January 30, 2012

Reboot Lab

In an October Legends and Lore column that in retrospect veritably drips with hints, Monte Cook contemplates the legacy of the D&D property through its four editions worth of monsters. Should nostalgia for iterations past require updates of old beasties, or are certain creatures too lame to preserve?

Here one might take a page from the world of comics. The reboot that makes a previously lame character cool and creepy has already gone from an innovative move pioneered by the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman to a decadent cliché attempted by just about everyone.

As we’ve yet to run this idea into the ground in gaming, it might be fun to reconfigure the silly monsters of yore into dread beings no party wants to meet in a dark dungeon corridor.

To dip into the 4E continuity while it’s still current... when the mind flayer empire of Nihilath dominated the world, its rulers made a terrible example out of rebels. Their champions were borne to experimental laboratories, where illithid wizards created horrible new forms of life. They removed prisoner’s brain tissue, using it as the basis for vat-grown guardian organisms. The resulting creatures can still be found, aeons later, floating through the Underdark. Appallingly, they retain fragments of their original identities. Their eternal torment manifests as a psychic aura that assaults the minds of any hapless explorers who come upon them. The vat survivors never truly die, but if defeated in combat fall over onto their jelly-like backs. During their torpor it is possible to gain flashes of insight into their ancient lives, which sometimes prove useful while exploring the ruins of Nihilath. Or sometimes drive the experiencer to madness. Folios of monstrous lore refer to these entities as soulscreamers, or by their name in the gnomish tongue—flumph.

January 27, 2012

The Forest Game

A Ripped From the Headlines Plot Premise For The Esoterrorists

When viral videos appear on the Internet documenting a mystery sound heard in farflung locations throughout the world, skeptics declare them obvious fakes. It doesn’t take a sound engineer to tell that they’re electronically generated, possibly from a sample of the Godzilla scream.

But the Ordo Veritatis knows that a hoax, no matter how transparent, can touch off supernatural events, if it opens vulnerable minds to the possibilities of the supernatural. As its governmental contacts take the videos down, the PC investigation team heads to the Alberta first nations reserve where some joker has been broadcasting weird noises in the forest. But as they attempt to triangulate his location, they realize that a portal to the dreaded Outer Dark has already opened—and they’ve just walked through it. In a borderland mixing qualities of Earth with that of the terrible beyond, hunted by predatory entities, they must find and neutralize the hoaxer’s speaker setup—and hope they wind up on the right side of the gateway when it closes.

January 26, 2012

Style Notes for Anthropomorphic Prose

[Posted without context, but also, by popular request.]

Fable convention has it that we meet one member of each animal type, and his species name is treated as his given name:

Frog and Badger went down to the lake where they saw that Duck had polluted it with his motorboat.

Treat the species names of such characters as proper names, capitalized accordingly, without the indefinite article. References to groups of creatures would not be capitalized, and would use the definite article:

I am happy to be a bald eagle,” Bald Eagle said.

That is all.

January 25, 2012

The Design Throughline, and How To Implement It

Or, How To Design RPGs the Robin Laws Way (Part Three of Several; see part one for introduction and disclaimer)

After a longer-than-planned hiatus, let’s jump back in. Last time I discussed the design throughline, the central concept underlying game play, as one of two fundamental elements I want to determine as the very first step of creating an RPG.

During the design process, the design throughline becomes a benchmark against which I test new rules. It's easy to get sidetracked when designing a subsystem and lose track of the entire rules set's ultimate purpose. To do this it often becomes necessary to articulate additional principles that flow from the design throughline. GUMSHOE's design throughline concerns the facilitation of investigative play. For this reason it seeks to emulate mystery-based fictional sources rather than simulate reality using a physics engine. It aims to be simple, to allow players to focus their brainpower on the overarching meaning of the clues they assemble. In turn, for both of those reasons, it strives to make its rules player-facing. For example, rather than have adversaries roll to see if they detect you when you're hiding, players roll to beat a Difficulty, expressed in the adversary's stats, to see if they've successfully hidden.

