Friday, April 24, 2015

Let's Talk About Hexcrawl Design

This post is a long time coming.

I'll start off with a confession: before I got into OSR-style games, I had never really designed a sandbox before.

Oh sure, I'd designed campaign settings before, but always from a top-down, "all the big world building stuff first!" sort of perspective. This is precisely how to burn yourself out and make a bunch of shit that no one ever cares about or even knows about except for you. Talking about these things are the sort of DM equivalent of "let me tell you about my character" that make me shy away from gaming forums and disengage from folks who blather on about "In my campaign..." Nope. Done.

(I'll admit that I thought of metaplots that I wanted to run with and "designed campaigns" around them, too. Yes, I was a shitty DM.)

But those weren't sandboxes. They were thinly-veiled railroads. Once, during a tense negotiation between an NPC and the party, one of my players, irritated with the other players for fucking role playing, said "Guys, let's just agree, otherwise we won't get to the adventure." That shit stung. Like I couldn't handle it if things went off the rails. Maybe I couldn't, I don't know. But it was enough of a kick in the crotch that I decided I could and had to do better.

I can't say that I magically stopped being that guy and started being this guy. There was a transition along the way. Experiments were attempted. Sometimes there were mistakes. Sometimes victories. My Iron Coast campaign is filled with both. Parsing out which is which has taught me a lot about how I prefer to design a hexcrawl/sandbox/whatever.

First, let me say that I am not a "prep heavy" guy. I think I've made this point several times before. When I'm building a hexcrawl, I want that hexcrawl to be one that I can build things on the fly for. Sure, having a guide for roughly what's where and a guiding aesthetic that tells me what sorts of stuff to include is pretty important, but I'm not going to write out something on the scale of Carcosa or Isle of the Unknown. No "one or two predetermined encounters" per hex for me. Nope. I envy folks who can do that, but my brain just doesn't work that way.

Second, the 6-mile hex is king. Movement math works out better that way, as does time. Outside of the 6-mile hex, I scale up to a 24-mile hex and down to a 1-mile hex. Thus is the universe described.

When I was designing the Iron Coast map, I designed at a 6-mile scale. This was fine and all, but it ended up giving me a relatively small area that could have been much larger. The result is that -- to me, at least, I've not heard any players complain about this stuff -- the map feels cramped, with things together really quite closely. There's little to no buffer between things and an area I had imagined teeming with independent Orphaned Baronies is instead stuck with just a few.

I found myself liberated a bit when I zoomed in on the Iron Coast and started drawing in 1-mile hexes inside the 6-mile hexes (for folks keeping track at home, Black Blade Publishing makes an awesome 6-to-1 hex paper for just such an application). Now I could get a little more of the variation I was hoping for, but it's on a much smaller scale. Lesson learned.

Here's the process I use now: I start at the 24-mile hex scale and rough out an area, however large. If I want to give each hex some detail (like a name, "hey, there's a town in there," who the local lord is), it's pretty much for the whole area. "It's like this over here." Now, when folks go explore that hex, I whip out the 6-mile hexmap and figure out where things are on that scale. This allows me to drill down in detail, starting with "it's like this over here," then going to "these things are here and those things are there" and if I really want, I can zoom in even further to the 1-mile scale for "this is exactly how this thing is in exactly this spot." Start broad, work to fine, zooming in as events warrant and detail requires.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Let's Talk About Schisms, Plus #JoeskyTax

Earlier today, +Jens D. posted on his blog an article titled "The Rules Are Not The Game." Since there are a bunch of posts out there on how "system doesn't matter," I kind of thought that this would be another of those posts (it isn't, by the way), but what drew me in was the fact that Jens wrote it (I read pretty much everything he writes) and that the title felt a little incendiary (I especially like Jens's posts where he slaughters sacred cows and is otherwise irreverant to BS that doesn't matter). While the post wasn't about what I thought it was about, it was even better. This one, in large part, is an examination and deconstruction of the fictions we tell ourselves and our gaming groups about why we and others should play the game that we prefer. Note that I use the word "fictions."

However, Jens still got me stoked up with the post that I thought he was writing. This post is a response to the imaginary post that he didn't actually write, but just exists in my head.

In the DIY gaming community, we talk a lot about "system doesn't matter," and it really doesn't have to. I prefer to think of this as akin to what Jens is actually saying: "have fun playing your game, but don't live with the lie that you had fun because the game itself was fun. It was the people and the atmosphere involved in the act of playing the game that was fun." This is what Jens means when he says "the rules are not the game."

Image search: "phenomenology"
This point is often trotted out as a counterpoint to the argument that "games are about what they have rules for." D&D is about killing and casting spells and dungeon delving and treasure because that's what it has rules for under this logic. Star Wars D6 is about being good at all sorts of different skills and killing things and flying other things. Vampire is about skills and supernatural powers and drinking blood and killing things. Okay, so pretty much every game is about killing things. When you get into the indie/story game crowd, things get different. 3:16 is about stress, strain, recovered memory and... killing things. But the Quiet Year is about building, taking away, exploring and making hard choices. This characterization of what games are about is clearly bunk. I do as much building and exploring and making hard choices in a game of D&D as I do in a game of TQY. It's not really the game that's about these things, right?

Sadly, I think this argument devolves into a disagreement over the deifnition of the term "the game." The "system doesn't matter" perspective takes a broader view of the game, taking as read that the game will be played with a group of people and therefore a group of people -- and the necessary social, cultural and creative dynamic of that group of people -- is a component in the game. Thus, the system itself doesn't matter nearly as much as the group that's playing said game. To the "games are about what they have rules for" folks, when we are talking about a game, we are only talking about the game in and of itself, not the context or artifacts of play. When I talk about Werewolf:tA, I'm not talking about "W:tA as played by group A or group B from when I was in high school;" instead, I'm talking about the game as presented to me, the game consumer, by the publisher.

