Monday, June 29, 2015

Dynamic Hexcrawl: More Thoughts On Aesthetics

Man, I have been slacking on writing. Altogether. It's not just a blog thing. I could lie to you all and talk about how I have no free time anymore, that all the shit I'm doing is eating up all my writing time, but that's nothing like the truth. The truth is purely and simply that I've not been writing like I should because I've allowed far too many things to distract me. So, let's get back to the dynamic hexcrawl, shall we?

When last I wrote, I talked about the importance of establishing an aesthetic for your dynamic hexcrawl. Since then (it was more than a week ago now; again, I've been slacking), I've had a few more thoughts about aesthetic and figured they'd be worth sharing. Well, at least I hope they're worth sharing.

Not Just One Aesthetic

Here's a wizard I drew for Ripley
Stonebrook's next issue of
Lair of Swords & Sorcery
You will probably need more than one aesthetic. You may have one overarching aesthetic, with several, smaller sub-aesthetics beneath it. You may have very different aesthetics that butt up against each other and exist as diametrically opposed, mutually-exclusive counterpoints to one another. You can have one, you can have five, you can have one thousand. All of that makes no difference. All in all, you will have to have enough different aesthetics that you can answer the question "What's it like?" for each time things are different.

Case in point, the Iron Coast campaign has its specific over-arching aesthetic, but underneath that umbrella, many other aesthetics butt heads. There are religously syncretic vikings over here and this what they are like. There are embattled colonialist merchants who've turned to voodoo over here and this is what they are like. There are brain-slave theocrats dying in their devotion to alien gods over here and this is what they are like. Beneath it all is the World Below, a mythic subterranean wonderland full of strange and nightmarish creatures and this is what it is like. Adjacent to the real world is the Dreaming Dimension, home of the elves and their fabled city of Alvlantesk, and this is what it is like, and this and this and this. There are as many different aesthetics in use in the Iron Coast as I need to answer the simple question "what is it like?" wherever the PCs are and whomever, whatever they're interacting with. That having been said, the core aesthetic -- what makes the Iron Coast the Iron Coast rather than any other campaign -- is the true guide and all of these sub-aesthetics have to fit within it.

The Aesthetic Justifies Itself

I've started writing this part several times, and I think I keep failing at it. Hopefully this time it won't suck as bad. Here goes.

Another wizard for Lair. This one feels a little
more Elric-y
In the game, there are no truths that we, the collected players and DM of said game, do not create and, to one degree or another, agree to. There is no objective world in which our adventures occur, no hyperreal substratum in which facts and stats and adventures inhere. Instead we agree to a collective fiction, surrendering some of our agency to make decisions about what is real within the context of the game to the DM in order to have, you know, adventures that we don't have complete control over, preserving the mystery and tension and FUN of the game.

Where things get shaky is when we start building WORLDS, because somewhere between World of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms, we got all hoity-toity about "world building" and attaching some insane primacy to the creation of a series of facts that exist independent of being experienced by adventurers. In other words, shit that is not the game. Because, as I've said before, the game happens at the table. I know there are DMs out there who do all this prep -- like, insane amounts of prep, right +Donn Stroud? -- and who seem to enjoy this sort of shit more than actually gaming. That's cool, whatever, write your novel. It won't help you at the table. And the table is where the game is, nowhere else.

When I started talking about aesthetics underpinning everything within a dynamic hexcrawl, there are some folks who balked, and some folks who dug what I laid down, but then paraphrased it incorrectly. Establishing a central aesthetic for a game doesn't help you in the game, from a DM's standpoint, it is the game. Every decision you make as a DM stems from the aesthetic, stems from the decisions you made that things are like this. The aesthetic you establish is the primal reality of your game in a way that no list of pretend facts or random tables or dungeon keys ever can be. It is the wellspring from which all of the DM's art pours.

It's not just here to "set the mood" or "create immersion" or anything like that.

It is the game.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

DynamicHexcrawl: But What's It Like? Sandbox Aesthetics

After two months of "required reading" posts, it's about time that I get down and explain my process of the "dynamic hexcrawl." That's very much what it is, a process; it's a series of things that I do rather than rules that I follow. When we talk about games, we get really caught up in ideas of rules: what the rules say, what are the "rules as written," what are our house rules for a game, what's outside the letter or spirit of the rules. But rules are such a small, small part of any rpg that I'm always confused by the emphasis on them -- even my own! And so, what you'll see from me as regards the dynamic hexcrawl is a series of processes that get me where I'm going. 

What's It Like? 

Every single piece of the hexcrawl will be an attempt to answer this simple question: what is it like? Actually, every bit of the DM's job in every game is always to answer this question. Rather than get into another conversation about the nature of epistemology -- and I can feel a serious bout of neo-classical foundationalism coming on -- let me talk about this central question first, then move on to why I put this particular cart before any horses.

