Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Z-Coordinate Geomorph

And so we finally conclude this April's A to Z Challenge with another geomorph variant. Like the urban tile, this one is a bit of an experiment. I had been considering doing a series of z-coordinate or cutaway view geomorphs for some time, especially after reacquiring my classic Moldvay Basic D&D boxed set. But is was Jeff Rient's call to arms that made me get serious about getting started. Alas, with the A to Z Challenge in full swing, it was hard to fit it into the schedule. Well, Z is for Z-Coordinate (the vertical dimension), so I can satisfy my desire to do a little drawing tonight and wrap up my A to Z posts.

Being the first in what I hope will become a series, I'm still experimenting with side-view symbology. For the spiral stairs, I took my cue from Dyson's tutorial (alas, I didn't have time to attempt the hatching). I decided to stick with the regular representation for doors and secret doors and also added hanging lamps, a ladder, a sarcophagus, a fountain, and a couple of traps. The idea behind the trap in the chamber in the upper portion of the tile is that when triggered it will flood the room with the water (or other liquid) from the reservoir above.

This post is also associated with the RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Dyson Logos.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for Y: The Last Man (and Other Post-Apocalypse Stories)

Briak K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man is but one of many high-concept post-apocalyptic stories that I have devoured in the last few years. The elevator pitch for the series is that some mysterious phenomena kills every mammal on earth with a Y chromosome except for one young man and his monkey.  It's a grand through experiment that is well executed and immediately makes me think of gaming (as well making me think that I need to get off my but and order the last volumes of the series...).

I'm a sucker for "big idea" apocalyptic tales. And I'm not just talking about novel ways to end civilization. No, I'm more interested in seeing how the post-apocalyptic medium can be used to establish dramatically different challenges and societal constraints in the aftermath. Y: The Last Man does that brilliantly. First, there is the inevitable apocalypse itself. If 50% of the human race is suddenly killed, you can imagine the carnage. Just think of all the cars and aircraft that would suddenly crash. But a world without men is beset with all sort of challenges, not the least of which being a kind of hopeless fatalism that the race is doomed when all the current people die off. As Yorick (the sole male survivor) travels this ruined world, it's interesting to see how different communities of women are adjusting to life in a world without men.

A sampling of other "big idea" post-apocalyptic stories that have been on my mind as of late:

  • S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire series: A mysterious event renders explosive combustion (engines and firearms), high-pressure steam engines, and electronics inoperable. Society is rebuild using a variety of pre-modern models, though many modern developments are still made to function in the new world (like bicycles, gliders, and push-cart railcars). 
  • John Birmingham's Without Warning: A mysterious event kills most everyone in the continental Unites States and forces the world to adjust to the power vacuum. 
  • Justin Cronin's The Passage: The best vampire apocalypse that I've ever read. It deals with the apocalypse itself, as well as events 100 years later.
My own "big idea" apocalypse that I've been mulling is a catastrophic return of magic. I'm sure it's been done before, but that doesn't mean I don't want to do it. I started working in elements into the Microscope game that I played with C'nor but I still hope to develop something on my own. Yet one more hanging thread to pick up when I can free up some time...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xander Harris

In today's (hopefully brief) entry in the A to Z Challenge, I bring up an iconic character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who has some relevance to my own gaming and who also raises an interesting question that I'm curious about.

First, for those of you not familiar with the Buffy series, Xander Harris was sort of the show's Jimmy Olsen. While Buffy was obviously a superhero and Giles was clearly a wise mentor and Willow would eventually go on to develop awesome magical powers of her own, Xander remained the powerless support character throughout the series. The character made sense when you considered the whole gender-inversion thing of the show. With a female superhero lead, you needed a male character to fill what was once a traditionally female role. Xander was often the damsel in distress. When he wasn't getting rescued, he was comic relief and an effective stand-in for clueless viewers. With some of the best lines of the show, he also seemed to be a stand-in for the show's creator, but I'm getting way off track.

Anyway, back to gaming. I'm "currently" (if not having played in two months can be current) running a long-running game of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer RPG. Like all successful games based on licensed properties, BtVS: RPG found a way to effectively model key structural elements of the source material. In this case, I'm specifically talking about the vast power differences between characters. Strike that. I don't think that it found an especially effective way to model power differences (that would seem easy in any game), rather it successfully made it cool to have players characters with vast power differences acting side-by-side in the same game, all with equal dramatic importance.

In our game, we of course have our Slayer, who was miles beyond any of the other initial characters in power.   But the rest of the players all created what the game calls "white hat" characters. While some of those white hats would eventually go on to develop varying degrees of supernatural power (just like Willow on the show), I believe the real strength of our game is that we always had at least one white hat who can still be placed in real jeopardy. And it is our chief white hat character who has really served as the emotional core for the whole series.

Anyway, if you've read this far then I have a question for you. Are games that involve characters of vastly different level or power viable in other systems and genres? I have a suspicion that our success with this model says more about our particular gaming group then it does about any particular game or genre. I know this would have never worked with some of the groups that I games with in the distant past.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for WilderWords

Today's installment of the A to Z Challenge brings the first sequel to DungeonWords. This time, the selection of words is especially geared towards generating regions of wilderness. It's mostly for fantasy, but there are a fair bit of post-apocalyptic and western elements thrown in for good measure.

Due to the time constraints of the challenge, this one was put together rather quickly. I'm still not 100% certain about the name (WildWords? WildernessWords? WasteWords? Ugh!), but it should do for now. I also included a Year of the Dungeon-inspired example wilderness map generated from ten rolls on the tables.