Image search: "intentionality"
I would like to suggest that these two things are very different, though we call them both "the game." The thing referred to by the "system doesn't matter" crowd is actually the play of the game, whereas the "games are about what they have rules for" folks are more concerned with the intentionality of the rules, that the rules are an attempt to approximate particular details, making them primarily concerned with the intent of the game. Neither of these things are the game. One is the "game as experience" and the other is "game as about-ness." Neither of them is the game itself.

Just to take a short break from this topic for a monent, I think that it's really interesting that both parties are concerned with important philosophical concepts and linking them to the meaning or value of a particular game. One camp is concerned with the phenomenology of play and considers that of primary imporance while the other camp concerns itself with the relation of the intent of the game to actual play as translated by the rules -- the intentionality of the game (the degree to which the rules are about the things they model).

My personal approach is a bit different. The phenomenology of play is of key importance, yes, and always must be; however, this is not a feature of the game itself but rather the group that is playing it. Any attempt to divine purpose or intent from the existing rules, to me, seems like an ill-fated augury that redacts the phenomenological component of the game and illogically reduces the experience of playing to only what its authors wrote. This sort of rules-lawyering -- considering a game as a text rather than a process -- is alien to me. The rules of a game in and of themselves are not the game, but components of it, particularly in a role-playing game.

Rather, when I think about what it is for a game to actually be a game, I am invariably brought back to the concept of a game as a process. One cannot have a game without play; without play, "the game" does not exist and merely becomes the artifacts of play. If I hold up my copy of Trail of Cthulhu, I am not holding "the game," but rather an artifact of the game. But neither is the game the entirety of the phenomenology of play, since so much of the phenomenology of play could occur no matter what game we're playing. Rather, it seems like the game itself is a process, a moment of interaction between the players of the game and the rules of the game necessarily during play within the context of the larger role-playing environment. It's the moment when, during play, a rule is invoked or used or causes a thing to occur and the interaction with that rule that the players and the artifacts of the game have. That's what the game is and that's where the game lives.

Joesky Tax: Skills Made Easy

On Friday, Drink Spin Run conducted live coverage of the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2015 event. It was a really cool thing to be a part of. It was great to talk to friends like +James Spahn & +R.J. Thompson and to take questions about S&W from listener/viewers, but it was also really cool talking to +Bill Webb who, it turns out, is occupying a brain-space just to one side of my own. After talking with him, I revamped the simple skill system I mentioned on that podcast (for those of you waiting on the audio podcast, ignore that part!) into the present form.

Want to do something you don't have an explicit skill for? Roll 1d6. On a 5+, you did it. If you have a reason you're likely to succeed, add 1d6. If you have a relevant ability score of 15+ or some bit of backstory that makes sense for you having an increased likelihood of success, add 1d6 for either of those. Basically, you're building a dice pool out of "reasons why." Remember that what's good for you is good for your DM, so you may find your low Charisma score giving the DM a bonus die on his NPCs' attempts to figure out that you're lying. Or something like that. Enjoy!

End Note: This post was written using the definition of intentionality that refers to the state of thought or idea being about something. There is another sense of the word that means "degree to which a thing is intentional or 'on purpose.'" I did not use this second definition.

Friday, April 17, 2015

#SWApDay2015 Post #3: The Astral Seed

It's time for part 3 of my Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2013 posts! Yet again, you're getting a scenario, this time inpsired by Erol Otus's fucking gorgeous cover to Swords & Wizardry Complete!

Here's another room you can totally throw into a dungeon your 3-5 5th-7th level adventurers happen to be exploring. Enjoy!

The Astral Seed

Sometimes, gods are born out of mortals' faith. Sometimes, two (or more) gods get together and produce offspring on their own. Sometimes, however, the universe stores up enough energy that new god may be spontaneously generated out of that surplus; until it does, that surplus solidifies into an astral seed, an orb of immeasurably vast potential and possibility.

Some time-lost wizard whose name was forgotten before man learned to master fire found such an astral seed and hid it away in a dungeon somewhere, hoping to prize its secrets from deep within. Or drain its power. Or make some sort of crazy astral seed-god omelet. Who knows. Wizards, amirite?

Eventually, the wizard left his dungeon complex, as wizards are wont to do, and the astral seed began to gestate. Soon, dungeon life of all sorts came to bask in the pleasant aetheric energies that the seed emits. Some of the lowliest creatures, simple, single-celled things, grew in unpredictable and surprising fashions, become the dungeon's many gelatinous cubes or indigo coagulates. More complex microbes became gibbering mouthers and other strange slitherers and lurkers, but chief among those who came to dwell in the eerie light of the astral seed were the ineffable specie of salamander that grew, reproduced, evolved and ultimately fused together into one creature. This creature, feeding on the astral power of a seed that would be a god were not for the feeding, grew colossal in stature, gained some degree of sentience and now lingers in its ancestral home, still bathing in the aetheric light, still leeching off a would-be god's proto-life.

The Creature

Imagine what a salamander would think of as its god. You have no idea. Neither do I. But I imagine it would look a lot like the thing that Erol Otus painted on the Swords & Wizardry Complete cover. This giant being constantly emits a faint glow, irradiated as it has been in the light of the astral seed. Mostly a sickly white color, deep, midnight blue patterns emerge on its skin, like bones or other osseus structures welling up from under the skin's surface.

Succling as the creature has on the very nectar of divinity, it has a monolithic and powerful will. As such, it may command any of the lesser, many-eyed organisms that slosh and galumph about the floor in this chamber, and does so to protect the astral seed from outside interference. So long as the seed remains in this chamber, neither the creature nor its subordinates need to feed.

