2 Aug

Blibdoolpoolp: Tide of (Supple)mental Insanity, Part 2

As I mentioned yesterday, “here there be spoilers.” Cheaters will be consumed by Blibdoolpoolp. And, once again, I’ll point out that none of this material is official/canon. It’s just some extra pieces that you can add to Pearl of the Sea Mother, should you find you need it.

Briggs PointToday, I’m providing a little more about the unfortunate village of Briggs Point. The party should realize something is amiss as soon as they arrive. After that, they ideally hurry on their way to the lighthouse and the threats below. But, if they choose to linger in the village, a little more information about it could prove useful at the start of the adventure, and perhaps at the conclusion, even if it’s just to answer questions about the history of the village. Continue reading

1 Aug

Blibdoolpoolp: Tide of (Supple)mental Insanity, Part 1

On the heels of the publication of my adventure Pearl of the Sea Mother, I wanted to share some extra material with those considering running it for their group. Obviously, there are SPOILERS here, so if you’re going to be playing in the adventure, you should read no further. If you do, you deserve every Natural 1 you roll in the final battle and Blibdoolpoolp should swallow you whole.

Also, I feel compelled to add that this additional material is by no means official; it is not endorsed by Wizards of the Coast. It’s essentially fan material added by the guy who also happens to be the author. Some of it was cut in the early edits (by me or by WotC) for space, focus, or clarity. And some of it was self-edited before I ever put pen to paper (finger to key, in my case) because an adventure in Dungeon needs to be fairly self-sufficient, whereas I often like cooking up ideas that are more long-term.

Today, a closer look at what Makanel might be about and an alternate take on his deity. Continue reading

9 Jul

Minor Divination: Music that Inspires Madness

Tonight.  You.
“Blibdoolpoolp wanted me to deliver a message.”

I frequently create a musical playlist keyed to a particular project. It isn’t so much a soundtrack meant to accompany the work as it is “mood music.” My demeanor, day to day, is prone to . . . let’s call it, fluctuation. Although that’s great when you want to change gears between two very different projects, it’s difficult when trying to achieve a consistent tone in a piece on the first go ‘round. Obviously, good editing helps to correct this, but I like to start work each day “from the same place” as much as possible.

I try to pay close attention to this when writing D&D adventures. The encounters, in particular, can draw me into a close view that creates tunnel vision, obscuring what came before and what comes after. Again, rereading and editing smoothes any rough patches that arise, but I’d rather stay on target as I go. Enter the playlist.

I listen to music a lot as I write. Some people consider that sort of thing a distraction, but I find it sharpens my focus. After I settle on a piece or two that lines up with the idea I have in mind, I build a playlist and toss more material in as needed. I almost never begin with a song and write from it, quite the opposite, but I do draw from artists and material that are already in my head. The bones of Pearl of the Sea Mother were about 2 sentences of guidelines/suggestions from Wotc. The actual plot developed while kayaking through mangroves in Florida and staring at the ocean floor. The music didn’t fall into place until I sat down to write about a week later.

Mentally, I usually set the scene with opening and closing credits. Obviously, there are no credits actually scrolling by, only images intended to set the scene (opening credits) and the final mood I want to evoke when the adventure/article concludes (ending credits, obviously). The line that forms between these anchor points supports the material I write there as well as the additional tracks intended to hold my mood in place or set scenes that diverge from the anchor points.

“Get outta your mind!!!”
[Face of the Moon, Dungeon #201, art by Eric Belisle]

Sometimes tracks seem completely inappropriate in the context of the finished work. I once joked that I’d be curious to know who would be more shocked that a Lil Jon track was part of one of my D&DI adventure playlists: Lil Jon or the gamers playing through the adventure! Some of these non sequitur tracks are audio shorthand for me. Others are energizing or, at times, deliberately depressing (which is also energizing to me when it comes to certain material). And I’m always listening to Neko Case, so it’s a safe bet that her music ends up in there somewhere.

With Pearl of the Sea Mother getting ready to drop (as they say in the biz), here’s an audio tease of what was running through my head as I worked. With all this in mind, the playlist might not be the ideal soundtrack for the actual play sessions of the adventure, but there’s probably some good material there for you. There are no “spoilers” in the playlist. The opening and closing credits I mentioned earlier are “Seasick” and “Tightly,” respectively. The playlist actually followed the arc of the adventure rather closely, at least in terms of the mental structure I was assembling it around in my head.