It is the goal of every writer, artist, game designer and DM to convey to a reader/perceiver/player/whatever what a particular experience is like. This is the basic structure of communication. In games specifically, DMs who merely expound upon what, say, a dungeon is without getting across what the dungeon is like are not really communicating, just explaining. The difference between "is" and "is like" is an experiential one: the former tells us objectively true (well, maybe not true; illusions are a thing) facts about the space in question whereas the former tells us about the experiential data of being in that space. Is it cold? Is it humid? Is there a bad smell? Does it remind me of anything? Stuff like that. 

For the dynamic hexcrawl, it's important for the DM/GM/Judge/Referee/whatever to have an idea of what things are like. In a broad sense. A guiding aesthetic that can help you answer the questions that your players will ask that you're not anticipating. All in all, what will your sandbox be like? Everything else in your sandbox will flow from this one answer.

The Central Aesthetic

In preparing any sandbox -- whether it's the wilderness hexcrawl/dungeon environment of Hyperbarbaria or the Iron Coast or the urban pointcrawl environment of Ur-Hadad -- I spend some time developing a central concept of what the sandbox will be like. I wanted Hyperbarbaria to feel both familiar and alien to new and experienced players, so I took hints from both traditional sword & sorcery literature, drawing from the atmosphere of CA Smith, but gave it an unfamiliar edge by blending in many of the absurdist and identity themes found in WS Burroughs and David Lynch (lots of Twin Peaks shit, for sure!). While I've never really given the central aesthetic a name (or a naming phrase, if you prefer), there's a definite feeling that this confluence of dissonant donors creates in my head that I cling to as my guiding maxim for determining whether something is or is not Hyperbarbaria. 

Similarly, for the Iron Coast, before I wrote anything (or even made Wizarddawn poop me out a hexmap), I asked myself what did I want the setting to feel like. The Iron Coast wanted to be more serious than Hyperbarbaria; it wanted to be a setting about the struggle of nations and warlords and armies against one another, steeped in mortality, bathed in blood. It wanted to be a setting where dungeons were not the casual stomping grounds of fortune-seekers but the impending tombs of the foolhardy. It wanted to be a place of mystery where the PCs have an idea of how much they don't know, how much has never been discovered, and need ask themselves whether mankind is better off knowing them. Big, bad, brutal. 

Ur-Hadad can vary a bit depending on the group playing in it, but in general there are a few things that I want to be true each time folks experience it. I don't like "pseudo-medieval Europe" as the "default setting" for games. It's lazy, boring and ... well, I'll stop there before I say anything that gets me in trouble. In short, I don't like it. Personally, I'm more broadly influenced by central and eastern Europe than western (go figure), but when I decided to invent a city that was the jewel of its particular universe, the greatest of the great, the most ostentatious and opulent collection of humanity assembled in one place, there is no way my imagination will let itself be confined to one particular people or art style or religion or social structure or whatever you've got. Nope. I've got to have everything -- and nothing. Here, a huge point of the sandbox was that, since anything can happen, that, as has been attributed to Hassan I Sabbah, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." I want a scintillating crucible of myriad humanities filled with every image and sound that I've ever come to associate with the species, that's then overfilled with new imaginings and wild prognostications. A huge inspiration (as I've mentioned before) is I, talo Calvino's Invisible Cities, especially revelation toward the end of the book that every city described is really the same city, looked at from so many different perspectives. That's my Ur-Hadad: never the same thing twice, but always the same in its difference. 

Your Central Aesthetic

Don't write paragraphs like the ones I just did. Really, I didn't write paragraphs like them when I was coming up with those aesthetics. Don't let yourself be tied down to specific words about your aesthetic, because any words you might use are not expressions of what the aesthetic is like, but rather state what your aesthetic is. In game, it's no good to tell your players what the aesthetic is; instead, use the aesthetic as a guide to inform them about their experiences. At the same time, you will use the central aesthetic to inform your design process. When I'm designing for Hyperbarbaria, for example, I want to deliberately create dissonant or jarring experiences for the players, since that's a core part of the aesthetic. In the Iron Coast, I know that the design choices that I make need to lead toward the greatest possible brutality and the stickiest moral quandaries. In Ur-Hadad, I need to present the richest human tableau I can; if I repeat myself (unless it's recurring NPCs or locations), then I'm short-changing myself and my players. When in doubt, you'll go back to your central aesthetic and let it guide you. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dynamic Hexcrawl Required Reading: Yoon-Suin & Philosophy

Have I talked about Yoon-Suin here on the blog before? I can't really remember. If I haven't, it's because I've been waiting for a blog post like this where I talk about one thing to the exclusion of others. I don't do product reviews (that often), so this won't be a review of Yoon-Suin so much as an examination of how it's useful and important from a dynamic hexcrawl point of view.