Monsters

The Creature: HD 10; AC 2 [17]; Atk 1 spiritual dagger (3d4 and lose 1d4+1 spell levels of memorized spells) and 1 aetheric ray (2d8); Move 18; Save 4; AL N; CL/XP 11/1,400; Special: immune to fire, cold, electricity; regenerates 5 hp per round and 2 hp per spell level drained.

Slithering, many-eyed beasts: HD 2; AC 7 (12); Atk 1 creepy gaze (1d6, save vs. fear or stunned for one round); Move 9; Save 15; AL N; CL/XP 3/60; Special: none.

Recovering the Astral Seed

If the Creature is killed and the astral seed is recovered, it will soon finish its growth into a godling of no small amount of power. Of course, a wizard may find some nefarious end to put it to, but this seed is ready to grow. If the seed does "hatch" into a god, it is a god without purview or pantheon, one undevoted to any particular ethos or sphere of influence. As such, it may be shaped by those who possess the seed. When it is born, the deity will take shape based on the alignments and beliefs of those in possession of the astral seed. Asking your players "what is this a god of?" is a perfectly viable idea. In any case, there's a new god in town and he owes the party a favor. How's that for treasure?

Questions for the Referee

What other treasures did that nameless, pre-human wizard hide about the dungeon, ready to screw with the players' ideas about reality?
Having killed the closest thing salamanders have to a god, have the PCs become the personification of evil to amphibians everywhere?
Will the new god try to recruit the PCs as his/her/its first followers? What does this deity ask of them?

#SWApDay2015 Post #2: The Vault of the Living

In my last post, I gave you a short scenario for Swords & Wizardry based on the cover of S&W White Box. This time, you're getting another scenario, this one inspired by the cover of S&W Core! Another great +P Mullen painting, another short adventure. 

This scenario is designed to be tacked on to any dungeon you're currently running, particularly for a group of 3-5 adventurers of 5-6th level, and works best if the dungeon has a giant theme or if th passages are big enough to support giants

The Vault

In an age now forgotten, Zher-Shen-Quo was Kahn of the Tribes of Great Mountain and never before or since has a daimyo giant been leader of so great a horde of his peers. When his empire was on the verge of collapse, Zher-Shen-Quo enlisted his vizier, a cloud giant sorcerer named Hirh-Shab to help him find a way to escape defeat and perhaps live to conquer again. Thus did Hirh-Shab construct the Vault of the Living.

Far beneath the earth, Hirh-Shab led one hundred mountain ape slaves to their deaths digging out a chamber that the cloud giant enchanted and warded, binding powerful magics of death and time into its walls. When Zher-Shen-Quo finally passed on, Hirh-Shab, in a final act of loyalty to his Khan, interred the daimyo giant in the Vault along with several of his most loyal retainers.

Today, the bones of the great Khan are all that remain of Quo's legacy. The bones and the fortune in treasure it is bedecked with. Somewhere, in a dungeon lost to time and legend, is a sealed vault door built for giants, behind which rests the finely-appointed remains of Zher-Shen-Quo and his court, waiting for their second chance at life.

Within the vault, the air is still, as it has been for at least a millenium. On a blocky throne of bronze, the khan's skeleton rests, bedecked in funerary finery and surrounded by most trusted advisors. Should any disturb his remains, Hirh-Shab's enchantments will be triggered and begin the process of resurrecting the great Khan. Sinew and muscle, nerves and arteries violently erupt outward from the skeleton, rebuilding the Khan from the inside out, only finally growing skin after the 4th round after being disturbed.

At first, the daimyo is unable to fight at full strength; he must grow more muscle and sinew in order to fight at full strength. For the first round of combat, Quo fights as a 3 HD creature, then as a 6 HD in the second, then 9 HD in the third until his full 12 HD in the fourth round. Further, the courtiers begin their resurrection when Hirh-Shab's time-trap is triggered. Each round, 1d4-2 (minimum 1) giant courtiers (see below) are resurrected, but there are only 10 courtiers here, so no more than 10 may be introduced in this manner.

The Time Trap

Khan Zher-Shen-Quo never actually died; rather, Hirh-Shab created a bridge between a prior instance of the daimyo giant and the future incarnation released by the PCs. As long as the bridging/resurrection process is occurring (until the 4th round of combat), nothing may enter or leave the Vault since the Vault itself is experiencing a storm of temporal-spatial distortion. This distortion can also play havoc with spell durations; each round a spell is in effect, roll d12:

  • 1-3: Spell ends immediately
  • 4-6: Spell ends at the beginning of the next round
  • 7-8: Spell ends at the end of the next round
  • 9-11: Spell duration continues normally
  • 12: Paradox! Spell is applied in a reversed or negative capacity for the following round. 

Monsters

Daimyo Giant: HD 12 + 2d6hp; AC 3 [16]; Atk 1 sword (5d6); Move 12; Save 3; AL C; CL/XP 15/2900; Special: +1 to hit, impervious to fire and cold.

Giant Courtiers: HD 4+1; AC 5 [14]; Atk 1 weapon (1d10+1); Move 9; Save 13; AL C; CL/XP 4/120; Special: None.

Questions For The Referree

What treasures did Khan Zher-Shen-Quo bring with him into the future?
Which of the Khan's courtiers plans on betraying him and why?
What happened to the cloud giant sorcerer, Hirh-Shab, anyway? Could he still be waiting for his Khan's return? Is he still loyal?

#SWApDay2015 Post #1: A Stone's Throw

As you probably know, today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2015. Now, I'm not exactly the best at planning, so I tried to come up with a viable plan for this "holiday" and here's what I've got: what about making a series of scenarios inspired by the covers of iconic releases of Swords & Wizardry? Shit yeah! So, this first post, A Stone's Throw, is inspired by the excellent +P Mullen cover to Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. 