D&D doesn't do that, which makes sense, because Dungeons and Dragons is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff. Having the stats for monsters operate independently of, while interlocking with, the stats for the characters, fits that game's implicit design throughline.

Sometimes I find myself falling back on the core assumptions of previous games. They're familiar and understandable to current players. Compromises with the design throughline may sometimes be justified for this reason: people can absorb only so much new stuff in one go.

As I revise a rules set—either during original design or over time in follow-up products—I often find myself altering material to bring it line with the throughline. Sometimes it takes a while for the implications of the throughline to become clear. We've implemented the player-facing principle more consistently over GUMSHOE's various iterations, as it has become clearer to us.

When a rule causes trouble, or starts feeling wrong, I ask myself if it has taken on a logic of its own at odds with the design throughline. The first iteration of GUMSHOE space combat got away from me because I fell into a level of detail that, while not exactly simulative, set aside the simplicity and abstraction found in the rest of the system. The new version succeeds by back to the design throughline and its implications and restoring those qualities.

January 23, 2012


Last summer, Internet-shaking events of cataclysmic import took place within weeks of one another. One, Google launched its social networking site, Google+. Two, in a long overdue move prompted by repeated denial of service attacks at LiveJournal, I switched this blog’s main venue to Blogger.

Had I anticipated the benefit of Blogger’s better analytics, I might have switched way earlier. Given the timing, those beautifully formatted traffic stats have mapped the incredible progress of links placed on Google+ as a driver of traffic to the site.

Social media links now bring the vast majority of readers to this site. The days of following a blog, either by RSS feed or repeated visits to an aggregator like the LJ friends page, are gone, at least for this virtual clubhouse.

At first, the three sites drove traffic to the site in roughly equal measures. This itself is amazing when you consider the brand-newness of G+ at the time. Since then Facebook’s share of that pie has shriveled to nearly nothing. Last week’s referring sites tally (as of Tuesday evening) ranks Twitter at 47%, G+ at 37%, and Facebook at a mere 6%.

Twitter’s share goes up when a post gets a lot of play, as The D&DNext post did last week. Retweets evidently carry more weight than shares on Google.

By contrast, here’s the pie for the Blogger site to date:

Here Twitter and G+ are nearly equal, with the newer platform actually squeaking out ahead of its blue-feathered elder. Facebook’s slice is bigger than in the weekly chart, reflecting its greater pull during the site’s first months. LiveJournal links are from the old site to the new; these have tapered off as readers have adjusted to the shift. The Google slice represents search results. I’m not sure whether the Bit.ly links are strays from my own social network links or were created by others.

What I conclude from this is that Facebook has fallen away as a mechanism for people like me to communicate with a broader audience. This is unsurprising; Twitter and G+ were designed for this purpose, where Facebook’s focus has always been on assembling, decompartmentalizing, and cross-pollinating your personal contacts. The surprise is how quickly the change effected itself.

What you might conclude from this is that if you are also trying to maintain contact with an audience and are not on Google+, you probably ought to be. I might enjoy some first mover advantage for having dived in right away, but it’s still early days for the new platform and there still appears to be mindshare to spare.

January 20, 2012

Who Killed SOPA?

SOPA died last night.

If you’re a member of the MPAA team tasked with shepherding this bill into Congress and getting it passed into law, you started the week hoping the bill would move quietly through the system as an uncontroversial piece of commercial regulation.*

Uncontroversial bills have to be bipartisan. So you appointed as your legislative spearhead a Texas Republican, and worked to get congressmen and senators from both sides of the aisle to support the bill.

Depending on which conservative interest he favors, a Republican lawmaker might align for or against balls-to-the-wall intellectual property enforcement. It advantages** a lucrative industry, one in which America enjoys a worldwide upper hand. On the other hand, that industry is Hollywood, whose content social conservatives love to hate.

Unfortunately for you, MPAA lobbyist, there's a primary on. The primary system may be a crazy way to pick a president, but it’s a fabulous way to figure out which stances work with voters. And last night all four primary contenders intuited that slamming Hollywood played better for them than supporting its industrial interests. In one brief round of answers they cemented the anti-SOPA position as the Republican default.