The playlist, via Spotify:

And via Amazon:

31 May

Minor Divination: Indecent Disclosure, Part 2

Wine pour
"Not sure what I think of it yet. Just keep pouring more glasses."

Upon reading the first iteration of the “Friends & Family” playtest set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons I was shocked. It reminded me of AD&D but also of Basic D&D, my old, familiar boxed set. At least, it did while I was reading it. When I was done reading it, there were still hints of 3E (and, yes, that’s means 3.5) and a subtle 4E finish. Having previously sampled those vintages as well, the interplay of flavors was unmistakable. And, sticking my nose back into it, I couldn’t help but feel drawn back to a time when I played 2E.

But it didn’t feel like flesh golem of parts stolen from a variety of graveyards. It felt whole. Granted it wasn’t complete, but it wasn’t presented that way. Pieces were clearly missing but the playtest was clearly concerned with focusing on the core of the rules, the fundamentals that most people claim are immutable components of D&D: the six attributes, hit points, the stock races and classes, and so on. Beyond that, it borrowed upon the best elements of later editions but it wasn’t outright theft. The rules didn’t take healing surges wholesale and drop them in but approached them as a good idea that needed to be reworked and integrated into a new set of rules. And reworking them might make them unrecognizable to a devout 4E player as much as their very presence might shock an “old-school” gamer.

D&D Expert Rulebook
"You're my boy, Blue!"

I don’t think the goal of the game is to give everyone what they want. That’s clearly not possible, not because of the limits of game designers but because of the limits of human nature. Instead, I think the goal is to give everyone a new game that they can all play.

The biggest treasure to me was the de-crunching of the rules. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that solid rules are crucial to a well-designed game. But as a DM I like generalizations that I can adjust based on the circumstances. My style of play doesn’t really require a page of rules for each corner case that can arise at the table. Just because I can commit a set of rules to memory doesn’t mean that I want to. Because while a player is arguing that he can climb a wall underwater using his climbing modifiers instead of his swimming modifiers, we could have been advancing the story after a quick die roll. To me, the “white space” around the rules is what lets them breathe.

The most contentious part of the early iteration of the rules at my table was the lack of a battlemat. I’ll point out that this was a conscious choice, not because the rules didn’t allow for it. In fact, I could easily see how the rules could allow for it. But I wanted to jump back to the days before I had a mat in front of me, not because I don’t like them but because I wanted to see if I enjoyed it as much as I remembered. 4E became so tactical that it verged on tedious at times. (Without going off in that direction I’ll just say that it had a habit of miring players in minute decisions causing them to overlook any actual adventure taking place.)

The two most vocal responses at the table were almost diametrically opposed. One player felt immediately more immersed in the game and felt his imagination was much more engaged than it had been in a long time. Another felt severed from the action and activity of combat and any situational awareness his character might have. I could see both sides and, as a DM, experienced both sides. I gained the time to discuss spaces and plot more descriptively as players engaged with their environments more (What do I see when I look here? What about there?). And I lost time when I frequently had to reiterate positions in combat.

AD&D PHB Weapon Versus Armor Table
D&D Edition Color Blindness Chart: does this image appear rose-colored?

When things came to a head with an argument over two PCs’ positions I did feel like the game had come full-circle. It had been a long time since I’d seen that. And it’s precisely things like that that keep the rosy hue off the lenses of my glasses. I don’t kid myself that the good old days were all good. I just feel its important to test the old notions from time to time to determine if they’re still a good or bad fit moving forward. I think that’s what the playtesting is all about: dispensing with assumptions and making sure that when you put all the parts together they work and represent the best possible effort.

I’ve already talked Vancian magic, several times in fact, and I remain a fan. But there’s still more to come regarding the early playtest before I dip into the public playtest. And I might start using the battlemat again… at least some of the time.

30 May

Minor Divination: Indecent Disclosure, Part 1

C130 Flame-retardant
As Henry David Thoreau famously said on the internet: "If you can't see the forest for the trees just go ahead and burn all that shit down."