As with DungeonWords, you will want to print out the PDF without scaling so that the pages fold correctly. If you are new to PocketMods, folding instructions are as follows:

I have also uploaded a non-PocketMod version that is perfect for iPhones and other mobile devices: WilderWordsMobile.pdf. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for Voodoo

Gurps Voodoo was nothing short of a revelation to me when it was released in 1995. I was already an old hand at RPGs and a long-time Gurps player to boot, but I was seriously getting bored of the same-old-same-old magic options. I wanted something more than a laundry list of the standard spells. It was a time in my life when I was desperate for something edgier, something different. I also wanted something that would work well in a modern secret magic setting.

I remember that Mage: The Ascension was still relatively young at the time and it definitely started to scratch that nascent itch. In fact, it may have helped me realize what I was looking for. But for some reason I never truly warmed to the system. It was was too vague and (for my twenty-something self) too out there. Ars Magica may have done the trick, but I was completely ignorant of its existence until much later. And despite being edgy and different, Stormbringer was was too flashy for my needs (and also much harder to adapt to Gurps).

Gurps Voodoo was exactly what I was looking for. For starters, it was an awesome secret history setting in its own right, focusing on urban and developing world themes. Assigning supernatural causes to the urban blight in places like my native Detroit, it became a natural extension of my Gurps Vampire: The Masquerade campaign.

But its treatment of magic was where Gurps Voodoo really shined. First off, its excellent introduction to Voodoo, Gnosticism, and western cabalistic magic kick-started my own interest in these topics.  Next, it detailed rules for ghosts and spirits that indelibly shaped my approach to such things in all subsequent games that I have run, regardless of system. Finally, it presented ritual magic rules that are still some of the finest that I have ever seen. The system was later expanded in Gurps Spirits and (finally) carried forward into Gurps 4e with Gurps Thaumatology, but the I've always favored the original setting-specific presentation in Voodoo.

The flavor of magic in Gurps Voodoo comes from the ritual elements and typically subtle effects. Before a magician can even cast a spell, he must first prepare himself, the ritual area, and various material components. Next, the mage invokes the power of one or more spirits, calling them to him with ritual techniques for getting their attention. Once the spirits arrive, the magician must communicate the intended effect. Some degree of sacrifice is usually required to convince the spirits to intercede on the caster's behalf. Finally, the spirits must be explicitly dismissed lest they linger and cause mischief or outright harm.

The skills that governed the various rituals were, perhaps, a bit complicated. First, there was the basic Occultism and Ritual Magic skills. Then, there were Path skills that were limited by the character's Ritual Magic. Finally, each individual ritual was a technique (maneuver) that defaulted to one or more paths and could be improved directly with points. The system worked well in practice, as characters could either be generalists by buying up the base skills or specialize in a mere handful of rituals buying the techniques. My only complaint was that it was a little hard to explain to newcomers and that it confounded the various character generation pools that were mostly designed for the default Gurps magic system.

Rituals themselves were mostly focused on binding spirits, warding areas, and manipulating luck. But there were also rituals for dream travel/manipulation, curses, and (of course) making voodoo-style zombies. It wasn't too hard to invent new rituals and later supplements (Spirits and Thaumatology) would later add many others.

A ritual description defined only the basic effects. Characters had freedom to customize the rituals to increase the duration, affect multiple target, work over a larger area, or last for a longer period of time. Additionally, mages could gain a bonus to their roll by including extra material components, performing a great sacrifice, or making use of powerful ritual spaces. Doing away with essential components would similarly cause a penalty to the character's roll.

I still use this system (expanded with Gurps Thaumatology) in my current Knights of the Astral Sea game. I must confess, however, that the process of assembling modifiers for a spell no longer suits my GM style. These days, I mostly trust that the party ritualist is doing it properly. But I still love the narrative process of ritual magic. I had intended to present some alternate rules that would streamline the mechanics while keeping the essential Gurps Voodoo flavor. Alas, it is getting late and that will have to wait for another day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Urban Tiles

It has long been on my "to do" list to branch out into urban geomorphs. I have small notebook of fantasy city maps that I created back when I was in college and I they still inspire me. I've attempted some urban-style tiles in my regular geomorph series (here and here), but I'm still not certain if the look really works for me. Several members of the ever-expanding geomorph community have taken their own approach, most notably Amanda Michaels, Shane Knysh, Role-play Geek, and Stonewerks (with his new village tiles).

So what follows is my latest experiment.

I left off the roof shading because I think it makes the tile look too dark. As a result, this geomorph resembles the (black and white version of) map in the original Lankhmar sourcebook, which is cool. But something is missing. Role-play Geek's awesome citymorphs use color, but I'm not sure I want to go that route. And I love Stonewerks' shading of his village tiles, but I still haven't replicated his technique.

Oh well, I'm going to keep plugging away on this until I arrive a style that works for me. A useful collection of citymorphs seems like a must have for urban adventuring.

This post is also associated with the RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Dyson Logos.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

T is for Tribute (an Otusworld Tale)

I had a long Easter weekend away from the Internet, so I'm just now getting to Saturday's "T" entry in the A to Z Challenge. This one is another installment in the Otusworld project...

Leading a team of work horses along the tow-path, Ansolm warily guides the river barge up the mist-shouded Seynoah Canal. Alert for upended trees and eroded banks that would halt his progress, or worse, cripple his horses, his real cause for vigilance is the big-headed bog monster that is known to dwell in these parts.

Suddenly, a succession of loud crunches and Ansolm struggles to regain control of his startled team. Glancing down, he catches sight of a carpet of bones and the occasional skull.

With he squeak, he utters, "It's 'round 'ere, ain't it master Kelso?"

"Aye lad," replies the older man manning the rudder and peering into the fog with alarm. A half-dozen mercenaries sight their crossbows into the gloom from between the crates and bundles tied to the deck.

"Tabar the Tollkeeper, " Kelso spits in disgust. "Bastard son of a bog hag and demon prince, or so they say. Curse the night that he was born."