This short scenario is designed for use whenever 3-5 characters of level 5-7 are trying to pass through mountains and is designed to drop right in to most campaigns.

The Giants

Rahg and Shupek are hill giant brothers. Ostracised from their tribe for activities that even hill giants consider unsavory, the brothers barely eked out a living in the hardscrabble mountains until a chance encounter with a member of their prior tribe turned the brothers into kin-slayers. They kept the body of their victim hidden in the mountain snow, lest any of their former tribe find it, hidden until harsh winter conditions changed the brothers yet again; changed them into cannibals. The brothers soon started preying on their old tribe as a matter of course, for their slow-witted kin might expect treachery, but few expect the brand of treachery that Rahg and Shupek dish out. After many months of careful culling of the tribe, the brothers were approached by a crone they Hasharag (giant-tongue for "beautiful one"), who now directs them in their endeavors and has steered their faith in a new direction.

The brothers dress in poorly-tanned hides that at first look like vast buckskins. It is only upon truly close inpection that the real nature of the cannibals' clothes is determined, for these transgressive oafs waste no part of their kills...

The Crone

The annis hag the brothers call Hasharag is a secretive being. She uses her polymorph ability to assume the form a hill giant, but not one of great beauty (at first, she thought the brothers were mocking her with the name "beautiful one," but she learned better after she saw the females of their tribe). She is a servant of the demon-prince Ishassass, He-Who-Walks-On-Wind and patron of cannibals, and she has come here in his service. She acts as a spiritual advisor, mother and lover to Rahg and Shupek, coercing them to greater and greater homophagiac depravities. So far, Ishassass seems to be answering the prayers of the three well as lone vigilantes from the hill giant tribe stalk off into the mountains to find whatever curse is claiming the lives of their tribesmen. Hasharag takes care of brothers in as many ways as she can stomach so long as they honor the rites and blasphemies of Ishassass.

Monsters

Hill Giant (2): HD 8+2; AC 4 [15]; Atk 1 weapon (2d8); Move 12; Save 8; AL C; CL/XP 9/1100; Special: Throw boulders.

Annis: HD 8; AC 1 [18]; Atk 2 claws (2d8), 1 bite (1d8); Move 12; Save 8; AL C; CL/XP 10/1400; Special: Hug and rend, polymorph, call mists.

Cave Bear: HD 7; AC 6 [13]; Atk 2 claws (1d6+1), 1 bite (1d10+1); Move 12; Save 9; AL N; CL/XP 7/600; Special: Hug (3d6).

The Approach

As the PCs approach the brothers' cave, attentive characters will note two large silhouettes on a nearby mountain that seem to be piling up rocks. As the PCs draw closer, the brothers begin throwing these rocks, but as soon as the PCs close to melee range (or if they present overwhelming missile fire), the brothers retreat to the relative safety of their cave.

The Cave

The brothers' cave is permeated with the foul stench of rancid fat. What at first appear to be titanic sides of beef hang from the cave ceiling here, clustering close to a large fire. The skins of mammoths and bears dot the floor here, as well as artifacts carved from their bones. In an alcove off to a side, stands a bone carving of a gaunt figure that would be man-shaped were it not for its long, vicious talons and wickedly-curved tusks. The figure is blood-stained about its hands and face and its belly has the strange distention of famine-ridden. This is, of course, the idol of Ishassass that Hasharag has carved from the bones of Rahg and Shupek's victims.

Rahg and Shupek will retreat here if attacked by the PCs, who will warn Hasharag of the incoming "pests." Though the trio is confident in their victory, they see little to be gained from the confrontation and prefer to warn off or negotiate with the PCs. They may even try to bribe the PCs, presenting them with bone medallions of the demon-prince in return for being left in peace (see below). If forced to fight, the brothers and Hasharag defend their homes and look forward to the appetizers that can be made of man- or dwarf- or elf-flesh.

If the party includes more than 22 levels of characters, include a cave bear along with the giants and Hasharag.

The Curse of Ishassass

There are lots of things that could be cursed in this scenario. If the brothers offer the PCs medallions as bribes -- which may even be valuable on their own -- they also bear the Curse of Ishassass. If the PCs steal or deface the idol of the demon-prince, again, Curse time. Hasharag may bestow the curse upon her death with her last gasp. Unless the PCs take huge precautions, they're going to get cursed. Totally doable, but not terribly likely.

A character afflicted by the Curse of Ishassass must make a saving throw vs. spells or become immediately ravenously hungry. One turn later, his hunger is so strong that he will become irritable and take umbrage at the smallest slight. If he has any rations, he will immediately consume them and attempt to acquire more food. With each passing turn, the hunger deepens. Within a day, the victim has likely eaten all food in sight and will begin to consider... other alternatives, especially if he has attacked and killed anyone during his period of "hanger" mentioned above.

The ultimate goal of the curse is for Ishassass to turn the PCs into cannibals and therefore to put them under his purview. The hunger curse will only abate if removed or if the victim consumes the flesh of another sentient being.

Questions for the Referee

What treasure have the brothers been hiding from Hasharag?
Does Hasharag have secret magical knowledge she keeps from the brothers?
What reward will Ishassass bestow upon those who consume the flesh of his most devout worshipers?
Now that the PCs have denied the hill giant chief his just vengeance, which of his Mighty Hunters is now tracking the PCs?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Let's Talk About Translation Editing & #Joeskytax

There are too many ways to start this post that make me sound elitist or effete or full of myself, so instead of a flowery intro here, I'll get straight to the meat of the matter: When you are translating a thing, whether that is a novel, a movie, a tv series or a game, from one language to another, it is essential that you use a translation editor to manage the translation process who is not so close to the subject matter that he cannot see the flaws in a flawed translation but who is interested enough in the subject matter (and perhaps versed enough in the original language) to understand the intricacies of translating that text into a foreign language.