Across the Internets, the truth is coming out. People are confessing that they were part of the deviously concealed “Friends & Family” playtest of the new iteration of D&D. By “deviously concealed,” I mean that most people seemed to abide by their Non-disclosure Agreements. And by “new iteration of D&D” I mean the game that is either the kindling to stoke the flames of the Edition Wars higher or the sort-of-orange chemical dumped out of the back of planes intended to shut people up fight forest fires.

For purposes of these early playtests, I was a Friend and/or Family. I’m not sure which, technically speaking, but I think freelancer roughly equates to relation by marriage rather than by blood. Or maybe it’s “friends with benefits.” Who knows?

Going into this whole thing, I set my expectations very low. I didn’t do so because I had no faith in the designers. That’s not the case. I did so because I knew what I was going to hold in my hands would not be a completed effort. I expected, and welcomed, a work in progress. To expect a fully completed and polished game from a playtest, particularly an early playtest, is the mark of an idiot. I say so without apology.

Famous Cabins in History, Volume 1
"That’s right, guy from Alaska with an internet connection: WotC is out to get you and moving to where you can see Russia from your house isn’t going to save you!"

My genuine expectations begin when I get hold of the finished product. A playtest is my means to influence the shape and direction of that finished product, even if it is only in the slightest of ways. Furthermore, I understand that if my personal suggestions go unheeded it could be for a variety of reasons none of which are “Ross wants this, let’s specifically leave it out just to slight him, one individual consumer.” To read some people’s reactions to the mere existence of a new edition you’d think Wizards of the Coast sent a letter, personally addressed to them, expressing their gleeful intention to specifically ruin the campaign taking place just off North Slope Haul Road in Deadhorse, AK (or whatever actual place they game at).

I have a pretty big problem with people who think their game is “OMG!!!Ruined!!!” when a new edition arrives. I really just can’t relate to that idea. Personally, I’ve seen a lot of editions come and go at my gaming table. And not just with D&D. Shadowrun is four or five editions deep now, isn’t it? Games Workshop seems to actively obfuscate which editions their supplements belong to but they sure don’t mind putting out more of them. But never once has a representative from a gaming company knocked on my door and demanded I surrender my previous edition. (And that isn’t just because of Pennsylvania’s “Castle Doctrine.”)

"I need you to give me your previous edition books. Also, can I use your bathroom because you really do live in the middle of nowhere and it's a long drive back to the Tower of Primus."

It’s true. When I opened my Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook a nonaton didn’t lead a pentadrone interdiction force to storm my library, seize my previous editions, and document my transgression with the regional septon. There wasn’t a modron in sight. In fact, nobody prevented me from playing any of my earlier editions. Well, technically, my junior high principal prevented me from playing but that had to do with that whole ridiculous “D&D is evil” hysteria several decades ago, an entirely different sort of idiocy. But, that aside, no ban on my books.

To me, a new edition is a new game. It often bears similarities to what has come before and might even carry the torch of an existing setting, but I neither want the exact same mechanics I had before or something entirely unrecognizable. And even if I get those things I’ll still decide if this new game is a game I want to play or not. Despite its radical departure at points from its predecessors, I can take a great deal of enjoyment from a Fourth Edition D&D game. That said, I have on more than one occasion, opened my D&D Basic set from the early 80’s and had a blast with it so many years after the fact.

What does all this have to do with the new edition of D&D? Nothing. And Everything.

I want to present the perspective I’m starting from before I wade in with my opinions. I want to expose my biases in that I am not a hardline defender of a particular edition. I want to make sure you know that I care about a game more than I care about a company, even if that company occasionally sends me a check in the mail. Finally, I want to point out that people are already building boxes to restrict themselves before they’ve even tried their hand at a game that’s only fundamental and unwavering rule throughout every edition has been “never limit yourself.”

3 May

Minor Divination: Reese’s Paradox

No Bulettes Allowed.
“Sci-fi only. Please take your fantasy and get out!” Artwork by Jeff Dee

I prefer science fiction. There, I’ve said it. I can provide no account of why, at least no more than I can explain my love of lobster. It would appear I’m just wired that way. I read far more science fiction than fantasy and I certainly prefer science fiction to fantasy in the few movies I go to see. I draw the line at television, however, where neither genre ever succeeds in engaging me enough to hold my attention for more than an episode or two.

