Giving Up, Giving In

It’s been a while since my last post.

I haven’t posted because I stopped finding roleplaying games interesting. Now and then I opened the RPG folder in my feed reader but nothing really captured my attention (except a few things). Eager to play, my attempts of forming a new group unsuccessful, I ran a couple of games of AFG for two different groups (once with people i’ve never met at a convention), but the sessions never really ‘clicked’, mostly due to me not being a good M.C.. This happened in a period where I had to face the fact that I never had chance to be a PhD student, had horrible problems with girlfriends (polyamory is complicated) and, after I accepted a very good job offer, the employer changed his mind: despite having some savings and living on a small budget life, this was really the last straw and really broke my spirit and sapped my will to do pretty much anything. Weeks went by, eating frozen pizza and brooding in a wee dark room.

Then, at a vegan dinner party I spent a couple of hours cooking for, a couple of guests mentioned that they wanted to play D&D, and that they liked it; a close friend, knowing well I wanted to run some good Old School, starts telling them that D&D is garbage, all the rules are horrible and, all the times he had fun paying D&D, was “despite” of the game, then proceeded to enumerate the virtues of Forge-bourne games. I was trying to have a good time and decided not to challenge him (I really couldn’t be bothered challenging his dogmatic perspective, knowing too well that I’m not bias-free), but I noticed that one of the maybe-players (which as sitting on the couch next to me) started to answer with arguments that were uncannily close to those of the OSR orthodox perspective, despite the very, very scarce experience and exposure to tabletop fantasy gaming of said player (whom I never met before). Note that said friend also spontaneously offered to run AFG, and despite facing my way he completely ignored me for all the lengthy discussion: the whole really, really soured me and, when my friend decided it was time to pull me in the discussion, I just walked off. And given up RPGs.

So I started playing Magic again. Elder Dragon Highlander is terribly funny and a very, very different game from the macho, ultra-competitive standard, legacy and vintage scenes, where your opponent shouts angrily at you when you make tactical errors. I also manage to play a lot of Innovation, Le Havre, Sit Gloria Romae, Automobilism, Once Upon a Time, 7 Wonders, Dominion and the new Civilization boardgame (they’re all strongly recommended, by the way). Turns out that, surprisingly, the Germans have enough oomph to win a conquer game fighting on two fronts, and it tastes even better when the other players spend half of the game reminding you that we all know what happened the last two times Germany tried that. Deutschland Über Alles, my dear readers. I thought I was going to give up on roleplaying games, but a group of friends in Milan wanted to play so, on my 32nd birthday (the day after James’s Raggi, I recently discovered), I ran AFG, and we all had a good time. Also not only PC died, but they all gained a level! And a friend that rolled 7,8 and 9 on 3d6 for is now kinda bragging about getting to level 2 with stats so low. We are going to play again tomorrow, after a pizza (om nom nom).

This morning I realized that, yes, I have given up on RPGs after all. This doesn’t stop me from, now and then, indulging again in the vice, like the occasional drag from a cigarette ex-smokers are either really longing for or really familiar with. There are a few things I want to do, such as finishing the writeup of AFG, working on the OSR Conservation Project (I wrote more code this morning) and submitting my One Page Dungeon entry. I’m not sure what I’ll make of this blog, but unless I’ll grow ashamed of it I’m not going to delete it.

Oh, in the meantime I was awarded a Master in Research. The scroll says I’m now a Magister Inquisitorum or something similar. 🙂

What’s in a blog name?

I might shut down this blog. The reason? Its name.

This blog, as many of you imagine, got its name out of a Gygax+Kuntz module called “Lost Cavern of Tsojcanth” and a bit of wordplay. I enjoyed running the module for my now-completed Greyhawk20 campaign so much that I started using Tsojcanth as online handle about 8-10 years ago.

Nowadays I feel like I should stop using it: not only because of the 3E re-adaptation of the module, but because legally it doesn’t belong to me, which leads to a vague feeling of anxiety (here used in a quasi-kierkegårdian sense) whenever I type it.

So, as soon as I’ll come up with a decent name and make up my mind the blog provider, I’ll stop writing here and go somewhere else.

Quick Unique Spellcasters

New developments in the OSR are looking quite interesting. I’m not referring to the whole YDIS/Kellri shenanigans (I don;t care much about YDIS, I consider his blog to be a fun satirical self-referential OSR pastiche) but to what Roger the GS is doing with game presentation and rules, taking the one-page approach a step too far toward awesome.