Allow me to elucidate. 

Have you read any Italo Calvino? If not, you should. Invisible Cities is such a remarkably gameable book that I've seen several authors and bloggers describe how they use it in their games, myself included. A translation team who did not have a passion for the text could not have translated it properly, and yet had the editor been as wrapped up in the text as the translator, we would naturally have seen some flaws in the translated text, he might not have spotted mistakes that translator made, idioms that fail in the second language but work in the first but the translator tried to use anyway, peculiarities of the primary language that make it into the secondary text, stuff like that. 

As essential skill for a translation editor is the ability to critically read the text: to examine the text for places where there is a disconnection between what the translator intended and what the text actually says. Sure, there are standard proofreading tasks that are important as well, but just as important as these tasks is the editing of the text to make sure it flows and works the same way as the original, even if that means approximating an initial logic rather than replicating it. 

For example, let's look at Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Here's a text that's so dense, the author himself wrote a simplified version of it, the Prologomena To Any Future Metaphysic, but even that was so convoluted that even German students of philosophy prefer to read the text in English translation because the translation approximates the logical structure of the original without producing a word-for-word replication of it. 

On a similar philosophical note, Jean-Paul Sartre famously derided the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, but Sartre's own works included elements that were so remarkably similar to those in Heidegger's, you'd think the opposite was true. While a pessimist might suggest that the problem was just Sartre's ego and that he viewed his own works as massive improvements upon Heidegger's "mistakes," but the truth is that Sartre had actually read quite poor and hastily-done translations of Heidegger's Being and Time, ones that had completely missed the mark of what Heidegger was actually saying in the work. Sartre would later read better translations and become one of Heidegger's biggest supporters, even if ol' Martin didn't support back. 

While I don't watch a lot of anime these days (that's the wife's department), I remember the old Wild West days of the VHS fan sub fondly. Invariably, these fan subs would translate the text verbatim, which would often include strange idioms without any explanation and phrases whose meanings were so obtuse as to be unintelligible that a large part of watching these fan subs was learning to gloss over translation oddities and try to sort out from context what was going on. These translations were a labor of love, however, and I never paid for them, so I can't quite complain. Nor did I back then. It was just par for the course and we accepted it. It was really irritating to me when things got the English dub treatment yet the scripts would keep these sort of unprofessional irregularities and a large part of why I will always prefer a sub to a dub: I can always assume with a sub that no one has bothered to look at the language of the sub to figure out how to do it better. In a dub, you know that someone had the opportunity to improve the hitchy language and just never did anything about it.

Here's the point that I'm trying to make: bad translations aren't the result of a bad translator, they're the result of a lack of a critical reading of the text. "Bad translation" isn't even really a thing, it's more of "incomplete translation" because until a text has been critically read and edited taking into account that critical reading, it is not complete. Back in the day, when I was a German language major in college, the in vogue way of framing this conversation was "translation" as opposed to "interpretation:" just because you had translated a text doesn't mean you've correctly interpreted its meaning in the secondary language. 

A translation cannot rely on specific knowledge of the thing being translated for it to be understood. For example, I should not have to have read Kant in German to understand an English translation. Nor should I require that someone explain his text to me in order to read that English translation. A translation should stand on its own without requiring recourse to any further texts. 

Now for your big question: What the fuck does this have to do with gaming? 

Yesterday, I bought a game via RPGNow that I'd been looking forward to the English translation of. I will not mention its title, but you can probably sort it out if you look at reviews I've written on OBS; there aren't many of them. Now, I'm used to awkward translations. Adventures in the East Mark had some peculiarities (some of which were actually charming while some were irritating), as does Shadows of Esteren (seriously, "combativeness?" Esteren's sentence structure is a trainwreck as well), but I can largely make out what's intended in both of these. (And in East Mark's case, Mr. Brown did a great job of cleaning up the less charming peculiarities once they were pointed out to him.) 

So, I read this game that I had been looking forward to an English translation of. I started with high energy and enthusiasm. This enthusiasm flagged a little bit when I hit some wonky sentence structure (this really should have been sorted out in editing) and *gasp!* a double negative (I've determined that, like French, Italian -- the game's primary language -- does indeed use double negatives, so this is a straight up word-for-word translation and an oversight of the editor's) and to see that stuff in what's supposed to be a final product (I'd assume you'd only make a print option available when the book was in its final state unless you were clearly selling a beta product) irked me a bit, but I pressed on. When I got to the first bits of the game's central structure, I got excited again. This game was implementing some basic mechanics logic that I enjoy and had been positing on my own, so it was validating to see them here as well. But then, I got a little further in on the central mechanics and it all broke down. There were declarative statements. There were clarifications of those statements, but the clarifications contradicted the declarations. Then, there were examples that injected notions that I could find nowhere in the text itself. Basically, the examples of play had to be read to explain how the rules portion of the game worked because the rules were too obtuse to be read on their own. This is an incomplete translation. 

I enjoy that the publisher wants to bring this game to the English-speaking world, and I think that the English-speaking RPG market has a bunch of stuff to learn from the wider body of non-English-language RPGs out there (for example, I think that the English RPG market has ignored Das Schwarze Auge for far too long). I believe that the English-language RPG community will be richer from the presence of this game within it. However, I believe that it is important to do justice to the game in translation. I want to understand the game, I want to know how it works, and I should not need any special knowledge from a source outside of the book to do those things. 