Looking at the steely-eyed Amarjan mercenaries in their fine breastplates and man-portable ballistae, Ansolm regains a measure of his youthful courage. "Surely the creature will take his tribute and slink back into the slime pits from which it came. What could possibly stand against men such as these?"

Shaking his head at the youth's innocent bravado, Kelso says "Aye lad, it will leave us alone. Or that is the hope. But don't think it'll do it in fear of our little company. If the brave heroes Bozen and Kreel could not drive him off, never mind three score of the bossman's best men-at-arms, I doubt a handful of hired swords would cause old Tabar to even flinch.

"No, my lad, old Tabar's not about to uproot his silver tree. He's got a good thing going here. Since trade's reopened with the Otasian uplanders and the lands beyond, he's enjoyed a steady tribute of... well... let's just say that the monster is living large and getting fat. And he doesn't even have to risk stubbing his toes while razing border ranches."

"But what could he do with the tribute? It's not like he's going down to market to provision whatever hole in the ground he calls his home. Or do you mean that he's sitting a pile of coins like some runty dragon on his horde?"

Kelso simply shakes his head, "No lad. You know he doesn't take gold."

In the choking fog, Ansolm fails to notice Kelso's eyes go wide and the mercenaries sighting their weapons with greater purpose. He enquires, "You mean there is truth to those tales that he demands the flesh of young virgins? I think I'd know if we had any pretty young virgins in our hold... what's that smell?"


Kelso can barely make out the grinning, over-sized head of Tabar the Tollkeeper licking his lips as he pulls the unconscious boy into the brush. A knowing glance passes between monster and merchant and then he is gone. Several mercenaries already are on shore and steadying the panicking horses.

Under his breath, with a tear in his eye, Kelso says, "You my boy, you are the tribute."


Description: Grotesque 8' tall humanoid with an over-sized head and razor-sharp teeth. Its rubbery hide is a disgusting shade of greenish-blue and the black hair atop its leering head resembles the refuse from a barber shop after being cast into an open sewer.

Cliches: Marauding Bog Troll (6), Infamous Barge Extortionist (4), Cannibal Gourmand (2)
Hook: Susceptible to lightning and various energy weapons that might turn up in the ruins of the ancients.


Marauding Bog Troll: Being prodigiously strong and fearsome; shaking off and regenerating tremendous injury; ripping people to shreds. Due to coating of river slime, he is not particularly vulnerable to fire or acid.

Infamous Barge Extortionist: Intimidation, demanding tribute; disrupting trade patterns.

Cannibal Gourmand: Has this fantastic recipe for spicy long pork...

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Spatial Relationships (Between Dice)

I am on vacation with the family and confined to a cell phone so I'm afraid the longer post that I had intended for letter "S" is going to have to wait. But I did want to mention something that relates to that intended post...

Over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, Talysman really got me thinking with his Planet Generator post. In a nutshell, he drew a diagram of an empty set of orbits and proposed a system where the physical location of the dice as they land on this map is just as important as the values on the dice. What an amazing idea! Other than Tony Dowler's "How to Host a Dungeon", I had never before seen the spatial relationships between dice used in a game mechanic. And in the case of HtHaD, the implications to other gaming applications didn't fully register.

So here's my thinking...

I had been planning on adapting the Castle Falkenstein magic system ("S is for Sorcery") to Risus and other games. The Falkenstein system uses playing cards as a randomizer, which takes advantage of both face value and suit to come up with a rich palette of effects. I had struggled to capture the feel of this system using dice until I saw Talysman's post. Now I totally think you could create a rolling surface (or box) that is partitioned into four equal areas for each suit. In addition to their values, dice would then have suits based on their location on the rolling surface. You could even create a small area to represent jokers.

More on this later. I just wanted to get the idea out there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Risus Companion (A Love Letter)

We met at your coming out party, a little more than seven years ago. Your arrival was presaged by tantalizing hints from your father, S. John Ross, as well as those fortunate enough to play with you in your sheltered youth. Like many, I had held out the hope that you would shed new light on your older sibling, the estimable Risus rules, for I had been wallowing in misconceptions and a failure to really grasp that "zen" thing that everybody kept talking about.

I fear that I might have had unfair expectations that you would lead me to the promised land of a perfectly universal RPG that would allow me to retire all those old, fuddy-duddy RPG dinosaurs. Yes, I was in a bit of a rut back then and I was allowing my frustrations with other systems to place unreasonably weighty demands on a set of rules that just wanted to enjoy beer and pretzels with friends.

Oh, but you set me straight! Not only did your well-crafted 64-pages help me understand and master the original 6-page rules, but you also opened up my eyes to things that I could do to restore my love of other game systems. You, my lovely Companion, not only showed me how to play Risus, you also reminded me how to simply play.

But first, let's talk of how you helped me master Risus.

The big draw of Risus has been and continues to be the economy of her character representation. A system where player characters can fit on a Post-It note and where NPCs require only a single phrase had enormous appeal to a me. I am, after all, a guy who used to employ complicated spreadsheets and character generators to precisely craft legions NPCs for his campaign world. Characters were the only element of Risus that I was certain that I understood before you appeared on the scene.

But on even this apparently clear topic, you had much to offer. You describe "The Dozen Endeavors" which, so far as I can tell, perfectly describe everything that any given character can do in almost every game. It's a bit like alchemy. Any character is made up of some mixture of these twelve reagents or archetypal competencies. This a just the first bit of your wisdom that I was able to transport to other games.

Then there is the "Anatomy of the Cliche" article (which was leaked in advance to Uncle Bear). Here, the concise character representation of Risus was transformed into pure poetry. I'll never look at cliches the same way again, and indeed, this article has informed how would later approach aspects in FATE, qualities in PDQ, professions in Barbarians of Lemuria, and possibly even classes in old school D&D.