In particular I’m really happy about his Wizard rules: we had a productive discussion on spell levels, memorization and the like and, despite I initially had quite different ideas on the topic (having spent a while researching magic systems for fantasy games got me some possibly clever insights), I think his approach is different but superior due to being fun.

The planning aspect of the magic user, instead being of centered on daily memorization and resource control, is based on individual spell scarcity (more and diverse spells will see play) and long term research (Fireball isn’t enough when you can cast one, so you want to research more and diverse offensive spells). I believe, furthermore, that uninformed choices are less fun and interesting than informed ones: memorizing in advance, while supporting some interesting kind of gameplay, for me appears less interesting than deciding, on the spot, which spell I should cast now and save the party, at the price of not having the spell available until the next day. We’ll playtest it later on tonight. 🙂

This makes also easy to generate  spellbooks for magic user NPCs:

  1. Give the wizard LEVELd2 spells (more expert wizards will have researched or obtained more spells).
  2. That’s it really. No memorization faff.

There is also the more awesome method:

  1. Go to the previously covered Dying Earth Spell Generator.
  2. Take the first LEVELd2 entries and put them in the MU’s spellbook. Look ma no studying I don’t need to do homework today I swear.
  3. Improvise spell effects. Be awesome. Reward the few surviving PCs with an awesome spellbook.

This kind of casting also introduces new possibilities for minor magic item crafting. I’ll cover them in the future.

GM challenge: Best Practices

Ckutalik over at the Hill Cantons asked every GM’s three best practices. I wrote an almost answer years ago because, you know, I can see the future.  But I want to give better answers this time around. Or try at least.

  1. Strip mine your surroundings for ideas and turn them into archetypical subverted caricatures: I really really like creating NPCs out of people by making them a subverted caricature of the original to make them into a different entity. The same can be done with anything else: places, events, items. Caricatures magnify what’s important about the entity but the subversion gives it deeper, interesting shades. For example: I need a merchant city, so I pick Dunbarton, put it in the middle of Genoa and make it ruled by a never-seen immortal queen and her secret police. When I needed a shady broker I took my dad (a salesman) and gave him a gang of thugs. My demihuman races have Italian regional accents, but have magnified idiosincrasies (my halflings are more halflingish than yours, and speak Sicilian). Filthy Phil (a really stinky ragman and garbage-sifter in my current setting) is inspired to… well, I like dumpster diving (the best stuff you can get is free). The beautiful thing is that you can do this on the fly in games: players usually are fascinated by deep NPCs and they think deep NPCs must be important hence worth their time: oftentimes they just like them, especially if you play gonzoish adventures. Which gives me enough time to actually link them with the rest of the setting in (you guess it) subverted caricatures of existing relationships.
  2. Evolutionary game elements rock: the reasoning is that of the 10 campaign elements (npcs, odd objects, etc) you introduced in the last settings, players will pursue maybe 2. They will pursue the most interesting, because they don’t care about the others. So if you improvise you can just come up with a good/boring element ratio of 1/4, the players will kill the bad ideas by not caring about them. The morale is: stop fretting about the quality of your improv, just care about players’ feedback. If you only come up with amazing ideas, the players will pick only the most interesting so, instead of having gold and platinum in your game, you’ll have only platinum. Of course this works only if you are not a control-freak railroader. There is only trying, diversity is king, survival of the most adaptable and so on.
  3. Play with your players: the game is yours, but players live in it. I suppose you don’t hate them, so your goal is to have fun with them, not at their expenses. I’m not saying to indulge in monty haulism, but if you have a choice between doing what you want and doing something that your players find interesting (and doesn’t irk you), go for the second one: players will feel engaged (read point 2 above) and they will steer the game for a while, giving you overworked GM time for thinking about other stuff. It works best when a player goes like “I wonder if Mr X is obsessed with orchids because of an ex lover or something” and you apply point 2 and yeah, it’s because his mom loved them and he has an Oedipus complex. If your bud Dan feels supergood when his PC saves a young girl and gets closely but not necessarily sexually involved with her, you have a major player driver in your arsenal that you can use every time without fault: remember to apply subversion from point 2 above to keep things different. More in general, Intuitive Continuity works extremely well, if you don’t need to have your ego fed at every step of the game.

In general, I favour player centered design: it works with software, why not for D&D?

On Playtesting and (Unintended) Consequences

Playtesting is an odd beast: when there are no problems and the game goes well, you’re not trying hard enough.

In the past weeks I’ve not being posting much as – unbelievably – I’ve being playing games; not only some new boardgames like 7 Wonders and Colyseum, but also the last revision of the Civilization boardgame (all of which I warmly recommend you to try).