To ensure that your game is understandable by the broadest amount of people when it is translated, it is necessary that a critical reading of the text be performed by someone who is not intimately familiar with it. Someone who hasn't played the game before, or had it explained to them. Someone whose perspective on the game is fresh enough that she will ask "does this mean 'X' or "Y?'" Someone whose reading of the text isn't polluted by prior knowledge and whose command of the secondary language will help bridge gaps between the intent of a passage and what's actually on the page. 

In short, if you're translating a game into a language that's not your first language, you need a translation editor. 

Joesky Tax: The Periapt of Imperfect Comprehension

This insidious item teeters on the border between "useful magical trinket" and "useless cursed trash." When worn, it allows its wearer to understand most of what's being said in a language he does not speak, but not quite everything. The wearer understands 80% of this periapt-translated communication correctly, but 20% comes out terribly mangled. Determine which component/s of a sentence are garbled, then roll on the following table to see how that component is confused (1d6):
  1. Gibberish - nonsense words and meaningless syllables
  2. Opposite of intended word/s
  3. Non sequitur - the words are real, but are largely meaningless in this context
  4. Wrong part of speech - instead of a noun, a verb; instead of a verb, an adjective; instead of an adjective, a preposition, and so on. 
  5. Poor grammar - words are right, but the conjugation or declension or pluralization is off
  6. Roll again twice. 
The periapt does not confer any ability to speak the language/s it imparts imperfect knowledge of, nor does it allow its wearer to read anything written in a "comprehended" tongue. The periapt will inevitably interfere with the wearer's ability to communicate in languages he does know, as well. Every time the character speaks, he has a 1-in-12 chance that he must roll on the chart above for the entirety of a single communication. This chance increases by one until the periapt has mangled his speech. The periapt cannot be removed without a Remove curse spell being cast upon the wearer. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Let's Talk About Prepping To Improvise

After I wrote my last post (Let's Talk About Railroading), published it and sent it off into the blogosphere to be brain-masticated and spat back out, I realized that I should have added a bit of Joesky Tax at the end because it was kind of rant-y. For that, I apologize; I'll definitely try to do better in the near future. If today's post gets rant-y or persuade-y or argument-y, I promise I'll Joesky Tax it up.

Improvisational non sequitur
Right. Well. In my last post, I talked about why Railroading sucks and is bad for you and you should never do it and it gives you cancer and rots your teeth and makes you sterile. If cancer is "terminal, tumorous bad perspective," teeth is "your creative process" and sterile is "unable to cope with things you didn't plan for." But Railroading persists as a problem in gaming because some DMs don't learn how to roll with the punches their players throw them, don't learn how to make shit up on the fly, don't learn how to invent a dungeon as they're running it.

I cannot teach you how to do this stuff.

I am not you, I do not know how you learn, I do not know how you think, I cannot tailor a thought process to someone who lives in a space that is not my skull.

Instead, I can teach you how to teach yourself to do this stuff by giving you a process for when you're stuck.

First, let me state that I am a huge fan of practice. As I've mentioned before, I was a touring musician in the late 90's, but before that, I was a jazz-trained tenor sax player for most of my youth. I did not pick up that skill over night. I did not learn to play a bass the first time I held one. I did not know how to use my voice as an instrument the first time I stood in front of a microphone. Or the second, or the third or the whenever you get the idea. All of these things took practice and DMing does, too. The problem is that it is almost impossible to practice DMing while you're not actually DMing. It's like if you're a musician and the only time you get to practice is while you're actually playing a show. That's fucking tough. It is kind of how you practice when you're in the middle of a tour, but that's a different story. It is to say, however, that every time you DM, you should be looking at it as an opportunity to improve, because that's what practice is: you learn from your successes and mistakes so that hopefully you'll make fewer of the latter and more of the former.

Second, let me state that this post comes pretty much from the conversation started here:  https://plus.google.com/+AdamMuszkiewicz/posts/GpMrguPCmkH  Mad props to +Doug Kovacs+Harley Stroh+Frank Turfler and everyone else who participated in that conversation. It was excellent and one of the best discussions I've had about "how to DM" in a while.

Third, it is of tantamount importance to recognize that your game is about whatever the fuck it is that the player characters are doing. It is not about some plot you have in mind. It's not about your NPCs. It's not about the setting's background, the nation states, cults, kings, shadow cabals or whatever the fuck you've set in motion. The plot of your campaign is precisely and entirely the things that the player characters get themselves up to. That's it. All other things in the campaign are tangential to that core truth.

Improvisational non sequitur II: improv hullabaloo
I talk to a lot of DMs who state that they have problems with improvisation. +D.j. Chadwick, it's not just you. When I talk to them, I realize that they typically have managed to identify a more specific problem than "me no improvise good," but for some reason take that one specific problem and conflate it to improv at large. My wife, +Kathryn Muszkiewicz, for example, always bemoans her inability to come up with names. This is a thing she knows about herself. I think most DMs can identify something like this that they wish they did better.

The thing is, you can only get better if you practice. Merely identifying the problem is only the first step. Once you know what the problem is, you have to take steps to make it better. Far too many people seem to thing that once you know what a problem is, it should just magically get better and stop being a problem anymore. That is insane. In order to actually get better at a thing, you have to learn how to overcome shortcomings like these. Katie, for example, realized that she should keep a list of names handy when she's going to need them. Bam, that part of the problem accounted for, not exactly solved, but at least smoothed over. Katie used a tool she knew how to use (namely, a list... of names) and implemented that instead of just beating her head up against a wall.