This doesn’t mean that Democrats will line up in favor of SOPA. They too can pick either side of the fight and remain within their interests or ideology.

But even if you keep the Democrats on board, you second-person MPAA representative, you, the issue won’t go back to being bipartisan again. Worst case, you lose both parties. Best case, you get a partisan battle, which will be protracted, heavily publicized, and, with the system’s profusion of veto points, is unlikely to resolve in your favor.

The Internet generation may have whittled down SOPA’s hit points with blackout day, but it was the Romney-Gingrich-Santorum-Paul adventuring party that scores the kill-steal.

*To nurture this hope, you would have to forget that the sector you want to regulate, information tech, is as big if not bigger than the entertainment industry, and better positioned to mobilize public opinion. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.

**If it works as claimed. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.

January 19, 2012

Uncrossing the D&D Setting Streams

Reverance Pavane, regarding my earlier D&DNext wish list:

Forgot to ask about what you are looking for in an official setting...

I don’t so much have a single clear preference as an awareness of the difficulty the D&DNext team faces in harmonizing the streams on this one. You want DMs to create their own worlds from the set of assumptions the rules build into any D&D game—there are wizards and gods and orcs and demons and this particular spell list and so on. At the same time, a canon of lore has accumulated around D&D, so that its audience expects certain characters, places and situations as part of their experience. Obvious examples: Sigil, the drow and their Underdark cities, and the roster of demon lords that slightly shifts with each new take on the setting. To many fans, these are as much a part of the D&D feel as magic swords or the fireball spell.

3E’s original vision had a vaguely defined Greyhawk (which each DM would make up as he went along) as the default world, with the classic settings depicted in walled-off supplements. 4E split the difference a bit, leaving the material world undefined but concretely populating the otherworldly spaces.

A unity edition suggests a breadth of approach, giving fans of the classic settings the tools to play around in them, and kitbashers the leeway to disentangle the intellectual property elements from the rules. Perhaps the team will find a way to treat past continuities in parallel, so you can adventure across the Forgotten Realms in original, reboot, or rereboot modes. A take on setting that is, if you will, officially unofficial.

So, where setting is concerned, my hoped-for keywords would be familiarity for current fans, accessibility for new ones, and flexibility for all.

January 17, 2012

Community, Comedy & DramaSystem

Benjamin Hayward asks:

After watching the first season of Community sequentially, I was struck by how much it's characters resemble Dramatic Heroes much more than Iconic ones in their decisions despite the show being advertised as a sitcom. Reading the DVD box reveals all. The show is supposedly about how attending college changes the characters through the lessons they learn. In this way, the characters all slowly change throughout the season, with some doing so more than others in each episode. Have you watched enough of Community to comment on how Drama System might fit it? Or perhaps how Drama System might fit serial comedy in general?

I haven’t subjected comedy to the same analysis that I have drama and the procedural, so consider these thoughts provisional. Blame Aristotle for losing the treatise on comedy that originally accompanied The Poetics. If only he’d backed up to a USB drive!

Comedies tend, like procedurals, to threaten the characters’ status quo and then return to it. The leads aren’t solving external problems as the iconic heroes of procedural stories do. Iconic heroes encounter disorder and tame it. Comedy protagonists tend to instigate disorder (often by pursuing an internal flaw, just like tragic heroes), which continues to spiral out of control in response to their efforts to control it. Finally the disorder reaches a culmination. The hero, undone, confronts his flaw and all is forgiven and order restored.

The equivalent of the procedural would be the slapstick or physical obstacle: the accelerating conveyor belt, the clock hand from which the hero dangles, the damnable road runner who won’t be caught. Moments of character comedy play out just as dramas do—there’s a petitioner who wants something, a granter who does or doesn’t give it to them. Because of these similarities you could play a sitcom format with DramaSystem—though I’m not sure who really wants to. It’s easier to be funny by riffing on a putatively serious game than to keep the jokes flying on purpose.

