Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More thoughts on writing modules (Design Post) - Part 2

Finishing something instead of starting it for a change. The idea of this little series (here is Part 1) is to take a close look at role playing games as their own kind of medium and what considerations need to be made compared to, say, novels or instructions. Rule books and adventure modules might be somewhere in between ... but the thing is that it's quite easy to get some solid definitions for the latter and none whatsoever for the former (not that I'm aware of, anyway). There's also almost always the (related) question of what an adventure module should contain and to which extent, respectively how much testing it would need. Let's get into this once more ...

I once had a discussion with a friend whether beer could be argued as a form of medium, since using it will alter communication ... So there is that.

Are role playing games a different form of media?

All right, all right. I think I need to clarify this a bit. The term "media" will carry several meanings, depending where you are coming from. Media in this here context are basically forms of expression in communication. Novels or comics or movies or computer games are great and commonplace examples for media like that. The idea is that media follow certain rules to recognize them by and those rules are pretty crucial to differentiate them from each other and categorize them as a consumer. An easy explanation for this is that you know the difference between a comic and a movie, as they manifest with clear distinctions.

And that doesn't (necessarily) include the means of consumption of said media. Like, movies had been something you'd see solely in the cinema about a hundred years ago, nowadays you can see them on all kinds of screens as long as they can show moving pictures. So the distinction must be in a way more basic definition, not in the technical means to distribute them. For movies it could be something like "a story expressed by following certain predetermined patterns and customs, using some form of recorded moving pictures, often with sound and music to enhance the experience".

There are several forms and developments possible (and already available), from 3d variants or movies with completely computer generated characters, to artificial movie stars or completely customized movie experiences (which should be some developments we might be able to see and experience pretty soon). So I think the crucial part for the distinction is "a story expressed by ...". To take the example above, it's clearly a very different experience to read the comic of a story compared to viewing the movie of it.

To make this perfectly clear: media in this definition are the patterns, customs and rules for stories that make media distinguishable from each other. There are bare necessities part for those patterns and customs (novels need to be read, pictures need to be drawn, that kind of stuff), but distribution and technical possibilities are a matter of change and need to be secondary (so a novel could be a book or a audiobook and there are several ways to view a picture, from the thing you put on a wall to something you just googled).

All this can be expanded by the famous sender-receiver model. Behold:

Media are in the center, but it adds authorship, a
receiver and a feedback-loop [source]

Following the definitions above, I'd argue that role playing games are their own form of expressing stories (messages) and thus ... a medium in their own right. Adventure modules should, consequently, cater the special conditions of role playing games to be effective and could also be considered their own kind of media.

And that means?

Yeah, you might ask that. Should, maybe. Going with that model above, we can conclude part of what role playing games are: they are a means of expression. Not the author, not the recipient and not the story, but the procedures in between. The system, if you will. The dice are, in a way, what the blank surface is for a picture, the different results in conjunction with all the numbers would be the color scheme and the resulting (decoded) impression would be comparable to looking at the painting itself. So on and so forth.

Nothing of this is really new, I guess. But it begs the question: if rpgs are their own kind of medium, with rather distinctive necessities and all that, what does that imply for writing modules? To answer this, we need to (1) take a closer look at how rpgs need to operate to produce the kind of output we expect from them (just like you'd expect moving pictures when seeing a movie) and (2) expand the sender-receiver model to the individual groups using the system.

First we need to understand what a system really does. Going by the model above, a sender (the DM and the players are interchangeable in that) encodes (think "feeds") a system with a message (think "story"), then the system does its thing (rolling dice, documenting results and so on), the receivers decode it (again, the whole table), then feedback-loop and repeat. All give input to the system, the DM the setting-side, the players from the character-side of things. The individual system-decoding done by the DM is the valid interpretation of the system in that context.

Second we need to distinguish between authorship of the system and authorship of the story (the message, if you will). I think the importance and role of those different authorships are often confused in their relevance to using the system.

A game designer is writing the rules with the potential DM (the receiver) in mind. The medium in this case would be the, for instance, the rule book. The rules themselves, though, are a matter of decoding and the feedback-loop would be re-reading the rules for clarification or researching it online or whatever.

The point is, the moment the recipient of the that first cycle becomes DM, he also starts being the sender for a completely different cycle, with way shorter feedback-loops through the players as recipients and a completely different desired output (the first is reading a book to understand the rules, the second is using the rules to produce a game).

See what I mean? [source]

So adventure modules are, going by that logic, supplements to help encoding stories for the medium by specifying the input in a way that the system-output has some sort of predetermined desired result.

I'd argue that while you have the reader of that first cycle above as receiver and potential DM in mind, modules fulfill a total different need in that they have the reader/receiver as potential sender in mind and the players as receivers of the desired system-output. Always keeping in mind that every receiver will most likely end up with a very individual decoding in all instances ...

... which is my complicated way of saying that content and presentation of adventure modules need to fulfill certain criteria (the encoding thing above), but are ultimately relatively free in almost everything else (maps, art, just text, short, long ... you name it). There are no rules, there's only taste, because ultimately this will be decoded to the amount the receiver deems necessary and the result will not only always be individual in nature, but also going through a completely different cycle with yet another succession of en- and decodings.

What is "useful" in a module?

Since we all already collect input all the time for the systems we use by looting ideas from movies, comics, books, art, life, you name it, modules have to bring a little extra to the table to be useful. Print is in this regard far superior to pdfs or any kind of digital presentation (blogs, clouds and what have you) if you play in meatspace. It's not exactly the other way around if you play online, though, since digital material can be a real boon in digital environments like roll20, but more of an hindrance in the traditional form of a module as a coherent collection of text and material with a reader in mind instead of a user (which I assume).