Here's the process you can use to make your DMing practice count for something when trying to improve your improv game:

  1. DM A Game. This is important. You cannot develop these skills in a vacuum or while contemplating your navel.
  2. Note anything that takes you more than five minutes to figure out and WRITE IT DOWN. I know you think you will remember it; you won't. If you don't write it down now, it will be lost to time and you will have missed an opportunity to improve.
  3. In between sessions, check your notes for the stuff you wrote down and invent a tool that would have solved the stumbling block. Yes, it's important that you invent this tool, rather than just copy it from someone else because the act of invention is precisely what you're doing during improv and here's your chance to make something up on your own time when there's no pressure on. Get yourself used to making things up when you're not in front of the group. 
    1. It's important to note that this "tool" I mention can be anything. It can be an encounter or a random encounter table. It can be the precise name you're looking for or a whole list of names, each as good as the others. I like to make tables that I will use, or come up with strange dice mechanisms because that's what I do. You know you far better than I do, so you'll be able to figure out what tools work better for you. If not, try any and all of them.
  4. Show up to your next session with your shiny new tool. Even if you don't use said tool, at least you've got it. 
  5. During the next session, find new stuff to write down, rinse and repeat.
  6. When you're really, really stuck, make the players deal with the consequence of something they've already done or failed to do. Remember all those plot hooks you fed them that they didn't take? Bring them back as further-developed plot line. Did they blow all their cash on carousing last time they were in port? Well, turns out one of the players had such a good time, he's now got a mewling newborn named after him... Stuff like that. Consequences. 
I feel like I've still got a ton of stuff to say about this, but we'll leave it here. If you, dear reader of these fine Dispatches, have any questions about improv prep or DM improv in general, please, feel free to drop a comment. I'll happily respond to the best of my ability to help you solve your improv problems/issues/challenges. This, of all things RPG-wise, is my particular jam. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Let's Talk About Railroading

First, there's this: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/36900/roleplaying-games/the-railroading-manifesto

It's serious stuff. There's several parts to that and as I begin writing this, I haven't even read them all. There's also this: http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/5785/roleplaying-games/so-you-want-to-write-a-railroad

Which is very similar in feels, but actually a list of how to fail.

So, while Justin Alexander was writing these posts, I was reminded of the fact that +Donn Stroud told me I shouldn't listen to the 24th Episode of the Gaming & BS podcast, about Railroading and Sandboxes, because I'd have a rage anuerysm. I ran into +Sean P Kelley at GaryCon (over and over; great guy who I enjoy talking to) and mentioned this to him and he cracked up about it. (We had been talking about doing a DSR vs. Gaming & BS podcast and this or alignment emerged between Sean & I as the potential topic for the episode.) Anyway, you can find the episode here: http://gamingandbs.com/024/

I hope you don't have an anuerysm. As it turns out, I didn't. However, I've been thinking more and more about the Railroad and think I'd like to talk to you about it.

First off, and this is big, if you as the person running the game have any illusions that "the plot" of your game resides anywhere but in the course of action that your players take, you are flat wrong.

That is the number one mistake that I see DMs make: they get this idea that the awesome "plot" they're cooking up is somehow better or more important than what the players will and therefore take control away from their players. These DMs are wrong.

Some folks like to state that "a railroad ride ain't bad if the scenery is good." This, as well, is BS. It's effectively stating that a lie isn't a lie if you never get caught lying. Pretending to allow choice when you're really railroading just changes the flavor of the railroad. It's the artificial flavor of player agency. Not only is the DM doing this lying to his players, but he's lying to himself. Rather than getting better at encouraging player agency, the DM is just getting better at lying, distraction and manipulation. Sure those are useful tools in any DM's toolbox, but they're not genuine and the experience this liar DM is creating isn't authentic.

Justin's posts make a point of saying that the essence of the Railroad is not merely that only one course is available to players, but that players' choices are negated if they do not conform to the pre-determined course set by the DM. The second half of this is important because it's where the robbery of player agency occurs since the players have to choose from predetermined choices or risk irrelevancy. Having some things that are just going to occur (whether it's in the campaign background or foreground) isn't a railroad, but limiting the players' choices about how to react to or interact with those things, therein lies the Railroad. You've got to have the whole thing.

Because the plot resides in the PCs actions.

If you've defined what those actions are going to be and thus defined the plot, even if you've pulled off the "Great Railroad Lie" and people loved the scenery, you cannot touch the plain and simple fact that the plot of the game is, always is and always must be the result of the players' actions because the players are both actor and audience.

I know a lot of folks chafe when we start talking about the "story" in a game. I do, too. But it's difficult to use other words to talk about the overall course of the game. The "story" of the game isn't the backstory, it isn't the campaign demographics, it isn't the intricate  web of deceit and lies the DM has woven between NPCs, it isn't the rules and it is only barely the adventures themselves. Instead, the actual story of your game is the one invented by your players as those players choose to act in the game world. This is the story, this is the plot. To constrain that is false and disingenuous and detrimental. To celebrate that fact, to encourage player agency, to offer more choices and get excited when players come up with things you'd never dreamed of, this is the art of DMing.

You are not a conductor, not a ticket-taker, not a travel agent and not a tour guide.

You are a possibility-maker, a dream-interpreter and an enigmatic story-shaman evoking the spirits of player agency to create something bigger than you could create on your own.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Let's Talk About Judges Guild

As I return from my fantastic trip to GaryCon in the just-as-frozen-North-as-the-place-that-Adam-comes-from-in-the-first-place, I realize that I have a lot of things that I want to talk about. Here's the first in my series of "Let's Talk About [Whatever]" posts that I'll be posting over the next few days or weeks just to get these things out of my head.

Regular readers of the Dispatches know full well that I'm a big fan of the old Judges Guild materials. I was really excited at GenCon 2014 when Joe Goodman announced that Goodman Games was going to release over-sized, coffee table book-sized collections of old issues of the Judges Guild Journal, including modules that were contemporaneous to the issues in question. Specifically mentioned were Tegel Manor, Citadel of Fire and Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor. There was some mention of the book including multiple versions of the same text so that it could be demonstrated how that text had changed over time, because it's common for Judges Guild material to change from one printing to another (which is a very cool feature of this old stuff the more I think of it).