But as I mentioned, I mostly understood how to build characters in Risus before I met you. It was that "zen" of game resolution that eluded me. Your evangelism of "The Unholy Trinity" of game resolution opened my eyes and finally made me get it. In Risus, any challenge can be handled as a Target Number roll, a Single-Action Contest, or a full-fledged Combat. The beauty of this system, is that things that would normally be regarded as combat (e.g. shooting a target from cover) might be handled as a Target Number roll. And situations that wouldn't otherwise resemble combat in the classical sense (e.g. trying to order tea from a recalcitrant beverage dispenser) could in fact be handled as a Combat. Depending on the dramatic/comedic/entertainment weight of a given encounter, the actual game mechanic used to resolve a situation could be totally different from what would otherwise be logical.

Anyway, you have an absolutely amazing little chart that illustrates this point perfectly. I'll honor your modesty [and copyright] by refraining from posting it here. Anyway, this Unholy Trinity has applications to many other game systems. I'll leave that as a topic for future letters but the idea is a powerful one.

In your gloriously purple, white, and black pages, I also found a host of rules options that have become standards at my table. I am specifically talking about "Sidekicks and Shieldmates", "Boxcars & Breakthroughs", and "Lucky Shots & Questing Dice", though I have often wanted to try "Deadly Combat" as well. All of these options help tame that dreaded "death spiral" that nay-sayers seem so concerned about. Not entirely, but perhaps enough to make Risus acceptable to a few more people.

This love letter is already starting to get a little long in the tooth, but I would be remiss if I didn't describe your virtues that might be appreciated by those who are not currently playing Risus. Though perhaps virtue might be the wrong choice of word for chapter on "Dirty Little Thrills" that is perhaps the most desirable and generally useful chapter for Game Masters and Referees of all RPG system. It reminds us that roleplaying is an escapist hobby and that our dirty little players often live vicariously through their characters. You present an extensive (and hilarious) list of game situations that will make players squeal with delight.

And I could go on. There's a handy little adventure construction framework, a tutorial on how to draw stick figures, and some pretty awesome random tables. All in all, your are one of the finest roleplaying supplements in my collection. You filled me with wonder when I printed you out and carried you with me to Africa just days after your release. And your wit and versatility and generousness still have so much to offer every time I open your pages.

Your Adoring Admirer,
Risus Monkey

R is for Red Right Hand

This classic song from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds should inspire thoughts of methodical villainy for your weird western or post-apocalyptic games.

Look for a more substantial "R" entry in the A to Z Challenge this evening.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Q is for Questing Dice

Today's installment of the A to Z Challenge concerns the ways in which Questing Dice can add zing to your Risus game. Those of you that come to Risus Monkey for geomorphs or general gaming bloggery may not be familiar with this oft-overlooked Risus rule. After all, it first appeared in the Risus Companion and not the original 6-page rules that can be downloaded for free. Indeed, I am obligated by Article XII of the Charter of the International Order of Risus to point out that the Companion is in no way required to enjoy Risus. The Companion is modest.

But I digress. The Companion does present Questing Dice (and their Lucky Shot siblings) as a way to gain a fixed number of extra dice in a given session. They are a little stash of Awesome that you can spend to add dice to any single cliche roll.

Well, almost any cliche roll. Questing Dice, you see, must include a limiting clause. Whereas Lucky Shots can be used for any roll, Questing Dice can only be used (as described in the Companion) for tasks relating to a particular goal (or "Quest"). That's why you get five of them rather than three when you allocate one of your dice during character creation.

So, I finally come to my point. You can do amazing things with Questing Dice if you broaden the scope of what types of limitations can be attached to them. Instead of limiting your Questing Dice by Why you are doing something or What you hope to accomplish (that "quest" thing again), why not focus on the How?

I'm thinking specifically of vehicles, gizmos, and artifacts. Questing Dice associated with such things can only be employed if the specified item would deliver a concrete advantage in a given situation. And because Risus already has rules for Tools of the Trade, such an item would have to go beyond what would normally be considered tools for a character.

As an example, consider that a Strapping Farmboy Chosen To Wield The Sword of Kings (3) has "Sword of Kings" already rolled into the cliche. It would be munchkinish and lame to give such a character Questing Dice (Sword of Kings). On the other hand, the same Questing Dice would be totally appropriate for a Practical Mercenary Captain (4), who would otherwise be assumed to wield a regular sword.

Other possibilities for Questing Dice:
  • Signature Spells
  • Special Techniques
  • Maneuvers
  • Social Favors
  • Divine Blessings (with weird stipulations).
And while allies are often handled with the Sidekicks & Shieldmates rule (also in the Companion), Questing Dice (My Badass Henchman) provides another option beyond treating them as "yes-men" (mere tools of the trade).

Finally, if you really want to stretch the original intent of the rule, each individual questing die (normally purchased in groups of 5) could have it's own limitation. The idea here is that it could add color to combat to be have to narrate a specific trick, technique, or capability that provided your advantage. I'm specifically thinking of vehicles here, where a character's tramp freighter (for example) might have its questing dice split out as tricked out engines, smuggler's compartments, deceptive appearance, illegal weaponry, and reputation in certain quarters.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Play By Post

For these last few months, my regular gaming group has been stuck in scheduling hell. This happens occasionally, but it never ceases to frustrate and annoy when it does.

Fortunately, I am about to embark on two play-by-post/play-by-email games. The first of which is ze bulette's Dordogne using Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox. I have already  had the pleasure of joining ze bulette in an inaugural chat session, in which I rolled up my primary and secondary characters. It was a bit of a thrill because - and I'm seriously damaging my old school cred here - I had never rolled 3d6 in order before! Even back in the day, it was always 4d6 drop-the-lowest. In later days, ability scores have always been assigned with points. I embraced the random nature of the rolls and my secondary character (simply called "The Old Man") was a curmudgeonly cleric with some pretty pathetic ability scores. He naturally became the sidekick of my primary character, a noble fighter who managed to have fairly decent strength and charisma.