At least that's the traditional assumption. If we take the above into consideration, it might be worth also considering that a good module mostly has to put the reader in a position to feed the system with ideas and concepts and messages he wouldn't have come up with on his own easily enough (or even on the fly, for that matter). Again, traditionally that'd be material like vast dungeons and their descriptions or (for more complex games) monster and NPC stats, maybe names, too. But is that the only way? 

So here is the thing: it might be beneficial to treat the reader of a module not as a potential sender, but foremost as a receiver, bring the module for him to life and give him the tools to gather, alter and collect the input he thinks necessary. That would mean, for instance, to have a dungeon and instead of giving a description of every room and creature, you make it a living and breathing thing for the reader and let him decide what the state of the dungeon is when the characters enter. Maybe give him random tables and tools to produce fitting content on the fly, too.

What I'm saying is, nothing needs to be fix in modules, but the reader needs to be able to get a sense of place or history or life and the tools to feed the system in a way that produces a certain kind of module related output, because he's doing it himself as soon as he's the sender anyways. And I, for one, dread the moments when I need to look something up or read a room description aloud (which can be fun, but mostly isn't). So that's it.

To do this justice, modules should be part reading experience, offering some immersion, because heavy decoding is what sticks with us and immersion is the way to that, and part DIY-tools for him to produce the content he needs himself (village or dungeon sheets instead of character sheets, for instance). There's plenty of ways to offer loads of content that way and by ensuring that it sticks, it's way more likely to actually get a huge part into the game without the reader needing to memorize and re-work the whole thing before being able to use it.

Tone, as described in Part 1, also is a big part of that, of course.

A word on play-testing.

That's just a random associated thought that occurred to me while writing Part 1. Well, at least I started seeing the connection or realized why it bothered me, like, forever: why bother play-testing something when the assumed difference between senders will almost definitely result in very different decoding/encoding processes every time. In other words, here is the explanation why every group will experience a different game even when playing the same system and module.

I'm writing this to once more strengthen the idea that the DM is the one in charge as the sender, not the author of a module. And that means that the play-tests of one individual DM says almost nothing about how the game would run for another group. There's also a correcting element in encoding material, so even if there are any imbalances or mistakes in a module that the writer couldn't glean beforehand, the receiver will most likely change any such elements (and more than that) as he needs it when he'll be sending it. The rest is common sense and how the group decodes the output it gets.

Games or systems, on the other hand, really do need play testing ... lots of play testing.

Not the only way, though ...

Sorry, this was a long one again. And all over the place ... It's not even the whole picture and some of it is guesswork (our hobby being as young as it is). Mostly because I can't possibly have read all adventure modules in existence and it might very well be that I describe something already well known and established. That said, if you think you know modules fitting the description I gave above, please name them in the comments ... I'd highly appreciate it.

So there are, obviously, many ways to write modules and this isn't the only one. Stonehell, for instance, mostly does the exact opposite (as much information as possible crammed on a page, no immersion possible, lots of using it at the table ...) and still somehow works. They all have their place and merit, be it collector items or the first modules ever written and the air of nostalgia that make them still work today or what have you, but I think there is yet a lot to explore and document about what makes a module work and what not. There's also some unused paths worth checking out, I think. A bit like arguing if beer could be considered a medium with the above offered definition.


One last stray thought: it's systems like 3e D&D and derivatives that try to undermine the DM as sender in the game by making the input very much depending on the source instead of supporting the encoding process ... Just food for thought.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's all about the ingredients ...

We all know that: we see D&D spells and are like "Way cool! I wanna do that!" and then we see a beholder and ask ourselves what his story is. This is something that's been bothering me on and off for a long time now and I think it's time for a post about it. This turned out to be a bit rambling. That's the stress making me think less coherent. I guess. Anyway, bear with me, it has a nipple wizard and a Gygax quote in the end, so that's something.

The origins of D&D magic

They winged it, plain and simple. Man, there are interviews about it*. They made it up as they went along. All that stuff about Vancian Magic? As if it would mean something? All make-belief (and not the kind we usually talk about). And who could blame them. It's been one huge experiment with lots and lots of play-testing. It's genius, too. On many levels, actually.

This is not supposed to be an analysis of what they wrote back then and why but more about what they didn't have. They had, for one, no idea how magic worked in their worlds. It just was a tool. In a way it was used to bridge aspects of the game they hadn't covered ... Hold Portal, Open Lock, all those utility spells had been there for a reason: they are tell-tales about what the original designers felt missing during play-testing sessions. It is nice to have an universal key for everything.

There is a great freedom in that, I think. In a way it's the purest form of our hobby when the game grows organically with the group instead of being predetermined by sets of rules. And if something is missing? Magic is the key ... Just needs a bogus story about ingredients, something you got to do to get it with a little quest on top of it as the cherry. The rest is negotiating with the master, also part of the game.
It's funny how D&D codification changed the whole concept over time. [source]

So many thoughts ...