On the heels of that confession, however, I should continue by saying that when it comes to roleplaying games I settle in most comfortably with fantasy. Dungeons & Dragons has remained my touchstone game since I first started playing RPG’s. When I think of gaming in general, I revert to a fantasy mindset. It might be rooted in the fact that D&D was my introduction to RPG’s and thus I’m a creature of habit. It could just as easily be as inexplicable as my love of science fiction stories.

Peanut butter in chocolate.
“Nice going! Now we both have to make Sanity checks!”

But my passion for the two genres in equal measure in separate directions would seem to lend itself to mashups of style. It doesn’t. A player in one of my groups is perpetually trying to sell me on bizarre settings. The exchange is a typically quick and brutal: 1) he accosts me with an absurd notion such as dragons in space or cowboys casting spells, 2) I roll my eyes and declare his words an abomination. (Despite the frequency of these exchanges, we remain friends.) I explain that when I was in the tiny, poorly stocked hobby shop in my old home town I saw the Spelljammer boxed set and grew physically ill at the very notion it conveyed. I want to scream with a certainty only my imagination can provide, “Magic is terrestrial!”

Of course, I am a complete and utter hypocrite. Second to D&D, Shadowrun is one of my favorite settings. And even it won me over after a glowing recommendation from someone else. Prior to that, I saw a troll carrying a gun, rolled my eyes and, per usual, declared “abomination.” Now two of my bookshelves actually bow under the weight of Shadowrun material. (In my defense, I will point out that magic remains terrestrial.)

Still, Dragonstar and Spelljammer hold no appeal for me (to my friend’s continued disappointment). And its nothing against the quality of the material. I’ve read it. I’ve genuinely enjoyed it. I just don’t want to adventure there. And, finally, I think I can offer an explanation for this particular personal taste. It goes back to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Be warned: there are (30 year old) spoilers ahead.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
It’s a spaceship. Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

When I read S3 in preparation for running it, my mind was blown. I was young, relatively new to D&D, and had barely scratched the surface of what was possible. The idea that I could present the characters with something entirely unfamiliar to them, while simultaneously being tropes that are utterly familiar to the players, astounded me. It proved to be an incredible adventure. But the replay value suffered. Once you know you’re on a spaceship, know that you’re collecting keycards, and know you’re toting a laser gun the excitement fades a little. Still, we frequently played it, often as people decided it was time to forcibly retire a character.

More importantly, though, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks offered itself as the exception. Greyhawk wasn’t littered with spaceships (well, not too excessively anyway). I knew I could continue to explore a fantasy setting after that weird, (literally) experimental weekend in the Barrier Peaks. Eventually, the science fiction equipment would lose power and turn into curious metal junk and my character would go back to worrying about lost caverns and whatever the drow where up to hanging out with the giants of the Crystalmist Mountains…

My hypocrisy made landing my recent contribution to D&DI, Dungeon #201 on DTRPG that much more important to me. Nods to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks were important to me, but I wanted the integration of the adventure to function as the exception that the old AD&D module was. I loved the old adventure but I didn’t want to deliberately “corrupt” a fantasy setting with space ships and blasters in my ode to it. Instead, I wanted it to be a bizarre backdrop for the continued machinations of the existing fantasy villains.

If the setting speaks to the players, they can continue to pursue that version of the world. The other Dungeon and Dragon articles of the month all support that idea of integrating and exploring that strange new world. And they present it piecemeal so the DM can approach it from a variety of directions and set hooks that the PCs either bite for or pass up. I recommend giving all of them a read, because whether they fit your setting or not, they are all incredibly well done:

For me, the gradual approach is also the best approach. I like exploration in my fantasy games, but I like charting my own course. If I don’t want to begin a five year mission to explore strange new worlds, I don’t have to. I can take the fight to the illithids in the Underdark (where they belong) but, after a few too many rounds in the tavern, maybe I’ll mention how I’m pretty sure I fought their ilk on the moon. Patrons will laugh nervously and excuse themselves. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start to wonder what else is out there…

19 Apr

Minor Divination: Brace for Impact

Spoiler Alert: The world is devoid of meaning.