Community creator Dan Harmon sets out to subvert sitcom conventions and as such bends his characters much further out of their original molds than the audience’s comfort level might permit. This becomes all the more apparent after Season One. Still, you could argue that whatever changes the characters go through, or surprising qualities they reveal about themselves, the study group itself—the real community the show’s title refers to—is restored to harmony at the end of each episode.

January 16, 2012

D&DNext Wish List

The announcement for the upcoming new version of Dungeons & Dragons positions it as an Ecumenical Council for tabletop roleplaying's flagship title. Reuniting the disparate partisans of the dread Edition Wars under a single new banner is a tough brief. The Mearls-Cook-Cordell-Schwalb team comprises a formidable brain trust--one well-wired into the sometimes paradoxical demands of the gamer tribe. So I'm very curious to see what they draw from each past version as they assemble this Uber-edition. Given my past freelancing for the line, the possibility exists that I might get to see what they're up to—and thus be unable to talk about it. So, before that happens, here's my list, untainted by actual information, of what I'd hope to see swept into the new iteration.

Of course the vastness of the challenge is that everybody will have a different list.


Concise, manageable, easy-to-design creature stat blocks

On-line tools add ease of play

Alignment simplified and detached from mechanics


Open license as focus of community excitement

2nd Edition

Emphasis on setting (though this is a double-edged sword, as splitting the line into multiple settings started the great D&D diaspora)

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

baseline tropes of the D&D feel (whatever that is, leaving out the dysfunctional ones)

prose style brimming with idiosyncratic personality

serves as introduction to the fantasy canon

Blue Box Introductory Set

fast combat

feeling of being a kid again


Comments that ignore the above conceit to simply stake out a prior position in the Edition Wars are permissible, but will be silently judged.

January 13, 2012

Headlines as Story Beats

Hamlet's Hit Points identifies three basic story beats relating to the presentation of information. The pipe beat hides info for later, and as such is strictly a creature of fiction. The other two beats, the question and the reveal, are central to any narrative communication that seeks to attract and hold audience interest. Questions cause emotional friction or longing; reveals relieve these feelings. The first is a down beat, the second an up beat.

New stories can be broken down with beat analysis, too. The shoehorning of information into a storyline with emotional ups and downs becomes most apparent on television news. However, it’s present in print reporting as well.

However arranged, a newspaper or magazine headline poses a question. As much as it may seem to lay out the basics of a story, it’s really working to excite your imagination and formulate questions about its further details. The body of the story then proposes to answer that question, along with the core journalistic five Ws: what? Who? Where? When? Why? (And the red-headed stepchild, How?)

If you’re using social media to spread awareness, you can garner more clicks by hooking into the beat structure of headline and story. When you write a blurb on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or whatever to a post you want people to read, compose it so that it poses a question, in the reader’s mind if not directly. Reference to one of the 5Ws never hurts.

The hidden dynamic of the headline, and how to harness it.

Why ghouls are the next vampires.

Who are the players of the future?

When to eject dysfunctional gamers.

Of the 5Ws, the most clickable is the H. People want to know how to do things.

Other classic headline tricks attract clicks. Citing a number poses an implicit question. If your headline reads “Ten Mistakes GMs Make”, I’m immediately wondering which items you’ve chosen.

January 11, 2012

Cthulhu and Me

Benjamin Hayward asks for my cthredentials:

You've been posting often about H. P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu on Twitter, Facebook, and here. Would you mind doing a blog entry talking about your first exposure to, favourite part of, interest in, and history with H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos?

I am among the first wave of readers who caught the Lovecraft bug from gaming. Call of Cthulhu came out when I was in high school; I bought it right away and was soon off to the Orillia public library to track down their copy of the Arkham House anthology The Dunwich Horror and Others, with its Lee Brown Coye cover. When Sandy Petersen’s game helped spur a resurgence of interest in Lovecraft, I grabbed the paperbacks as they showed up in the small Ontario city of my birth.

The story that I find most brilliant, innovative and influential as a piece of writing is “Call of Cthulhu”, with its documentary realism and disorienting, stories-within-stories structure.