Here are some ramifications of this. Just from he top of my head. This is by no means a complete list or meant to be one. Here it comes:
  • This is why the cleric can be so brutally boring: development had been the other way around. Instead of saying "If it's needed, we just use the MU for it", they must have said something like "Yeah, so we have a holy man and he needs to do that and that ...". Totally different process. Clerics never really recovered from it.
  • And we just follow those established patterns instead of breaking free from them and doing our own thing. I know, I know, iconic spells, yadda-yadda, all that noise (I love it, too). Can't beat a fireball. Just can't. But what if ... Mordenkainen, Bigby, Elminster, all player characters in games! What's the problem? Does it take another type of player to develop instead of just copying? Maybe.
  • So the wizard in D&D is traditionally weak ... is that because he is the ultimate connector? Not because he's too powerful (always thought that's bullshit, btw**), but very, very flexible in a D&D context? At least when it was played a way no one plays it anymore (exaggerating here, I hope).
  • Would it still be D&D if people just came up with their own spells as the characters grow? I'd argue: yes. Even more so, maybe. You'd still have the same wacko monsters ... or just do that new, too. Would still be D&D. In a way we don't play D&D but mimic the way those old guys played it. A bit like a religious ritual, worshiping it something fierce. But that true form, that would be something else entirely. You'd play how them not like them (if that makes any sense).
  • And yet, the rules don't encourage that really, do they? It's far more difficult to create your own spell. Getting harder with every edition. So what's the problem? Uncontrolled power rushes, I suppose. Designers not trusting the ordinary folks doing it right ... Maybe. But isn't that one of the lessons a DM has to learn? How to judge what works in the game and what doesn't? Well, that might not be what being a DM is all about nowadays ...
He broadcasts, too ...***

So what the hell am I meandering towards?

I believe D&D magic is like a window into another world. It gives us hints how this game emerged from the brains of those people playing it back then. It's less about quoting Vance or Tolkien or whatever, but about developing the game together at the table. A lesson about making it work, sometimes just in a specific moment of a specific campaign. It's full of short cuts, too.

I think I see glimmers of that when play-testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It is a different way of gaming, not only exploring a world, but also exploring a system. It's never the DM alone, it's the resonance created between all those playing. Kind of scary, too, to play it like no one else does. Hard to communicate or compare. It's its own thing. Just like those original games.

Well, what to do with this, though? Should we just ignore the spells when playing 1e D&D and allow players to find their own way? Maybe. But is it even possible? People have expectations, especially when it's about having options. And creating is so much more difficult than just copying. So that might not be a point I want to be making here.

But a thing I see missing more often than not in rule books is stuff that encourages DMs to go their own way, to develop themselves. It's not that I don't see that happening anyway. I do. We all do, I guess. But it's not encouraged. We are made to believe that "house rulings" are tolerated, but not how the developers intended it to be played.

Looking at those first games, or listening to the guys who played back then, I get a totally different vibe. You know, that culture of slavishly copying and ritualizing of what we got sold is successful for more than one reason and I don't want to dwarf or ridicule that. But is that really what D&D was? Or can be? Whatever it is, it starts with encouraging others to create their own and that's so much easier when they get a chance to understand why the things they use work how they work. Right?
I wonder what kind of spell he cast to get there ... [source]
I'll close with some words by Gygax and from the introduction to that first rpg:
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time. We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old "laws" altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable." (D&D: Men & Magic, p. 4)

And one last thing: who is reading this and wrote his own D&D spells. Really curious here ...

* I really like that guy, though. Best wizard EVAR!

** Magic is the ultimate tool. A level 20 fighter, grown organically in a campaign, will be just as nasty as a level 20 wizard. Who wins in such a match will largely depend on the situation, the game, the dice ... really every factor other than the wizards spell roster. On paper, maybe. But I think that's the main problem. In the game all bets are of, people just believe the written word too much ...

*** This is a pic from the Hackmaster Supplement "The Spellslinger's Guide to Wurld Domination" (on p. 88). Don't know who the artist is, but it cracks me up every time ...

Saturday, March 25, 2017

12 Things I Wish I Would Had Known Before Running My First Game

Well, +Ripper X started it on his blog over here. It's a fun idea for a post (thanks, Ripper!), so I thought I'd take the opportunity to post a little something myself like that for you guys to ponder on this weekend: what's the things you'd like to have known for your first game(s)? Comment them, post them, share the love wisdom! Here's my (very personal) take on the question:
  • People are strange. Or in other words: no campaign construct, regardless how elaborate, will survive enemy player contact.
  • Let the players talk and take them serious. DM makes the pitch, players run with it. Or: you give the motor, they give the fuel and you'll never run out of fuel for the game if you let them talk. It also gives you room to plan ahead!
  • About those pitches: always let your agenda have agendas. Think moves ahead in your game, like you are supposed to in chess.
  • Never pitch the problem itself, let it manifest. Letting the players realize the problem is half the way of getting them to solve it. Give it all room and time to unfold.
  • One of the first things that will happen, is that you describe a little strange fact on the side and the players will jump on it as if it's the first crucial clue in the mystery that is life itself (42 ... just saying). It'll happen. Don't be annoyed, run with it, push it even, quote it later if you can.
  • As a matter of fact (and it deserves a point on its own), little strange things make a narrative tick, be it some strange NPC behavior, a weird character idea a player has, some unexplained magical effect or just a random, puzzling thing the players find on the dungeon floor or hear or smell or feel ... have some of that ready if you can (and chose them according to the atmosphere you want at the table).
  • Keep the players on their toes. It might be one of the most difficult things to do in the beginning, but never (ever!) let them have no problem to solve. Throw something strange at them if things get idle ... see above. A good way to keep the ball rolling is adding little problems to problems that are already in play.
  • About being idle. Be ready to get your game derailed as soon as players don't feel engaged anymore. There is no evil intent behind it, the freedom to do anything you want is just scary like that.
  • Randomize everything. You'll never be more concrete in your ideas than you are after letting go of the illusion of control. DM tools are there to help you and free you.
  • We have a tendency towards harmony (I have, anyway) and I think it can be kind of hard to give disharmony room in the game. Not on a social level, but in the narrative. What I'm trying to say is, don't jump on the obvious and satisfying solution that emerges in a session but think about the implications first and let the players be the force to establish (short term) harmony with their decisions.
  • Don't care about your non-player characters, make the players care instead.
  • And finally: NEVER let discussions (about rules or politics or any other topic not relevant to playing the game in the moment they occur) bring the game to a halt. Resist the urge to join the fray and put a stop to it as firm as you can and rule what needs to be ruled to solve the thing on the spot. Then move on. You should always give those issues room to get discussed after the game or during pizza break or whatever, though (unless it's a poisonous topic, then kill it right where it sprouts).