I'm also gearing up for The Drune's Humanspace Playtest. I'm particularly jazzed about this one for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's always exciting to play with new people and meet new friends. Secondly, Humanspace Empires is pretty freakin' cool. I'm only vaguely familiar with M.A. Barker Tékumel (the depth of the milieu is more than a little intimidating), but I love how The Drune has spun out the weird Space Opera pre-history as its own setting. I'm a huge, huge fan of retro-SF space opera and I rarely get the chance to play in the genre. I look forward to breaking out my dice and rolling up a character tonight. 

Now, I must say that my enthusiasm for these two games is tempered by the fact that, with one exception (see below), every play-by-post game that I have ever been involved with has failed spectacularly.

What are the pitfalls of the play-by-post-format?
  1. There is a lack of immediate social response to one's actions. In a face-to-face games (or chat games), players can riff off of each other in real time. That player-to-player dynamic is very difficult to establish in a game where players must wait hours or even days for their fellows to respond.
  2. Play-by-post games can be painstakingly slow. It takes a dedicated group to build any kind of momentum when posts may trickle in a day at a time. Major adjustments are needed to account for delayed posts and round-by-round, blow-by-blow combat systems are pretty much unworkable. 
  3. The game is always "on". This last point is wait has scared me away from many play-by-post games in the past. I'm easily distracted and if play-by-post game is actually engaging, I may have trouble focusing on other things while I wait for the next response. And waiting for the next response can be frustrating if the other folks are similarly sucked in.
Anyway, none these pitfalls are deal-breakers. It is possible to ave an awesome play-by-post game. My  Risus Lankhmar game succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. In that case, we had a couple of factors that may have ensured our success:
  • We used Risus, which enabled combat rounds to be abstracted beyond the simple blow-by-blow nature of most games.
  • We used the Mythic Game Master Emulator. Without an actual GM, the viewpoint character could resolve many in-game elements without having to wait for a human response. This worked brilliantly and it allowed us to really make progress in the story in a relatively short period of time.
  • We had a Google Site with all our posts, campaign documents, character sheets, and content generation tools at the ready. It was  more aesthetically pleasing than following the game an an email thread and we could always go back and review the story in a coherent form.

* Another exception: play-by-post roleplaying in support of an existing face-to-face game. I've had much success with these in the past. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Otusworld

In today's installment of the A to Z Challenge, I inaugurate a new series of posts that will hopefully build an entire campaign world based solely (mostly) on the mad artistic genius of Erol Otus. 

Along with David Trampier, Erol Otus has always been my favorite old school D&D artist. His work graces the cover of the first D&D product that I ever owned (Moldvay Basic) and his distinctively weird style invokes that sense of dangerous and creepy wonder that I felt when I explored the game for the first time.

Ever since last year, I had wondered what it might be like to construct a fantasy world that encompasses every Otus illustration that I could find. No doubt, it would be very weird. Otus didn't just draw D&D. He also illustrated Gamma World and a kooky game of high-school shenanigans called Alma Mater. Weaving all of it into a single game setting would be a gonzo feat worthy of the mighty Jeff Rients.   

So, here are the ground rules:

1. Each post will feature a single randomly selected Erol Otus illustration from my vast gaming library (with a generous assist by the Lords of Google).

2. I'd like to develop this setting organically as I go, without thinking ahead to the classic images that I know are coming. That being said, I do know that there will be grotesque high-school students and robots and vegepymies. Knowing that much will keep me from being boxed into a corner. 

3. The gaming material that is associated with a given image may inform my interpretation, but I will try to come up with new ideas by considering the artwork in isolation. To that end, I'm going to avoid even reading the various monster entries and module encounters that might otherwise make the setting material obvious.

4. If I am going to sta
t things out, it will be with
Risus. I may also do stats using B/X D&D or Old School Hack if I have the time and inclination.

So, I'll start things off with a small taste (I hope to continue this series in earnest come May):

From A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords [?]

Clad in the height of Erolonian fashion, the corpulent and ever-squinting Slavelord, Torpul Snerksen, conducts a clandestine meeting with Rayne Grenlok (née Ryan Green) in a secluded bandit redoubt. Using a stash of illicit coin from Point Sterling, he overcomes the Gren shaman's disdain for civilization and purchases two carts of pacified women and children captured in raids against over-eager Otasian settlers. 

Squinty-eyed and corpulent, with a penchant for the gaudiest of apparel, Torpul Snerksen is a rising player in the Erolonian slave markets. Infamous for his depravity, Snerksen will stop at nothing to acquire specialized "merchandise" for his wealthiest and most discerning clients. An amateur thaumaturge in his own right, he has selected various charms and amulets to protect his person from physical and magical assaults.
Cliches: Corpulent Moneybags (5), Up-and-Coming Slavelord (3), Conneseur of Perversion (2), Amateur Sorcerer (2)
Questing Dice (Charms of Protection): [] [] [] [] []
Languages: High Erolonian, Amarjan, English (with a nasal accent), phrasebook Otasian 
Tools: Outrageous clothing, bags of money, dozens of armed bodyguards [treat as "yes-men"], pungent body odor.

RAYN GRENLOK (formerly known as Ryan Green)
Young Ryan Green was only a child when his suburban community of Point Sterling was mysteriously transported to this strange new world. Heading a ghostly call, he escaped the violent unrest in those early days by fleeing into the Greenshadow Forest. Nearly killed by Gren tribesman, he proved his worth by undergoing the Threescore Ordeal. Now, as the youngest shaman of the Fairhollow Gren, "Rayn Grenlok" leads his new tribe in battle against those who would despoil the great forest.
Cliches: Unwashed Neo-Primitive Shaman [4], Savior of the Gren (3), Lost American Teenager (1)
Languages: English, Grenspeak, a few words of Otasian
Tools: Shamanic staff, amulet made of from teeth of the Beast of Sotonka (a focus for his magic).

Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for Appendix N

I've already done a list of my desert island works of fantasy and science-fiction, but for today's installment of the A to Z Challenge, I thought I'd zoom in on the works of genre fiction that unambiguously influenced the games that I have played.

Risus Monkey's Appendix N (in rough order of game appearance)
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I discovered Tolken and D&D at about the same time and the two will always remain linked in my mind. Additionally, my first stint as Game Master was done using MERP with a campaign set in Rhovanion. Much later, I ran a Risus one-shot set near Bree.
  • On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming: I confess that this is the only Bond book that I have ever read (by Fleming), but we did play a lot of James Bond RPG when I was in high-school. It makes the list almost by default.
  • Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry,  The Swords of Lankhmar, Swords and Ice Magic, and The Knight and Knave of Swords by Fritz Leiber: Perhaps my single greatest literary influence, I ran a very successful Rolemaster Lankhmar campaign and then continued as a player in a sequel campaign using Gurps. After an unsuccessful attempt to start another Lankhmar game in college, I would later borrow the entire city as a recurring location in the Dreamlands of my Velvet Edge modern fantasy game. Just about a year ago, I had a blast collaborating in a play-by-post game of Risus Lankhmar using the Mythic GME.
  • Elric of Melniboné, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Sleeping Sorceress, The Bane of the Black Sword, and Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock: I discovered the stories of Elric shortly after I discovered Tolkien and I am certain that there was a lot of subconscious influence on my gaming. The first direct influence occurred in the 90's when I opted to play a semi-redeemed sorceress from Pan Tang in a friend's dimension-hopping campaign. I think I did it just to play with demon-based sorcery but the character became more interesting for her strong personality. To this day, she remains one of my favorite characters.  
  • Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini: I was never hugely into the comics but I do remember incorporating the Pini look for elves into one of my campaign worlds. Some of that influence survived into recent games.
  • The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and no doubt many other stories by H.P. Lovecraft: It practically goes without saying that Lovecraft has bled into my games. Even in my current dimension-hopping game, the Necronomicon is practically an NPC and a whole world was destroyed by Mythos entities. But Lovecraft's Dream Cycle has had the most profound influence on my games, pretty much starting me on the whole idea of linking fantasy worlds through a shared Dreamlands. I pretty much lifted the plot of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward wholesale for an episode of Slaying Solomon. I also briefly ran a 1920's game set in New York that used a lot of Lovecraft.
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go, The Fabulous Riverboat, and The Dark Design by Philip José Farmer: I remember reading these books after I purchased Gurps Riverworld (I was a Gurps completist at the time) and I really enjoyed the series. Too bad I never found the final books in the series. I ran a successful mini-campaign in Riverworld and later sent a team of extra-dimensional trouble-shooters there after killing them with a nuclear weapon. That was one of the coolest adventure setups that I ever pulled off.
  • The Sandman (graphic novels) by Neil Gaiman: These stories began my lifelong appreciation of the works of Neil Gaiman and they had a major influence on the development of my Velvet Edge modern fantasy game. I also pretty much lifted the plot of A Game of You for a different dimension-hopping one-shot.
  • Memory and Dream and other stories of Newford by Charles de Lint: Perhaps even more of an influence on my Velvet Edge campaign than The Sandman, this series provided a few plots and many re-skinned characters. More importantly, it really influenced my approach to the wainscot world of the supernatural at the edge of our perception. 
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker: The seminal work of vampire fiction and gothic literature, the character of Dracula has appeared in numerous games of mine.
  • Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned, and The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice: I can't remember if I read Interview before I found the first edition of Vampire: The Masquerade or if it was the other way around. Either way, I was obsessed with vampires in the 90's and one of my favorite player characters was loosely based on Claudia.  
  • The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson: Naturally, my modern fantasy game was crawling with conspiracies. This book was a fabulous resource for that. And we did have a pseudo-Discordian player character in that 1920's game.
  • Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed: Similar to The Illuminatus! Trilogy, but almost more appropriate given my focus on urban culture and voodoo in Velvet Edge. A boon for the 1920's game set in New York as well.
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson: The Velvet Edge game transitioned from a straight Vampire game to a near-future cyberpunk Gurps Voodoo/Gurps Cyberworld hybrid. That cyberpunk feel came almost entirely from the works of William Gibson. 
  • Tales of the Slayer anthologies (various): When you run a Buffy the Vampire Slayer: RPG series for over six years, you need to pull ideas from wherever you can get them. I lifted many of my first season stories from these books (mostly because the players hadn't read them yet). 
  • Promethea by Alan Moore: It permanently changed how I approach magic and the higher planes of realty in my games.
  • Hellboy, B.P.R.D., and Lobster Johnson comics by Mike Mignola and others: These comic are loaded with weird history and strange folklore. My current Knights of the Astral Sea campaign has many elements of the Mignola-verse lurking under the surface.
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells: Moreau made an appearance in our current campaign. He's still alive and waiting to cause trouble for the PC's again.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (etc) by J.K. Rowling: Yeah, there is a lot of Hogwarts in the schools of Slaying Solomon.

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Microdungeon

While the venerable megadungeon will always have a place in my heart, I have recently become quite smitten with microdungeons. Showcased by Tony Dowler's wonderful series of posts on Year of the Dungeon, microdungeons are bite-sized location-based scenarios that provide a handful of interesting and coherent encounters. They can be described with utmost brevity and are ideally suited for episodic play.

Two previous microdungeons (here and here) drew inspiration from a selection of DungeonWords and were modeled after the little dungeon that appears in the original Risus rules. The following microdungeon continues this approach, though I veered off to use a few DungeonWords from my expanded and as-yet-unpublished list.