If you don't own Yoon-Suin or don't know what I'm talking about, here you are. Moving on.

You know I like charts and tables. Some people look at charts and tables as crutches or old school relics that we rely on as we allow our imaginations to atrophy. The idea seems to be that if we, the table-users, had sufficient creativity and imagination, we shouldn't need tables and should be able to come up with adequate variation and innovation for our games without recourse to those selfsame tables. Sure. Why not. Here's the thing though: my own personal perspective and experience can be limiting parameters on one's ability to imagine. As it's been pointed out to me by folks like +D.j. Chadwick, if you're not thinking about the parts that make up Hindi-inspired cosmic owl worshipers, you're not like to create Hindi-inspired cosmic owl worshipers. This, I feel, is where tables and charts come in.

I never feel like a slavish devotion to tables and charts for the sake (dirty word) "balance" or verisimilitude is ever really warranted. If anything, charts and tables exist as fodder for your imagination. Sort of like "Here are facts A, B and C. We still need to know about how they're interrelated."

Philosophy time: In the field of epistemology (the theory of knowledge), we talk about the epistemic regress and how to answer its challenge. The regress is basically the fact that, when you claim knowledge of any thing, I can then ask "How do you know that?" Then, when you answer, I can again ask "How do you know that?" On and on and on like a toddler asking "why." The difference between epistemic theories is usually how they answer the fundamental structural question: at what point to answers to the question "How do you know that?" constitute enough support for the first belief that "How do you know that?" was asked about that we can comfortably say that, yes, you do indeed know the thing that you purported to know?

Thanks for sticking with me here, this is going somewhere.

One of the answers to the challenge of the epistemic regress is known as Contextualism which is the view that justification for a belief as knowledge is only as good as that justification's ability to tie in other things that we think we have good reason to know, creating a sort of self-supporting web of information. Contextualists point to the Dictionary as a great example of contextualist theory: every word within it is defined using other words within it, creating a self-supporting cycle of "this is what this stuff means and we know that's what it means because all these other things explain it and we know what those other things mean because all of these still other things explain them and those still other things are explain by the things we were concerned about in the first place." The basic idea is that if you tie up your logic neatly and tidily in an internally consistent knot, you've got knowledge.


There's an important part of the dictionary definition of any given word that you cannot find in the dictionary: syntax. Sure, you'll find the word syntax in the dictionary, but you won't find the language's syntax itself in the dictionary. Reading a dictionary without some understanding of how a language's syntax works will not impart any special knowledge of what those words mean. Try it. Get a dictionary for a language that you don't speak. Try to find out what a word means. Good fucking luck. And thus it is that Contextualism fails.

I believe that such syntactical weight should be given to the improvisation, innovation and creation processes. Charts and tables can give you elements to play with, but it is through a conscious, creative action of building interrelations between those elements that details become facts and that facts are given life at the game table. We must interpret the data given to us and it is in that act of interpretation that data-gathering becomes synthesis, where we create something new out of the raw "A, B, C" of our data source.

This is why I love tables.

The best things that tables can be are (a) inventive (introducing new things I might not have thought about otherwise) and (b) useful. Yoon-Suin's tables do these things on nearly every page. The book focuses more on creating interesting and useful social structures than stuff like terrain and lairs because, let's face it, there's enough stuff out there in other resources (or already in our brains) that reinventing the wheel isn't always the most practical thing an author can do. But what is practical? Taking the "here, make it yourself" a few steps further than I've seen it done before and instead of telling me "this kingdom is like this, this other kingdom is like that," author David McGrogan gives us different series of tables to let us figure out for ourselves what each place is like. In essence, he provides an aesthetic, you and I fill in the blanks when set about using the material. He provides the words, you and I supply the syntax.

Social structures can be some of the hardest to write, if only because they are natural outcroppings of that most chaotic of substrata, the human mind, and even more erratic since they're the product of several to many human minds and so you really couldn't help for a more unstable foundation. Yoon-Suin's ability to replicate that instability and erraticness is precisely why I consider it required reading.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Lazy Post: Where We're Going

I spent much of May neglecting the ol' blog here. Sure, I wrote some stuff about required reading for the dynamic hexcrawl stuff I have yet to write, but basically I spent most of my blog-writing-time working on other stuff. Most of it, thankfully, involved "next projects" of one sort or another. It seems that every time I talk about my "next projects," though, something else gets in the way of them or they get delayed or something stupid wrecks my plans. So, that having been said, here's the stuff that we're putting on the stove before any of it gets moved to the back burners.