I aimed for 12. Maybe I'd come up with more if I'd think harder about it. And it seems that the things I missed are mostly about the skills we need to be aware of to "work the crowd". Anyway, friends and neighbors, please feel free to comment and share your thoughts about it. And if you have a blog (or any other means to contribute!), please do so ... make it a community thing :)

Now +matt jackson followed up with a nice piece on his blog (bandwagon!).

And +Eric Diaz is with us now with this great collection of advice on his blog (rollin', rollin', rollin' ...)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

More thoughts on writing Modules (Design Post) - Part 1

I have been busy. Very busy. So busy, indeed, that my brain denied any kind of after-work activity for the last couple of weeks. Thus the neglecting of the blog. Sorry about that. It'll pass, as it always does ... When I have the time and the capacity right now, I push forward with Monkey Business instead of being productive here. So there's that, too. But it overlaps with things I want to write about here, so please consider my thoughts about the process of writing a module. It turned out a bit rambling ...


Let's start with that. Who do you write for? Yourself? People aiming to DM it? Previewers? Do you write it for use at the table or for those reading stuff like that for leisure (I mean, let's be real, the majority of us read rpg material for leisure, not to actually use it!). There are debates about this. Not enough public debates, but they are there ... 

A closer look, then: writing it for yourself seems counterintuitive at first, but so seems writing a book and that definitely happens a lot. It begs the question: what kind of medium of expression are adventure modules. For example, a guy got molested in high school and writes an adventure as part of his therapeutic process to digest the horrible experience. Sounds fair enough to me. I'd read it and I might consider playing something like that. If I think it's any good.

And that's another thing. Regardless of the intention behind the written thing, it'll always be read as potential gaming material. But context does matter (see example above), it's just barely talked about because, let's face it, most publications that cost you a pretty penny are written to serve a market. And if you write it with the market in mind you'll most certainly have other priorities than the potential DM that bought it.

A hug is a hug, right? [source]
So although you always somehow talk to the DM reading it to use it, you'll most likely focus on the dressing. Nice pictures, professional layout, good "social media marketing" ... the works. Of course we do have phenomena like famous authors or quality publishers, but you'll have more than enough material just going through the motions, coming, so to say, from the other side of the spectrum, achieving much of the same. Go to drivethru and wade through the heaps of material on there for sale.

That's not saying there isn't any good material, that's saying there is not much culture about it other than that of selling stuff. And if you are sitting there right now, huffing and puffing about that "culture" comment, I'd like to ask you why you can find all kinds of books in book stores but no rpg books among them (and I worked in a book store for years, so I'd know).

Really, people don't realize the mass of different and weird books that will find their way into shelves of book stores. Or local libraries, for that matter. At least in Germany that's to a huge degree because books are considered a part of our culture and need to be protected so that all kinds of niche titles get a good chance and an audience.

There is a reason for rpg books not being part of this, and it's not about "not being mainstream enough". It's about rpgs being a product most and for all. Articles of consumption, not a new kind of medium on par with books or movies.

Consider this: imagine a rpg module written by a famous fantasy or science fiction author.

Why not use that? [source]
I know many of them actually play, but again, to get real authors (or artists in general) to put work into something like this is really, really rare (Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the only label I'm aware of that actually put some real effort into the idea ...). Here's another thought, say an author you like actually did write a module or offer his writing for it, would you actually care much about the form?

As it is, I'd say lots of stuff gets written for those previewing modules in public or those taking a quick look at it, deciding if it's worth their time on a whim. There's nothing strange about that and there is the collector aspect of the hobbyist. RPG books can be art in that regard and worth collecting.

But it's more like having an expensive picture or vase or whatever and not so much about the content, isn't it? I mean, I love expensive books and totally get the appeal of something like the Quran written on silk sheets or the Lord of the Rings trilogy signed and illustrated by the author, in hard cover, with his hand written notes and all bells and whistles you'd imagine ... I totally get it. But when reading them, I have a totally different set of expectations on books.

That's just it, when we talk about content and tone, we enter a totally different realm of expectations. And in a way, we have two different phases here. The first is triggering the imagination of a potential reader to an extent that allows him to carry that into his game as Phase 2 and unfold it in his own narrative with his group.

It's not even that much about usability, it's about tone. I think a good tone for this kind of thing is a conversational one. A dialogue, if you will, between writer and reader. It's nothing new, of course, but the reason for this being nothing new, is, that it works. Why not give the reader of a module the reading experience? And I'm not talking technical-manual-reading, but opening realms of imagination instead. I always hated reading old TSR modules for exactly that reason: they denied me the reading experience. I, as a DM, wanted to experience the adventure before DMing it.