At GaryCon 2015 this past Saturday, the What's New With Goodman Games seminar once again brought up this book, including a demonstration of just how damn big the thing was going to be. As of then, for me at least, the actual details of this book (or even these books, I can't tell) got a little more confused. It seemed to be that Joe Goodman was talking about one book, but that that book would include multiple complete versions of the modules in it. So, first printing Tegel Manor, second printing Tegel Manor, third printing Tegel Manor, all in one book, but that seems way too repetitive and frankly wasteful. You'd also need to do one volume for each of these modules, which is probably not the wisest of ideas.

Joe showed off the size of the book (you can see it in the video that +Jim Wampler posted here on the Spellburn website: http://spellburn.com/2015/03/31/gary-con-vii-whats-new-at-goodman-games/ ) and demonstrated that a page of the book is equal in size to the original printing of the Judges Guild Journal, which is pretty dang sweet. It also means that, at that scale, they're going to have to do something with the pages that the modules themselves are reprinted in. The modules, you see, are about 1/2 the page size of the broadsheet Journal pages. To my eye, this means that they could either print two module pages per page (thus print them as a two-page spread on one page), which would save some space (especially if reproducing each separate printing of the texts), particularly in a book which threatens to have a really high page count. Alternatively, they could print one module page per book page and include the changes from one edition to the next as marginalia.

The three modules being included in this book are some of Judges Guild's earliest work (if not first three modules; time-keeping on these is tough for me) and Goodman has already published two out of three of them (although these versions to which I allude were for D&D 3.xe) until very recently, when Goodman released a version of Tegel Manor (thankfully in the original rules, not any newer rule set) that includes an extra adventure chunk from +Michael Curtis. I have a few comments on this book.

I had not read Tegel Manor before Katie & I picked this thing up at the BlackBlade booth. Somehow, despite my love of all the strange early JG stuff, I missed this one. I'm familiar with the simple layout of Citadel of Fire, and so I expected to see something similar. However, I wasn't prepared for how little I was told by this module, particularly about the stuff it includes. Now, I knew to expect room descriptions that basically just said what monsters and treasure were in each room, and that those would seem remarkably odd to modern eyes, but what threw me were all the seemingly random things that were included, just strange room effects (like "candles light themselves and maniacal laughter from next room;" that's not an actual example, just stuff like that). Also, a list of random portraits with no explanation of what they were or what to do with them. In fact, I realized there was little to explanation of what to do with any of this, almost as if it were supposed to be self-explanatory. Sure, there was a dangling plot hook that a DM could use to drag in PCs, but what to do with this stuff once you did so? That's when I realized that the whole module was really just a big haunted house. Being a big fan of 1986 or 7's horror-comedy classic House II, I realized this could be right up my alley and that I'd never quite understood that these early modules aren't necessarily to be picked up and played as is, but rather drastically reinterpreted by each DM himself, filling in the lost details with his own style and making it fit in with his conception of the way the game should be, just like D&D used to be back then. Whew. Huge sigh of relief. And a small amount of eagerness to use the thing to do something very much Adam-style, but what?

Michael Curtis writes a decent-sized adventure to round out the piece that, yes, does add quite a bit to the page count (about 1/3 of the book), but it's good, useful stuff that draws on material presented in the original release. During the seminar that I linked above, Joe Goodman tells us that his team (I'm pretty sure he specifically calls out the excellent Mr. +Jon Hershberger, but I haven't actually watched the video, so my memory is just from Saturday morning) went so far as to sort out what font to use to best approximate the JG side of the module. So, I was expecting the Curtis adventure to pretty well mirror the JG side. Which was stupid. We don't write things the same way they did back in 1977 or whenever Tegel came out. We can't. Even when Mike tried his hardest to do stuff like that in Stonehell, he still included page after page of "here's how to make sense out of the barebones junk I just fed you" because that's what we do now! Doesn't make it right, doesn't make it wrong. Part of our modern gaming conscious includes making sure our game materials include context. In the original JG Tegel, that context was only the thinnest of an implication; to even write a companion adventure, Mike had to include more information because modern gamer-brains ask the question "Why?" in ways that earlier gamer-brains were happy to just put in the hands of their DM and ride the wave of crazy to victory! So, is the Curtis adventure a perfect fit for the JG side of this module? Eh, mostly. It lacks that "you will only get out of this what you put into it"-ness of the original, but that's both a blessing and a curse. You have less to make up, but you'll have more to customize if you take this out of the implied setting that Mike draws from.

While Goodman is busy working with Bob Bedslaw II to preserve the history and legacy of the Judges Guild -- and hopefully Joe keeps this up for as long as he can -- I'd like to make my plea for Goodman to reissue a personal favorite. Joe, if you're listening/reading, I'd love a reissue of Caverns of Thracia by +Jennell Jaquays. In many ways, I think that Caverns hits the sweet spot of module design and single handedly spawned a series of "best practices" for module design. Hell, we now call "ensuring multiple routes in, out and around inside a dungeon" "Jaquaying a dungeon." There's a reason for that. I know Caverns has a bit more setting info than the earlier stuff (and is thus harder to shoehorn into an existing campaign), but ultimately is really very rewarding. For me, Caverns is the JG module that set the bar and set it high. Everything that came after it falls squarely within its shadow or misses the point of Ms. Jaquays's innovations.

[Also, while we're here, Joe, if you're looking for someone to write a companion adventure to go with a reissue of Caverns, here's my hat. There's the ring. Throwing it in.]