Exhibit A: Nova Scream zine

So, our old pal +James Spahn wrote this RPG in, like, record time, and it hit me in all the right parts. It's a sci fi take on the S&W Whitebox rules, which is pretty awesome as far as I'm concerned. The rush of new stuff for White Star has been pretty exciting as well, in particular the stuff that +Mike Evans has been kicking out (isn't his enthusiasm contagious?), so that got +Donn Stroud & I to thinking about we would want in a White Star game, which ultimately led to us deciding to work on a zine together. Now, Donn has done some work for Metal Gods before (check out MGOUH#2), and there's that whole podcast thing we do together (Drink Spin Run in case you weren't sure) so I know I can work with the guy.

Donn & I both take more of our sci fi cues from the grittier end of the genre. When we talked about our top influences, stuff like WH40k, Dune, the Incal, Doom Patrol, FarScape (totally gritty universe, less gritty crew), Red Dwarf, Dark Future, and more that I can't think of right now. Even Star Wars, at times, can be gritty, broken-down and cruddy. So, not so much on the Flash Gordon side of things. Not that we have any problems with that stuff, it's just not the direction that we want to go.

Here's the original announcement copy that I wrote for the zine, posted to the White Star community.
"The Universe is old, and she is crumbling. I have seen humankind's reach throughout the cosmos and, though it is vast, her grasp is failing. I have felt the deaths of millions in the collapse of planets and the grave yard of an asteroid field. I have tasted the bitter ash of our decline and decadence, unwilling to face the truths of time and where we are headed. I have heard the Nova Scream, the death-rattle of worlds, and know it waits for us all."  
Nova Scream is a new zine for the White Star RPG from +Adam Muszkiewicz (of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine & Drink Spin Runpodcast) and +Donn Stroud (of the Drink Spin Run podcast and many other projects) set in a Universe where humankind's glory days are long past and the cosmos teeters on the brink of total collapse, and so every ray of hope counts. Could there be a better time for adventurers to make their mark?  
In the pages of Nova Scream, you'll find resources for your White Star game, bringing a signature brand of dystopian future adventure to your table. An ancient universe of savagery and sophistication awaits you in the pages of Nova Scream, available soon in pdf and print. 

Exhibit B: Metal Gods #4

Sadly, I have no picture for this one... yet.

My plan for 2015 is to kick out three issues of Metal Gods. We've already got one under our belt (MGOUH#3) and we've started assignments for the second (MGOUH#4) which will include some different stuff. In keeping with our trend of theming issues, Metal Gods #4 centers on the elves of Ore which, if you've been paying attention, means you shouldn't be expecting any sort of namby-pamby tree-huggery. Nope. It's not that "our elves are different," but rather that, like so much in the DCC-o-sphere, we take what's cool about elves in DCC and turn it up to 11!

We got a lot of ground covered with this issue in the wake of MGOUH#3, but we still have some headway to make. I'm expecting this issue to hit a little later than Nova Scream #1, but it should only be about a month afterward.

Exhibit C: The Big Move

I've mentioned this elsewhere in hopes of getting some advice (which didn't happen), but it looks like Dispatches From Kickassistan has finally grown to the point where we're ready to take the blog to the next level and switch platforms to WordPress from Blogger. I don't mention this to have a big, drawn-out conversations about the merits of one platform over another. My mind is made up, and this is the thing that I need to do. Yes, it's going to cost some money, but that doesn't mean that I'll start putting ads all over the site. Not while I'm the Minister of Tourism. Nope.

I've already started the "getting acquainted with WordPress" process and it's probably going to be a few more weeks (if not a month or so) before the move is complete, but it is inexorable. Like the mighty glacier, this change is a-comin', if slowly, and will leave some huge changes in its wake. If anyone has any advice on moving from Blogger to WordPress, and by that I mean constructive advice (asking why I'm making the change isn't constructive), let me know.

Exhibit D: The KMT Store

One of the problems I've been having with selling zines online is trying to manage multiple digital presences for sales purposes. Gumroad, PayPal, OBS... and then I have convention vendors and retailers who carry the zine as well. There's a lot to keep track of. The move to WordPress will allow me to run a Kickassistan Ministry of Tourism store under one banner (don't worry, we'll still be on OBS for pdfs). The boring part that you won't care about is that this move will make tracking inventory and invoices and such a lot easier. The part that you might care about is that it will also make it possible for us to carry stuff other than zines, so we'll be able to sell stuff like those cool t shirts that Wayne's been kicking out lately, along with some other neat stuff. The idea that we've been knocking around is to sell cool things that allows us to make more cool things; we love making new stuff and we've discovered that a good way to get to make more of it is by trading it to people for this money stuff. It's not like we're going to be rolling in cash or anything, but we'll have a little better control over our cash flow so that when Wayne gets the idea for a new shirt, or some stickers or a cool bookmark or whatever, we can turn around and make it.

That's what I've been up to lately. How about you?