So much about tone

Yeah, great idea, let's start another series :P But as I wrote in the beginning, I'm pretty stressed out right now and this is all I got in me for today. I have at least on more post about how modules aren't books and how rpg systems figure into that and one about the idea of play-testing while writing (which all might end up being in one post, I think).

This is not complete or by any means the only way to write a module, but I hope it gave you some ideas about what decisions I had to make when writing Monkey Business (which will be out soon-ish ... I'm working on it!). I know it's a bit controversial to claim RPGs as media in there own right, especially if seen from a marketing perspective and I hope I could give you guys some ideas why I think it's at least a topic worth considering.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome.

And enjoy your weekend, guys ... [source]

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 6: Diversity

Sorry for the silence, folks, I've been brutally busy only to catch a cold, start a new job after that and now I'm even more busy than I was before *sigh* Anyway, on with it. Thought I'd start with something short and easy, while I'm at it: a new part in my longest running series, the Rules Cyclopedia Oddities! Herein I collect observations about the little details in the great D&D Rules Cyclopedia and ponder on them a bit. Today I poke the bear and talk about the diversity presented in that book that saw the light of day some time in 1991, frickin' quarter of a century ago (yeah, I feel old now. too). This is NOT a political post, just observations ...

Diversity, what is it good for?

Diversity has been an issue among publishers for round about 2 years now and although I really don't think in those kinds of terms (I try to see people for their individual merits and flaws, not necessarily for the flags they carry) the notion that it is something that needs to happen in role playing games, today more than ever, managed to sneak into my (everyone's?) subconscious and I tend to notice attempts towards or against it more often than before.

It's neither a good nor a bad thing, it's just an additional thing. I mean, I think it's okay to build a certain awareness for how different we all can be by showing those differences and making the labels a thing (empowering stereotypes that way, but anyway), it's just that I learned to value human beings in general and go from there ... Just different angles of the same thing, I suppose.

Role playing games have always been about playing what you want (within agreed rules) with whoever wants to play, so as far as I'm concerned, diversity was always a given ... the kind of diversity where you try to find a way to play a 3 meter half-bear/half-human (Beartaur?) with laser-eyes, razor-sharp wings, a light-saber, a rail-gun and a never-ending cigar (which is a thing, I'm sure).

Never thought I'd get a second chance to post
this picture. Heh :) [source]
But munchkin fantasies aside, you can play what you want, that's the big pull of role playing games: it only has the restrictions the group of people that plays can agree upon. The sky is the limit and all that.

With publications, especially with rule books, it's a bit more difficult. Ideally a book should reach each and every possible reader, regardless of age, cultural background, gender, education or whatever. The funny thing about the human brain is, we as readers already meet halfway with every written text, as we learn to associate with the contents we read when we learn reading to begin with. Thus I had no problem reading and experiencing books with children or women or even sociopaths or elves or robots or what-have-you as main protagonists. That's just how we are wired. Immersion and all that jazz.

What a rule book has to do, on the other hand, was a matter of debate for some time now. It's something I followed loosely, but when I took a look into the Rules Cyclopedia just the other day, I started noticing a couple of (I think) interesting, well, oddities about it.

Diversity in the D&D RC

Going by the English version, the whole thing is in a very conversational tone and the author (Aaron Allston) speaks directly to the reader*. I think that's the ideal approach, actually. No matter what examples you bring, it's always to illustrate something to the reader, not assuming it is the reader.

Additionally, Allston always uses "he or she", not just one version over the other (like 3e did, for instance) and the word "male" and "female" are mentioned about the same time as often ("female" is used one more time, I think in the Monster section) ... So as far as gender is concerned, this is an even match.

As far as the rest is concerned, it gets a bit tricky to argue with just the text, so let's check the illustrations next. Actually, that's the thing I noticed that made me write this post right now: the illustrations are blissfully all over the place. Most (all?) of the book is illustrated by Terry Dykstra** and we have a broad range of ethnicities and cultures, with many female characters as a bonus.

Not the Gandalf we know ... [ill. by T Dykstra, D&D RC p. 20]
You might run to your book now and check if that's actually true (and you should, questioning is good), only to find that I am somewhat right, but most illustrations in the book still depict mostly white males. I would then agree with that observation but point out that (A) illustrations are sparse in the RC to begin with and (B) they made a conscious decision to show all kinds of diversity where it counts: the character illustrations.

This is crucial. With the 9 classes the book sports, we get 4 females (not the wizard among them, btw, but Thief, Cleric, Elf and Mystic), two black guys and one Asian (also the Mystic, for obvious reasons?). From all the illustrations in the book, those are the ones getting the most traffic on the table. Deeper into it (mostly stuff DMs look at the first couple of times and keep to the text after that) you'll find it a little bit more uniform, but still pretty varied. I think it's very well worth mentioning that the overall expression must be here that there is something for everyone, really. AND we are talking 1991 here.

All of that sums up to an atmosphere of cultural diversity and adventure, with some hints towards fantasy and danger. No gore and no hints of sexuality or sexual orientation, but that's totally fine.

Well, they all look like criminals adventurers to me.
[ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 67]
One final observations: it's well known that the RC has no "gods", but "immortals" instead. I think most of that is to make the ascension from mortal to god in the game a little bit more palpable while offering a broad spectrum of possibilities for all kinds of worlds a DM could come up with. This general approach brings general rules that apply to all gods/immortals. One of them (and that's really just a "nice to know", because it had been part of many online discussions) is that an immortal is completely free to choose his appearance, gender, race, age ... everything you can come up with, really. Just like that. 1991. See page 221. No need to make a thing out of it.