The one that scared me the most was “Whisperer in Darkness”, perhaps because I mentally set it in an area I knew well from my childhood—not New England, but the stark landscape of Ontario’s Muskoka district. I also retain vivid sense memory of my first reading of the subtle and brilliant “The Color Out of Space.”

Lovecraft interests me on a couple of levels. The kid in me loves the outlandish details of its creatures. The geek responds to the quasi-continuity he builds as he adds to his corpus of stories, so that knowledge of one informs one’s responses to others. The group collaborative aspect with his peers is also appealing—and the reason the mythos sits in ambiguously in the public domain for anyone to play with. I appreciate him as an exponent of intellectual horror: it is as much about our fundamental aloneness as the fear of being torn apart by a star vampire or hound of Tindalos. In his mature work he is also a top-notch stylist, marrying prose to content in an uninhibited way we could use more of today.

For all of these reasons, I am glad to get to dip my toes in the icy Lovecraftian pool, both with works for Trail of Cthulhu, such as The Armitage Files, and as editor of the upcoming Shotguns v. Cthulhu fiction anthology for Stone Skin Press. There are also some other short fiction projects in the offing, which I’ll announce when the stars are right.

January 10, 2012

Minotaur Planet

According to a conspiracy theory both odd and oddly un-sinister, a youthful Barack Obama, as part of a secret CIA program, used to teleport to Mars. Why, the official denials only serve to confirm it!

To rip this from the headlines into an Ashen Stars scenario...

Teleportation technology doesn't appear in the game setting. It's a notorious plot-hoser. And in a roleplaying game you never have to leave out an establishing shot of a shuttle for pacing or budgetary reasons.

With this in mind...

A wealthy woman hires the lasers to locate her missing daughter, Rika True. Like many missing persons contracts, the arrangement calls for them to bring to justice anyone responsible for any harm that may have come to her. Rika, they learn, was last seen applying for employment with the utopian Eden Corporation. They find the uncharted company world that serves as its headquarters: a lush paradise that provides Eden settlers with a life of ease and luxury. They discover that Rika won the coveted right to participate in an Eden teleport experiment. The experiment turns out to be a scam to feed willing volunteers to a bi-dimensional predatory entity. The twist: it's the entity that makes the planet inhabitable. If they destroy it or drive it away, the atmosphere immediately becomes toxic. Should the lasers reveal this to the populace, the residents decide that they'd rather continue the modest sacrifices than abandon their paradise. Do the lasers bring the system crashing down, as their contract demands, risking the lives of thousands?

January 09, 2012

Bring Back the Old-Timey Political Nickname

I've started in on The Game of Thrones of political biography, Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The first volume, The Path to Power, begins by establishing the Texas political scene prior to LBJ's birth and during his childhood as the son of a Populist state representative.

As a savorer of political lore, I have to say that the modern era has lost one great element from the early part of the last century—the old-timey nickname. Honest Buck. Old Oxcart. Cactus Jack. Heck, I would settle for Pinky.

The trick is that the nicknames have to be favorable, bestowed by admirers. In the modern media environment unironic affection for political leaders is harder to find. Reagan had “the Gipper”, but he got it on loan from Hollywood. Margaret Thatcher's “the Iron Lady” cut both ways.

I'm too much the satirist to come up with straight-faced, old-timey-ish nicknames for current figures. Hillary “Pant Suit” Clinton? Michelle “Crazy Eye” Bachmann? Rick “Santorum” Santorum?

The best I can do is Barack “Long Game” Obama. Fans of the Steve's Dad candidate might go for Ron “Gold Standard” Paul.

What moniker would you bestow on the politician you admire?

January 05, 2012

Avoiding Foot-Mouth Proximity Incidents (Creator Interaction Edition)

Now that you've had time to check out the podcast episode mentioned in yesterday's post, it's time for me to lay a little Rashomon on Joe's account of an awkward Gen Con moment . To recap, Joe remembers me looking at him like he was a “total douchebag” because he hadn't yet wrapped his head around Hamlet's Hit Points. Co-host Nicky avers that this is because Joe was indeed being a total douchebag.

I wouldn't say it quite like that.