I await publication dates with a certain amount of trepidation. Of course I’m always excited at the prospect of being in print (or “in pixels,” as is often the case nowadays). There’s a certain stamp of approval that accompanies a notice of acceptance. There’s also a certain amount of assuaged hunger that accompanies a cashed check. But a second round of judgment is waiting in the wings: there’s an audience lurking out there.

Being judged on the merits of my work is not particularly troublesome anymore. One of the most important lessons I took away from my college’s writing program was accepting, and learning to thrive on, criticism. Criticism can home in on mistakes such as jumps in the story that the writer never questioned because he or she already knows an answer (and mistakenly assumes the reader does, too). Criticism can spot plot holes, weak characters, and, of course, good old-fashioned grammar mistakes. Criticism is also the “view from the outside” that can be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate on your own.

It’s important to put that criticism to good use but to know when too much of it is compromising what you intended to create. A good critic tries to make the author’s effort sound more like the author’s effort, not his or her own. A lot of people can overlook this simple truth. By the time some people finish their this-is-what-you-should’ve-done list I’m often asking, “Well then why didn’t you come up with the idea and write it?” But these are the exceptions.

Writing for games, particularly shared settings, invites another level of criticism though. A precise analysis of canon and the much more nebulous “authenticity” generates its own form of criticism. Jared von Hindman and Shawn Merwin wrote some great articles (here and here) on the topic with regards to Dungeons & Dragons canon. And both articles came along at just the right time as I was bound for where angels fear to tread, straight into potential canon-fire, when I had the opportunity to read them.

Shared worlds are dangerous places. People have an affection and attachment to them because they have tethered so many of their gaming memories to their gnarled, nuanced surfaces. When I have the opportunity to carve something into the surface of that world I implicitly believe that the tools I’m using came with a note reading: “Handle with care.” But I’m still going to use those tools to create something I find pleasing and hope that at least some others will as well. The conventional wisdom insists you can’t make all the people happy all the time and the internet has finally proven that wisdom beyond the shadow of a doubt.

In the interest of full disclosure, Drelnza is dead; I destroyed her when I was twelve years old. Please adjust your campaign accordingly.

I’ve never played in any of the “living” settings although I’ll admit to being fascinated by them to a degree. For me, canon is delivered in a boxed set, supplement, or PDF and its previous “shared” state of matter degrades as I put it on the table for consumption by my players. A different set of people are sharing it now. (There’s a Google+ analogy in here somewhere…) The world only remains shared if everyone else who bought the product emails me to let me know what major figure got murdered in their world. I don’t want that. My inbox doesn’t want that.

I’ve always been a fan of Shadowrun’s extremely well-developed canon and its method of exploring an ongoing history. Everything you read might be a lie. Or it might not. Who knows? Well, maybe the developers have some ideas but that doesn’t help the GM and the player’s day-to-day as they game. Instead, the GM is deciding what’s true, which is a fundamental aspect of roleplaying games in my opinion. And, beyond deciding what’s true, the GM or DM can decide what there is and isn’t a place for in his world, even if his world is Greyhawk, the Realms, Krynn, or Eberron.

When it comes to “less forgiving” histories, I try to hold close to canon whenever possible but I’ll never let it stand in the way of telling a good story. I certainly won’t use alterations in canon to blindside a player. After all, what he thinks is true is player knowledge while what his character knows to be true is character knowledge. His character won’t be shocked to learn that Pelor is dead if that’s a change I’ve made in my campaign world, but more than likely, the player will be! (Also in the interest of full disclosure: Pelor is still alive and well.)

That’s me at my own table, though. My input into the larger scheme of things, writing down ideas that receive some kind of official-looking wax seal in some far away office, takes into consideration the idea that I have to share. And I want to do right by the other people who have a vested interest in what I’m doing even as I’m trying to tell a good story. I’m never out to ruin anyone’s game, just to offer an option or two to make it different. It might look suspiciously like canon, but it’s all just possibilities.

Failing that, I can create an NPC villain for your campaign. His name can be Ross. You can apply the Scapegoat template/keyword to his stat block and have your players pursue him to the exceptionally well-defined ends of your canonical world to punish for his efforts to damage all creation…