This has been an especially hard year for caravans traversing the Ravenspire Mountains. Travellers have reported a strange buzzing in the upper reaches of the Blackrock Pass while smaller groups and lone stragglers have disappeared without a trace. Local lords have chalked this up to bandit activity or trechery from their trading partners, leading to a scarcity of goods and rumors of war.
The complacent kings of the settled lands would be horrified to learn that an alien menace was responsible for their troubles. The Chityantis are a diminutive race of insectile parasites that cultivate abducted humans as hosts for their drone army. Feeding volatile chemicals to a machine salvaged from the wreckage of their astral craft, these abominable puppet masters bide their time, gather more victims, and wait for their sacred Orrery to indicate that the stars are right and a return of the mother ship is imminent.
This post is also associated with the RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Dyson Logos.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Ledges

When I sit down to draw new geomorphs, I like to include interesting terrain that might enhance an otherwise straight-forward combat encounter. Ledges are a great way to add a height element to an area and they rarely fail to conjure up a host of tactical possibilities. They also divide up the encounter space nicely.

The following tiles feature ledges prominently and have been submitted to Joe Wetzel's DungeonMorph Dice project.

This post is also associated with the RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Dyson Logos.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kids

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am the proud father of two young boys who are very eager to follow in their daddy's D&D footsteps. Hardly a day passes when I don't get asked to break out the battle maps, the minis, and the dice so that we can all explore dungeons from the safety of our living room.

I'm still waiting to introduce them to a full rules-set (even Risus or basic D&D is beyond them at this point), but I am gradually easing them into game mechanics with a new rule here or there each time we play.

There have been numerous resources for playing D&D with kids that I have found on the web. The latest appears in the recent issue of Encounter Magazine (download Issue #4 now for free). Author Jimm Johnson has put together the best set of rules for young children that I have seen thus far. It's called Knights & Wizards and it strips D&D down to the bare essentials. Kids can play one of four classes: Knight, Wizard, Elf, and Dwarf. Each class has a cool trick or two and there are no ability scores or complicated tables to muddy the waters.

I think this would work well for at least my oldest son and  I think I'm going to print out the accompanying adventure to give it a try tonight.

(Warning: Cute Children - Proceed At Your Own Risk!)

Finally, I thought I'd post the another short clip from a recent session. My oldest son is once again assuming the role of Dungeon Master, with a little help from daddy of course.

Download: DDwKids2.m4a

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for Just-In-Time Characters

As Game Masters, we all have times when we need to get a new PC into the game as quickly as possible and without too much fuss. Perhaps you have a new player that shows up at the last minute. Or maybe one of your players needs to create a replacement for a recent casualty. You might even be crazy enough to run a one-shot or convention game without pregenerated characters.

It's times such as these that make rules-lite games a complete godsend. In Risus, for example, an entire character can fit on a Post-it note. Old school D&D is not far behind in its brevity. But even for such bare-bones systems, players can still get bogged down with their choices. I've seen players waffle  over that last damn cliche for Risus and selecting equipment for D&D (or the spells/feats/powers of recent editions) can feel like doing your taxes. Don't even get me started about point-buy games like Gurps.

Well, there is an easy way to get characters into the action faster than you can order pizza. It's called Just-In-Time Character Generation and I've used it successfully in two recent one-shots.

The idea is simple: 
  • You only need to determine the absolute minimum before jumping into play. 
  • Selection of secondary or non-critical traits can be delayed until they are needed in game. 
  • Once a trait is used, it is fixed until regular advancement.
In my Moon Soldiers Must Die! one-shots, I chose not to provide pregenerated characters. All I asked of the player was to define a name, a concept, and at least one cliche. Most players completed their characters in the allotted time, but several players had a Heisenberg cliche or two that only crystallized during the course of play.

In D&D, I would require a name, race, class, ability scores, hit points, and starting wealth. But almost everything else is fair game for this technique. I think it's especially useful for equipment selection. Characters could use their starting gold to "purchase" adventuring gear as they needed it (even while exploring a dungeon!), so long as doing so would not violate continuity.

You might be thinking that this "define it when I need it" approach gives players an advantage. The answer is that, yes, it does. But it's an acceptable advantage that quickly goes away once the character becomes fully fleshed out.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Immortals

I would guess that I am not alone in this corner of the bloggyverse in how deeply I was influenced by the *original* Highlander movie (there can be only one, natch).  The movie opened at the exact time that I was forming my high-school gaming group and it seemed to me that most of my conversations with those guys were peppered with direct quotes from the movie. Friends to this day, that is still the case. Not bad for a B-movie featuring a French actor playing a 400-year-old Scottish swordsman and a real Scottish cinema icon playing his ancient Egyptian-turned-Spaniard mentor.

So, quoting the movie aside, it is perhaps inevitable that Highlander-style Immortals would creep into my gaming. While still in high-school, I remember creating an Immortal hero for a friend's Gurps Supers game. When I moved to the DC-area, one of the other players did the exact same thing in a different Gurps Supers campaign (a character that would eventually end up beheaded). Another friend's AD&D 2e campaign allowed recently slain human characters a remote chance to rise again as Immortals, though it never happened while I was a part of the group. Finally, in my long running Gurps Voodoo/Vampire: The Masquerade mash-up, I had several of my players discover Highlander-style Immortality during extended preludes (I was all about secret mystical origins in the 90's). Even today, there are Immortals lurking in the background of my ongoing campaigns, though I've made some effort to tone done the connection to the movie mythology.

Why the fascination with Immortals? I mean, does it really matter if a character will live indefinitely beyond a campaign's limited time scope? Other than a few monster attacks or spell effects in AD&D, I've never heard of a campaign where characters aged more than a year or so.