Oh, and one fun fact: the Japanese translation of the RC chose (famously so) a very different route for it's presentation and made the book look like a manga comic. Now, is that more diversity (as in more diversity as far as how many languages the game exists in) or less diversity (as in choosing to cater just to the Japanese audience with a new layout and presentation). Couldn't say what else they changed (but would be interested to hear more about that).


The Rules Cyclopedia is, first and foremost, a collection of rules (and still the only complete set of D&D rules in one book, at that). It's the kind of book that should appeal to everyone interested in the subject it presents. I think it did that very well in 1991 and I was surprised to find out that it still holds true today. There is no politics in it or any kind of pretentious attitude. As a matter of fact, Allston keeps himself (and everything else, really) out of the book and instead makes it solely about D&D and what the game can do for you, the reader. I think that's a wise choice.

The guy in the full plate is Asian ... [ill. by T. Dykstra, D&D RC p. 126]
The RC really is the book we should find alongside all the other classic games like chess or monopoly, warts and all (also in a pretty box with pretty dice and pretty character sheets ... a boy can dream).

One final caveat: I'm not a scientist and I didn't analyze the whole text of the book in detail or from a sociological or linguistic perspective. If you did that and came to a different conclusion than me, I'd be happy to check out your results. But my impression is that they really tried to make this a book for everyone, everywhere.

If you liked this post, you might want to check out the other oddities in this series. Comments are, as always, very welcome. Especially if they praise the Rules Cyclopedia :)

* German translation is, of course, the same, but chose to use the more formal German version of "you" ("Sie" instead of "Du"), which, I think, was a mistake. But that's just an aside.

** Sorry for linking to that very empty Wikipedia entry, but there are close to none informations about that person online (he or she? couldn't say). If anybody reading this has more information about the artist or a better link, please share it in the comments. A mystery, no less :)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Skill Ranks for the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (from LSotN)

Wow, time is flying when you are having fun ... I'm very busy right now behind the scenes, most of it is because I want to get Monkey Business out there, some of it is because I want to get the beta document for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs updated so we can start play testing it again (see my last post for more on that). While I was doing the latter, I finally got one of the missing pieces for the game written down: a skill rank system. Since Lost Songs has some solid roots in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (and similar systems), I thought I'd share it with you guys.

Skills (then and now)

I just like the picture and
it is about skills, so ... [source]
The D&D RC has optional skill rules and they are quite easy: you basically get 4 skill points with character creation (more if your INT score is high) and for them you buy skills. To use a skill, you make an ability check. Most (all?) skills come with additional gimmicks (little bonuses here and there). Skills start with no bonus, but if you use a second skill point for a skill, you get a +1 a third gives you a +2 and so on.

The next time a character will get a skill point (really, just 1 point each time) is when reaching level 5, after that you'll get another point at level 9 and every 4 levels from then on ... So skills are rare and far between. It's really just a nice little thing that adds flavor to the game.

With our games the house rule was that a skill point always buys you a +1 to a skill (because ability checks already do what skill checks are supposed to do otherwise and that's just lame ... plus, it's easier to explain).

Lost Songs is not much different: a skill point buys you a +1 on a skill and that's a permanent bonus you add to an ability check when using the skill. Characters will have a few more skills, but not much. Advancement is also faster, but not much. Additionally you can raise a skill one point if a skill check comes up with a natural 20.

So having a skill of +10 or more would be very rare in both games. 

Well, one thing that didn't make it into Lost Songs, was that with the RC every skill is unique and has one of those little gimmicks I talked about. It's okay, but most people will forget it most of the time and in my experience it's not used often enough at the table to get it internalized by the players (or me, I'm just as guilty in that regard). So I didn't bother with it for Lost Songs. But without it, skills are just reduced to a bonus and that's boring too.

I wasn't happy with it and it bothered me some time how I could solve this problem and give skills that little extra back without all the bloat. Here's what I came up with (and I think it would work just as well for the Rules Cyclopedia or similar systems):
Skills & Contests 
Skills are not Reserves but Permanent Bonuses. It's a trade-off, really. When characters are young, they have lots of raw potential and while they lose some of that potential over time, they will specialize in some areas and get stronger through experience in others. This chapter will give a short outline how skills work. How they are learned and advanced will be in the Codex Historia
Other than doing what skills usually do (giving an advantage in something a character does), skills also come with Ranks. The higher a characters Permanent Bonus is on a skill, the higher is his Rank. There are 3 Ranks in LSotN and each of them gives a character a new advantage when using that skill. 
Rank I – Novice (+1 to +5) = Every result above 10 on d20 can't be a total failure. 
Rank II – Master (+6 to +10) = 1. Benefit (chose one of four possible benefits for the skill: Earn your Keep, Produce & Maintain, Fight with Skill or Teach Others). 
Rank III – Grand Master (+11 and more) = 2. Benefit AND your tribe benefits from your skill between adventuring seasons (heal more permanent damage, see Codex Historia for details). [that healing bit won't apply in D&D, of course]
Skills can have two out of four Benefits that anchor a characters abilities in the narrative of the game even if a player isn't using them actively. When evoked (that is, the player actively narrates how the character is applying himself), a character can get a regular income, equipment, Combat Statics or he can teach others without the need of a Test to see if it works (as a Test would usually resolve this): 
Earn your Keep: Character is able to apply his Skill in a way that would earn him his keep everywhere he is a guest. Alternatively he could earn some coins (amount and currency as appropriate). Evocation is to describe what the character does in his off-time to earn it. 
Produce & Maintain: The character is able to apply his Skill in a way that will either produce, refill or maintain a resource the group has available (armor, weapons, rations, healing herbs and so on) on a regular basis. Evocation is to describe what the character does in his off-time to achieve that. 
Fight with Skill: The character is able to apply his Skill in combat and gains a Combat Static for it (see blow). Characters can have one Master and one Grand Master Skill as Combat Static. Evocation is to describe how the character is applying the skill in Combat. [as a D&D variant I'd let the player roll 1d6 per static as a pool in a fight that can be spent on attack or damage rolls until the pool's used up ...
Teach Others: Character is able to apply his Skill in a way that will teach others the skill. As long as the teaching character is close (shouting range), pupils get a +1 to the skill (as long as the skill value is 1 point lower than that of the teacher). Successful Tests under stress determine if the pupils internalize the Skill and get to keep the +1 as a Permanent Bonus (see Codex Historia for details on learning). Evocation is to describe how the character helps others to use his Skill effectively. 
Example: Wilgar the Bald advances to +6 in his Riding Skill and decides that he wants to be able to Teach Others. The group benefits from this, because all get a +1 to their Riding Skill as long as he's around to advice them and the player remembers actually describing that his character teaches the others. Over time it could even turn into Permanent Bonuses for the others, as successful tests under stress could make that happen. But their Teaching and/or Permanent Bonus can't get as high as the teacher's Skill that way, so somebody with a Riding Skill of +5 couldn't learn anything new from Wilgar and wouldn't receive the +1 for Wilgar being around.
And that's that. Players decide what the ranks mean and have to talk about it to activate it. Ideally it takes some of the dice rolling from the table and enriches the narrative. It'll go into testing in a couple of weeks, but I'm confident it will work as it's supposed to.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome. Next up should be another post about rereading classic Vampire: the Masquerade ...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs 2017 (reflection and design post)

