's new? What's the same? What's different? Most importantly, WHY? The choices made in creating somethign new from something old are significant. They are done from a perspective. I think games like DCC have been promoted in a way that makes the difference and the sameness make sense, on its face. It's a project I embrace wholeheartedly. The new Kickstarter for FATE Core is being done in response, I think, to what people's feedback about that system has provided as lessons for designers. The result, it seems, will be to make the ruleset more accessible and give it wider currency. I've been reading a lot on G+ about people wanting to do their own projects with that core ruleset, to do their own "covers," if you will, of that very flexible original.

This leads to another point: A cover that is made of something that became iconic in some way is very much more difficult than one of something that wasn't. Battalion of Saints doing Motorhead's song pretty much had to be done as an homage, rather than a parody. It came from a place of reverence. But even a parody is in some sense reverent of the original. For example, "Small But Vicious Dog" makes somewhat of a mockery of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG stuff, but nonetheless you can tell it's done in a loving way. It's a caricature of all of the bits that made WFRPG awesome, the stuff we players already recognized as awesome about that game, but TURNED UP TO ELEVEN!

Because sometimes a good parody is just the perfect thing to make you remember how much you love the thing being parodied:

And that really, really, really ROCKS!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Zappadan, Day 10: The War on Beige

Judging from the number of pageviews I've gotten lately, a lot of people who normally read this blog are not interested in my Zappadan posts. So be it. Frank Zappa is an acquired taste and not everyone digs him. This is gaming blog, and these posts aren't really "gaming content" per se (whatever rickety connections I create between them). Here's the thing, though... Every author has his or her influences, and those influences are manifold, springing from the experiences and memories and half-grasped feelings of that person. So, when I get on a real roll in writing about gaming, what you are hearing is not just me. It's a chorus of voices which include people like Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski, Robert Crumb, Stephen King, The Three Stooges (didn't see that coming, did you?), and a host of other people whose "voices" influence my own authorial style.

For me, it's impossible to separate these things. The crafting of words, or words with music, or words with images, or whatever other thing one might do with words is fascinating to me, a rhetorical scholar by trade. I've had a lot of great teachers, most of whom I've never even met. These are sources of wisdom, for me, or as Kenneth Burke (another rhetorical scholar and a personal hero of mine) said, in reference to literature, they are "equipment for living." I find it amazing that someone can go through life and not read, on purpose, even if they are literate. I find it amazing, also, that so many of my fellow citizens of the world are content simply to sample from what other decide is "good," never even venturing beyond what is initially offered to them by an increasingly monopolized marketplace of popular cultural products. Even when you put people in charge of marketing who are supposed to know "what people want" you're still dealing with someone who can impede the flow of ideas. Consider:

"The person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste of the entire population."

Then of course there is the problem of too much community input. For example, the D&D Next playtest no doubt will use the results of the playtesting to establish what the RPG community of The World's Most Popular RPG "wants" from the game. What they'll get is a bunch of opinions, and those opinions must be considered, weighed, balanced, and otherwise incorporated. The result, no doubt, will be the gaming equivalent of the color beige. It is at once colorful and nondescript, and speaks to the vision and passions of pretty much no one.

So, even when you do your best to design something that appeals to the greatest number of people, you end up with something that appeals to no one in particular. Nobody is going to be passionate about D&D Next, I'm guessing, because it's attempting to serve far, far too many masters. Products like Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and [insert other OSR gaming product here] are "like D&D" but they have a personality and an identity, which springs from the fact that they are relatively unfiltered versions. There's no gatekeeper beyond the authors themselves. Even when playtesting is happening, I get the feeling that something like DCC was more about "Does this work?" or "Is this fun?" than about "Will this sell to males between 12 and 25?" or "Is this going to compete with D&D's market share?" or even "Is this what the OSR wants?" (like that's even a unified group)

You'll notice that the real difference here is the difference between a focus on what happens with the product once it hits the market (regardless of its quality) versus the quality of the product (regardless what happens in the marketplace). Now, I'm glad that these products are doing well, or as well as they can be given their relatively limited audience. I'm very, very glad that the authors chose to do what they could do best and brightest and loudest and most awesomest, rather than simply saying, "What's gonna sell?"

The funny thing is that one can never really know what's going to sell. Yes, you can focus-group it to death. You can copy what is popular. You can try to establish differentiation from competing products and define your "unique selling proposition" (It smells like toast!). But these things are signfiers of difference from something else, not signifiers of quality or kind. It's the difference between saying "Fighting robots are awesome, and I'm going to build the most awesome fighting robot ever!" and saying "I'm going to build Megatron!" Sure, you'll use the same sorts of parts, usually. A fighting robot has parts that a fighting robot should have. But in limiting the scope of awesomeness to things that already are recognized as acceptably cool, you leave out so many other possibilities for innovation, invention, mashing-up, and otherwise creating things that are worth having, seeing, or whatever.

This happens even when people supposedly know what they're doing, and try their best to satisfy the untapped needs of others. Now, I'm not one of those people who believes that creation is the province of the genius. Anyone can be creative. But I will say that must people are ashamed or embarrassed on some level to try to be creative. They're afraid of what other people will think. And sometimes, to be sure, they should be afraid. On the other hand, sometime people go with their guts and put something out there because they like it. And they find that other people like it, too. That's what happened with DCC, I think, and I know that's what's happening with the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign. Adam and I have produced something we like, each in our own way. We put these things together in one place and ask, "Would it be awesome?" rather than "How do we get people to like us?" It's nice that some people think that it's awesome, and like us as well. It's also really great that other people go, "Meh. Not really into it." and go find something else about which to be passionate.

So, bear with me with this Zappadan thing. It's something about which I am fairly passionate, and maybe a few others are as well, and maybe, just maybe... you'll find something here worth hearing. If not, I'll write more stuff about DCC and other gaming stuff when I get time for it. Right now, what with what's happening at work, I pretty much got time just for this. And, hey, it's the closest thing I got to a religious holiday. I gotta celebrate. Now, how about a Zappadan carol? I like this one. It's about two things I really like.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Zappadan, Day 9: Stick It Out

And now a little something for our German-speaking friends.

This very, very odd song is about having sex with a German-made device that looks like a mechanical pig. Now hell do I make this about RPG gaming?

It's about cyborgs, and robots, and the interrelationships between human beings and our mechanical friends. And, yes, it does end badly sometimes:

One of the things I've really enjoyed in gaming lately is (for me at least) how a lot of the people I'm reading and a lot of the people I'm following on G+ are mixing and matching genres in fun ways. Robots in the dungeon. Magic in sci-fi. I mean there's always be a lot of that in the speculative genres of literature (and film, of course). There's Wagon Train (but in space):

I think there's a lot of stuff in Star Wars that could easily be set in a fantasy novel. In some ways, Game of Thrones is a lot like Star Wars, or at least like it could have been if Luke and Leia had... well, you know. This is a fucking family blog, so I'm not gonna spell it out for ya, okay?

So, if you want killer robot clowns in your dungeon, go for it. Chainswords? Hell yeah. 

And give me give me give me that cyborg!