Joe led off with a faux pas, to be sure, and I, wag that I am, let him twist in the wind over it. To paraphrasing from memory, he started by saying that he didn't like HHP as well as Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. I laughed at this, in an oh really kind of way, and then proceeded to tease him about this for the remainder of our chat. And am teasing him a bit more now, because that's how I roll. Another creator in similar circumstances might conceal his dudgeon, or get genuinely shirty with you.

Which brings me to a general service announcement. Here are a few handy tips on how to maintain mutually comfortable foot-mouth separation when talking to creators you meet at conventions, signings, and similar events.

The apparent intimacy of the Internet, and the opportunity it provides to express your judgments on art and entertainment products, may lead you astray when it comes time to engage in person people whose work you admire. You may think that creators want to hear critiques of their work expressed with the same frankness you'd use when talking with friends or posting to a forum.

They do not.

Even the necessary process of getting notes from collaborators and trusted readers can be emotionally fraught. Unsolicited notes during a casual social encounter? Etiquette breach! Etiquette breach!

That doesn't mean you ought to fawn, or claim that you like stuff that you don't. Remember though that the unwritten rules of casual interaction remain in force.

When in doubt, ask yourself if you'd expect a good reaction to a comment were the subject swapped to something more mundane.

“I don't like that shirt as well as the one you wore last week.”

Or, given that creative work is a labor of love riven with self-doubt and setback, test your remark by recasting it in a more deeply personal vein:

“I don't like that new baby of yours as well as your first kid.”

If you have an issue with the work, you might succeed in smoothly raising it, if you are indeed a master of diplomacy. Phrasing it in the form of a question might help. “I didn't believe it when Josie went back into the house,” comes off as a note, and is socially assaultive. “Why did Josie go back into the house?” expresses the same thought but doesn't play as a critique.

Roleplayers are luckier than fans of passively consumed work; they can describe practical problems they had in play, or anticipate having in play. “How do I make combat crunchier?” obeys the etiquette of casual interaction. “I still don't like your combat system,” violates it.

Some become unnecessarily anxious when meeting people whose work they like. No one in this field is a Clooney-level celebrity who needs social insulation from fans. I sure want people to feel comfortable approaching me for a chat. I strive to make myself accessible, and so do the vast majority of my colleagues.

On occasion this anxiety leads to a related faux pas, in which an embarrassed speaker tries to defuse the situation by backhanding the compliment, inadvertently converting it into a jab. Never feel you have to apologize, or undercut yourself, when saying something nice.

If a creator makes you feel bad for being excited about his work, they're the douchebag.

Not that Joe, in our inciting example, was being a douchebag, total or otherwise. He just had an unfortunate foot-mouth proximity incident (FMPI), which happens to all of us now and then.

And now we are all well-equipped to avoid similar FMPIs of our own.

January 04, 2012

2 GMs, 1 Mic On Hamlet's Hit Points

In episode 20 of their 2 GMs, I Mic podcast, the irrepressible Joe Wolz and Nicky Helmkamp tackle the issue of pacing in roleplaying games. In the process, they give Hamlet's Hit Points a thorough and gratifying examination. Those of you already familiar with the book may be most interested in the examples they give of applying its lessons to actual play.

Joe tells a funny story on himself in which, when talking to me at Gen Con, his comments on the book led me to look at him like he was a “total douchebag.” While it is true that he led with a wee faux pas, I would, and will, characterize the moment somewhat differently. But before I turn the anecdote into a remake of Rashomon set at the Pelgrane booth, I'll give you time to listen to the Wolz-Helmkamp version.

January 03, 2012

Shotguns v. Cthulhu Cover Preview

Here's a peek at the cover for Shotguns v. Cthulhu, the upcoming anthology of action-oriented Lovecraftian tales from Stone Skin Press. Jason Morningstar brilliantly captured the bold, graphic look we're pursuing for the line with his double-barreled, multi-tentacled retake of the skull and crossbones motif. Sans text, the design would look great on a T-shirt. Alas, that's a category of merchandise publishers have difficulty shifting, so you'll just have to keep an eye out for the book when it arrives later in 2012.