It's been a while, but I was itching to talk about Lost Songs of the Nibelungs again. Play-testing has been on hiatus the last few months, because I needed (still need) to figure a few things out before I want to go on with playing. We are bound to play again end of next month and I need to get into that mood again. Mid-level campaign! So you can expect a bit more noise about LSotN in the near future. For now, I'll start the new year by talking a bit about the state of the game in general and some new developments. I'm seeing a finishing line here, guys ...

The harsh realities of the Dark Ages

Lost Songs is gritty. Not because characters die fast, but because they get to feel every bit of trauma on their way to death. If they are allowed to die. Most of the time they will live to tell the stories about the scars they got. There is reason behind that design choice. At least I keep telling myself that. You see, the idea is to give the players an as detailed as possible idea how their character is feeling at any given moment in the game. Not only if he or she's hurt physically, but in any way possible.

That's the game at it's core. Insanity, stress, even disfavor of the gods and over-stimulation ... it all has a place on the character sheet. LSotN is a game about the hardship we are willing to take upon us to reach our goals and how life will wear us down and reward us for the experience at the same time. It sensitizes the players for that and leads (if you are into that kind of thing) to a deeper experience.

I imagine a LSotN character to look like this. [source]
Not everyone likes it that way, I had to learn. Although I think it can be loads of fun to play for that kind of experience, there are those who don't see it that way. And that's totally fine by me. If nothing else, it helped me see the design goals for Lost Songs so much clearer and I decided to stay that course instead of compromising in this regard. Reality back in 550 AD was harsh. That's just what it is and a game playing in this time should reflect that (imo).

Rewards for challenging the gods

That being said, one of the early mistakes I made was to give that gritty aspect of the game too much room compared to the rewards players would get for challenging the world. I thought experience and level advancements would do that for me. The thing is, if you make the trauma felt, you should allow the same for the bliss of success. The original reason for enduring hardship, right? The high of triumph.

And it's way harder to facilitate with rules than trauma. Actually, that might be a cultural thing. We learn to relate to seeing pain. One way or another. If we see our character hurt, we are bound to do something about it. Bliss is so much more personal and thus harder to relate to. We don't want to know that our characters might be horny (but we like to project that one, don't we?) or in love.

Actually, the positive emotional state of characters is something very much neglected in most role playing games. We relate to the pain and we project all the positive. It's part of the charm, really. What I have in mind, though, is a bit more like having an analogue Tamagotchi, a pet. Players taking care of their character will make it happy and that will make it perform better.

That's why it's important for players to read their characters, it's the only way to know that they need to do something or it starves to death or gets anxious or bored or cursed ... So one of the (at the moment still a bit vague) concepts is to allow "grooming" actions like praying or having a crush on someone or a good meal. Stuff like that.

Sounds strange? Maybe, but think about it as mimicking real life. We all have our reserves and get them drained by our daily routines. Doing something positive, like playing the games we play or having a laugh with friends, that's what we need to recharge those batteries. And I'm not saying here we need that for our characters. No, but I found that having mechanics like that in a game produces little side stories that make the characters and the world and the story feel more authentic.

You'll have the players ask you, if their characters recharge some of that damage by visiting that cute girl they encountered yesterday. You know, that cute one working in that library. And yes. Yes it should. Encouraging stuff like that is having the characters visiting a bath house or an exclusive tavern ... It's all just minor details in the grand scheme of the game, a couple of words in the huge epic that makes the campaign. But it has an impact.

So it's something I will take a closer look at in the near future. I have some soft rules at the moment and they need a bit exploration, but the gist of it is that I will try and encourage this kind of behavior. One dimension of this is the idea of seasonal game I talked about over a year ago (well, I was aware of some of the concepts and problem very early on, never lost sight of them, too). The idea is that of the tribe as the home and family of the characters. It's what they perceive as home.