In addition some work has been done (not only by me) on putting together a faux-retroclone fantasy adventure game. I’ve been trying a variety of combat systems to find where the fun is while keeping the combat as abstract as possible and, in order to do so, a lot of gaming blood was shed. In the process some fighting systems clicked immediately, while some others were more hit and miss; an example of the latter, my favourite system treats melees as a set of fighing contests, with winners wounding losers.

A significant aspect that became apparent in the fourth playtest session was that, being the game d6-centric, matching melee +1d6 vs melee + 1d6 makes even a small difference in melee very significant: a difference of 2 means a two-fold reduction in damage inflicted and, at the same time, receiving 1.5 times as much damage. And, obviously, fighting hand-to-hand against someone with a melee way higher that yours is ground for character termination.

While this might seem a bad combat system per se (and sure it seemed to me when I noticed), we must not forget that no rule exists in a vacuum, that rules drive the game in specific directions. That we put rules in place, ultimately, to make players win in the easiest way they can come up with.

For example an expert swordman might have no problem entering a low-level dungeon with no armour, knowing well that mobility and skill will protect him enough, allowing for a fast extraction (of treasure), while a more modest fighter will don heavy armour, a large shield and surely bring plenty of mates, preparing for long and worrying fights.

For some we want some games we want melee skill to impact heavily in fights: fighting against a way better opponent should be deadly: in this case using d6s instead of d20s makes for a less luck-based, more strategic game, where fights are treated seriously by at least one side and, at the same time, makes clever use use of terrain, cover and missile weapons critical. It makes for a game where being slowed by the burden of heavy armour can be fatal as not knowing when to flee from a one-sided fight.

More playtest sessions will follow, both Sunday at the Glasgow University Occupation Charity Gaming Fundraiser and Monday at the usual Glasgow Indie Gamers meetup. If you happen to hang around western Scotland, come join us! 🙂

bits: me and the OSR, Dungeon Design Patterns

Sitting exams is a pain. The fact that I’m 9 years older than my coursemates is kinda depressing. So, I’m not really writing or playing nowadays, just revising. But two gamey thoughts surfaced.

The first one is that I wish I could write what Sham, Robert Conley and Zak S. write, and with their clarity. Despite being quite fluent in English I can’t really write clearly enough at times. And that’s frustrating, as even before thinking about clarity and stile it’s obvious that they manage to come up with way more interesting stuff than I do. And it’s ok to feel that you’re not as good as the finest of a given field, I think. Probably I should stop writing about gaming and start writing and playing games, or write software related to games, or explore ideas about games presentation. Or chill a bit. Having free time would be good.

The second thought is that Sham mentioned some dungeon design patterns in his last post, and that piqued my interest big time and I’m so looking forward to read about them. Design Patterns were introduced by A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al., which describes a set of archetypal repeatable generic solutions (patterns) used many, many times in different civilizations to solve problems related to settlements, such as communal space organization, ventilation, comfort, control, access, relationships, privacy, separation of concerns and so on. And those are problems that we meet also while writing dungeons.

On the OSR and its legacy

We all know that the OSR managed, in a really short timespan, to create a huge quantity of gaming material.

A good part of this creative endeavour is at least of “good enough” quality. Which is way better than what got published in the early 2000s for the d20 system, IMVHO.

What I’m concerned about is its great fragility, scarce organization and searchability. The wiki is a first good step addressing the second problem, but we can’t stop there. Because server faults can make documents unreachable forever, like happened to Microlite 20, where a change of maintainer wiped all the available material off the web, except for what’s in the Wayback Machine.

What would be optimal would be a (possibly replicated) OSR archive containing all the gaming material created by the OSR, properly licensed and indexed. While I’m not arguing to actually save all blog entries (too much noise and faff), at least saving all collections, like Kellri’s CDDs, the various retroclones, and similar self-contained materials.

The SRD by itself doesn’t allow to save the published material to make it publicly available and I don’t really know how it would interact with Creative Common licences like CC BY-NC-SA.

The question is: can us, the community, afford to lose the legal access to useful game material without resorting to cloning it? For example Robert Conley’s Blackmarsh is a very good freely available sandbox setting, but some of its parts are Product Identity and therefore it maybe should be “cleaned” before redistribution, if Rob hadn’t cleverly published a stand-alone Blackmarsh SRD. Other authors haven’t been so thoughtful.

We don’t want to lose the OSR legacy and its artefacts to Internet obsolescence. Think of the children… 🙂