For me, I am fascinated with Immortal characters for the simple reason that they have experienced so much history first hand. I love imagining how the weight of years might affect a character's personality. And I love exploring the price of immortality and dramatic situations that result when this price starts to seem too high. At first glance, immortality would be something that many folks would wish for without a second thought. Thinking through the ramifications of such a wish is something that never gets old. I guess that's why I was so smitten by Vampire: The Masquerade when it first appeared on the scene. At its best, that was a game that really milked the dramatic potential of the high cost of immortality.

Eventually, having Immortal characters with centuries in their past and potential ages in their future wasn't enough for me. I wanted to emulate that style of story telling that seemed to be a natural by-product of movies and TV shows about Immortals (and vampires). In the often excellent Highlander TV show (and similar shows featuring vampires), there was a kind of episode template where something that happens in the present reminds the viewpoint character of an event in the past. The episode flashes back to illuminate the back-story and there would be two or three more flashbacks before the final act, at which point the plot thread is resolved in a dramatic fashion in the present day.

I'm amazed that I still haven't attempted this. I've thought about for over a decade and I've always run up against the two obvious problems. First, there is the matter of handling the flashbacks in such a way that preserves the modern continuity without railroading the players. Second, there is matter of character experience and the fact that power levels are going to be drastically different in flashback. I never did solve these two problems to my satisfaction.

Now, I'm starting to think that I could pull it off. Even though it explicitly advises against immortal characters, Microscope has demonstrated that these non-linear, time-jumping games are possible. The past is a mystery until you play it out and it doesn't have to be a railroad. Maintaining the present continuity doesn't seem like such a big deal any more. I can imagine that *anything* can happen to the Immortal characters short of continuity violations. And even then, some events that would seems to violate continuity could be explained in other ways (I'd leave that to the player character question to decide).

As for character level or point total... again, I'm not so concerned anymore. I think the baseline "level" for the group would be set in the present day. For flashbacks, characters already have plot immunity. There's less reason to worry so much about "balance" issues.

Anyway, I'm not running an Immortals game anytime soon due to current commitments. But I am going to give the idea more thought and hopefully I'll have some ideas that I can share.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lazy Sunday and a Level-Up!

Ah, so much for grand ambitions of writing that Risus Falkenstein adaptation today, or of composing Monday's A to Z challenge post ahead of time. Today was an amazing day for me and my little monkeys. The weather took a turn for the better here in Northern Virginia and blogging gave way to a fun-filled day at Great Country Farms.

But my blogging world kept moving in my absence. As it turns out, thanks to Marta of What Happens To Punk Girls When They Grow Up, I now have 160 followers. I try not to pay attention to such things... but, hey, I'm officially a 7th level Pundit!

Regular programming will resume tomorrow.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

H is for Hobbit

With the April A to Z Challenge in full swing, I find myself with less time for some of the posting that I would otherwise be doing. High on my list of things to blog about was The Hobbit reread (last seen on March 18th). I haven't been reading this every night with my boys, but enough time has passed that I'm still several chapters ahead of my posts.

Well, H is for Hobbit (the reread).

On The Doorstep
When last we left Bilbo and his dwarven companions, they were setting out from Laketown as heroes of legend. They were entering the final stage of their quest to find a way to dispose of an invulnerable dragon and reclaim the lost treasure of the King Under the Mountain. Of course, it would help if they actually had a plan beyond "we'll figure it out when we get there". Sounds like most RPG adventuring parties that I know...

Anyway, in this chapter we we finally get to see Thorin and Company flailing about without a clue of how to really accomplish their ultimate goal. They do manage to find what they would come to call "the front doorstep", the grassy ledge adjacent to the magical secret door that was hinted at on their maps. But   it was Bilbo who "made the dwarves begin the dangerous search." And after they found it, they spent an indeterminate number of days (perhaps weeks?) just waiting for something to happen after attempts to crack the magical barrier with mining gear proved futile. Once again, it was hobbit luck that provided the reminder of the words of Elrond concerning the magic lock at the very last moment. And of all his companions, Bilbo was the the only one to have the wits to remember to try Thorin's key before the lock disappeared again.

This is a very small chapter and only one critical event happens in it (the opening of the door), but it continues to remind me of old school D&D in action. The party is geared up for the big quest and after lots of searching about the countryside they have finally located the entrance to the dragon's lair. Of course, they have to solve a single puzzle before they can gain admittance (through this entrance - the Front Gate is considered to be a BAD idea). I remember many sessions as a player and GM where puzzles took a long time to solve. I don't use puzzles much these days because I guess I'm not old-school enough to wait out player inaction. Like Tolkien, I'm much more likely to say "screw it, time passes and the final clue is revealed you morons."

Friday, April 08, 2011

G is for Geomorphs (#113 and #114)

The obvious choice for letter "G" in the A to Z challenge is Geomorphs, especially since the DungeonMorph Dice project has hit its goal and designs are already coming in for the first and second sets.

So, for the time being, I am going to take a break from making geomorphs based on classic art. For the DungeonMorph Dice, I want to make sure that anything that all my submissions are entirely original and well-suited to the project. To that end, I present two more designs. While well-suited for Dave's Mapper, these are only proposed tiles and they may or may not make it to the final 30 for the first DungeonMorph Dice set.

The first geomorph features a collection of multi-level rooms that have collapsed into a central area that is almost certainly filled with rubble. A section of wall in the lower east-west passage has been breached and now provides access to the bottom of the wreckage.

Though it didn't sdtart out that way, this tile is almost certainly some kind of crypt. Ten sarcophagi can be accessed by descending stairs into secluded alcoves. Two more are positioned on either side of a statue in the main chamber and a much larger sarcophagus dominates the sunken room in the southeast. The northeast passage contains a pit trap to hinder passage.

This post is also associated with the RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Dyson Logos.