Heroes coming home ... [source]
I started planning on rules for healing some permanent damage between adventure seasons long ago. The idea was that by marrying, getting celebrated and what-not, character will regain not all, but some of the hard damage they gathered over time.

Is it enough? I don't think so. We've played for seven months and didn't get to a point where the characters had been ready to go back home (or would have been able to go there, for that matter). And we've already established that it needs a more instant gratification. So one of the most important (and successful) additions to the rules had been that with every natural 20 a player roll, he gets one point better in what he was doing that justified the roll. Permanently. Just like that. The character learned something and the player gets reason to celebrate it.

There will be more, I think. But that'll be another post.

Crashing hard and crashing too hard ...

Here's another dimension to the same thing: finding the middle ground. It was kind of hard to communicate that characters don't really get damaged but rather get there reserves drained. It's merely an instrument for players to see what is happening.

I had players who stated their character is feeling this or that or doing this or that because they thought it had been fun to invent the character having that emotion right now. It was in direct conflict with that system of Lost Songs that actually tells you how your character feels.

In other words, there had been no awareness at all what that feature really means for the players. A direct handle what is happening, a play-book, if you will ("Oh yeah, Harkon is still a little down because that bard had made fun of him ..."), but most of all a detailed measure for how far you can push it before get hurt big time.

That way you don't have the 4-hour-day syndrome you get in many (old) D&D games. Although the characters have basically the same reach as D&D characters would, the fact that it is all a bit more fractured really means that they can do more with what they have and heal it faster, too (well, to some degree, as described above).

At least that's the theory. Turns out it is another aspect of the game I need to work a bit on. One of the main criticisms from the players had been related to consequences of that detailed system. Characters would literally freeze to death or get sick and what was perceived as little things would doom or at least seriously harm characters.

That one time the characters had been forced to ride through a storm, with one character being seriously wounded. Bound on the horse, exhausted, wounded, wet and cold he had some massive disadvantages for his saving throw and he didn't make it. The others only noticed when they had reached save shelter from the storm. I liked the dramatic impact of it all and the player had been content with it, but the rest of the group thought it had been a bit hard that he died "because it rained".

I think that's unfair, to a degree. But again, I think it's more a matter of communication than anything else. The only thing I will change at the moment to address this issue somewhat, is by avoiding the downward spiral that comes from having to roll with a disadvantage to fail and get an even bigger disadvantage, which will kill a character very fast. Finding a middle ground is the thing.

Not the middle ground ... [source]
One rule I already proposed for that is to not force a roll if the outcome couldn't be anything else but lethal. So if your disadvantage is as big as your advantage, you don't get a save but fail directly (the idea here is that your ability score gets reduced for the amount you failed your save, so it's a good thing not to roll and avoid that damage). One more rule here would be for characters to regain buffer/reserve by the amount they made a save ... but we need to test if that isn't getting too fiddly.

In that spirit: Skill Levels and Ranks

Skill levels are just permanent advantages to an ability score when a character is doing a special thing. If you have a +1 to a skill, no one is taking it away from you. You can raise a level either in the game by rolling a natural 20 (as described above), by training it in your off time, by (a bit faster) taking a teacher and the time for lessons or by taking one of several level advancements.

The original rule had been that this bonus just meant that: a bonus to the roll. But I came to think that with certain levels of skill, certain levels of failure might be an option, too. What I'm saying, is, that if you are skilled in something, you still might be able to make it work partially. Just like with everything else in Lost Songs, results shouldn't be seen as failed or not. Nuance is a design goal.

So after giving this some consideration, I came to the conclusion that a characters skill level is also the buffer he has in which a fail is not a total fail, but a partial success (I always liked systems allowing something like that). This should work very well with open rolls where characters can invest Endurance (depleting a reserve) to reach the difficulty of a roll, as they get to decide if they push themselves further or take a "weak" success instead.

Streamlining like there's no tomorrow

More rules concluding from the above, while we are at it: every time a reserve gets depleted, it forces a saving throw with the amount below the reserve as difficulty. The result determines what happens next. So if that puts a character into the buffer, he just gets a bit weaker. If he's hurt, he gets a bigger disadvantage and needs to save again as soon as he's hurt again, this time with dire consequences (say you got 5 hp left and you lose 8 hp from an attack, means you have a -3 on the saving throw).

Also, if you are already hurt in one area and reach another hurt reserve, you save to keep conscious. One of my goals is having a Monkey Island moment, where a character wins a fight by insulting the enemy until he loses all courage (attacking Nerve or Wits instead of Grit or Muscle). It's something games should make possible, in my opinion.

Classic :) [source]
There are more little rule changes like that, but those are the main ones, I think. More when I get there.

Still no resolution ...

At its heart it's still a D&D engine and I think the final iteration of the rules themselves will be rather short in the end. And compatible. The DM tools might be a different story and there are still some concepts that need to get written (magic the biggest of them all ... damn it). But I'm confident that I will get this done this year, maybe even written.

So what's next? I still work on that Random Culture Generator and I need to start structuring the game with adventuring seasons in mind, so there's that. Magic needs to see some progress (I have an idea, but it's still too vague) and I need to do some revising of the Random Territory Generator (gets expanded by some of the stuff I did for Monkey Business) and the Narrative Generator (needs to be a bit more succinct and some minor changes, I think). And new character sheets ... Almost forgot about those.

So Lost Songs is anything but dead. This is the third year of development and I feel that's about the time a game like that should take at least to get done. I also aim to start a little online campaign in the next few months and I hope you guys won't lose interest on the way there :)