Thursday, September 20, 2018

Peterson and her effect on my role playing sensibilities

So as I see the leaves begin to change with autumn's approach I shouldn't be surprised that my brain shifted to Elvira, especially Monday when this post entered my brain. So I figured I should ramble a little more about comedy, terror, and memory.

A lot of my writing has a very strong horror theme to it,  partly that is due to the nature of the genre. The difference between horror and high adventure is often just your estimation of your chances of success. It is lack of adequate competence (in the broadest sense) that leads to horror and shifts it away from something almost lighthearted.

I also tend to write things that casually include the incredible suffering of mere existence that common peasants suffered in a historical setting. The aesthetics of ruin is a good read but I don't tend to have my writing wallow in misery, as there is an element of both comedy and suffering in the situation.  Without sounding too nihilistic, the level of ruin often has a form of bleak comedy about it. Comedy , to me, makes the horror elements that much more vivid and memorable. I believe there are fairly straightforward reasons for that which I'll come back to.

That concept of embedding comedy among horror is almost certainly something I picked up from Peterson in her role as Elvira.  I will make the controversial statement that although I have watched the Elvira movie many times, it is purely as a tradition. I think its generally garbage. It's bad because it puts Elvira front and center, while her talent is providing running commentary on horror movies themselves.  Movies made in earnest, if poorly, were a lot more enjoyable to watch.  I remember watching her Schlock-o-thon about a quarter century ago.  The jokes acted like a sieve to filter out everything but the few good kernels within the movies.  I don't recall all the dumb crap that is 95% of a movie like "Gargoyles" but I do remember the ominous scene where you realize it is in fact a demon succeeding in corrupting the mind of  a person (whose name and role I have long since forgotten) through fake claims of just being a different alien species trying to live in peace.   That may have actually been true for the crappy plot, but that one scene implied very different. The jokes filtered out all the dumb junk which was unable to rise past them in terms of quality, leaving behind that one moment as a little gem that remains in memory a quarter century later.  This is probably the same reason I enjoyed MST3K so much, but (second controversial statement) their comedy was much better. Elvira is linked to Halloween so that bumps her up a lot in my books, otherwise I would say there isn't even a contest between which one I like more.

The ability to create those "long term gems of memory" is one of my main goals when running games.  I want it to be fun and interesting in the moment  at the table yes, but part of the "stickiness" I do when writing adventures also serves the secondary function of creating good/interesting memories.  I want people to vividly remember moments of games I ran years or decades down the line.

Novelty can be part of this sure,  but if everything is novel then nothing sticks out from all the rest. Using familiar archetypes actually seems to work better, perhaps because similar stimuli are frequently encountered.  Each encounter then reminds you of the game and further cements the memory in your brain. They also help to contrast those components of the adventure that ARE novelty, making the novelty bits easier to remember in their own right. If most statues don't come to life and kill you, the one that does is memorable (and might succeed). If most statues you encounter come to life to kill you then everyone gets wise to that shit after the second statue.

This is one of the things LotFP as a publishing house does right with their submission guidelines (in my opinion),  they want things to be historically normal except for one weird thing which is the focal point of the adventure. One point I think LotFP doesn't do as well in this regard (though it probably isn't a goal of theirs) is shying away from folklore.

Lovecraft's weird fiction did a pretty good job on this to my mind. On the one hand they had aliens as gods and super-science as magic,  but they also had robed cultists performing sacrifices next to an idol and witches with familiars signing their name in a black book held by a humanoid with goat legs. Contrast his stories of pure novelty like "Shadows of out time".  You probably recall that Yithians look weird, have a massive library, and quantum leap everywhere right?  What about the other details?  On the top of your head, what more do you recall?  Do you remember they have no sense of touch?  Probably with a little goading. What about their government structure?  Their hovercars? Their highway infrastructure?  That all gets lost in the jumble.  Compare that to "The Shadow over Innsmouth".  You've got the coach (bus) driver with ominous foreshadowing.  You've got the creepy secret society. The old man who warns you of DOOM DOOM! All common archetypes that make the novel components (the underwater fishperson city) stand out that much more. The contrast of novel elements (at the time) alongside traditional folklore archetypes made those stories extremely memorable on the whole, even if details were lost.

Combining the jokes and comedy at the table as a sieve with an adventure featuring traditional archetypes contrasting a novel element has so far seemed like the most effective method for ensuring that moments are captured as long term memories. "A thousand dead babies" is a good example of this.  It has the novel component of [spoiler] but also a lot of archetypes that are classic like the black sabbath, or the farmer's daughter. While I play it straight, it is also specifically ripe for a lot of humour at the table. I generally try to avoid honestly complimenting myself, but that particular adventure does seem to generate those types of long term memories for people. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Final Day for Murder at Devil Pines

The second and last Kickstarter post I will make about this topic.

Its in the final hours for "Murder at Devil Pines" , a board game I designed which I've written about a few times on this blog. The cliff notes:

1.) Its a paranormal investigation game set in 1992. You may have to fight Mothman.
2.) You can set up and play a game in about 30 minutes the first time, about 20 after that.
3.) It still has advancement and equipment. Everyone likes getting loot.
4.) Its co-operative, but it has a potential traitor mechanic. About 50% of games feature a traitor, which is only uncovered through game play (including to the potential traitor). This prevents one player from potentially running the group as puppets, but since the game is so quick it doesn't ruin the night if someone IS a traitor (in games that take an hour to set up and 12 to play this can be a problem).
5.) We offer an option to give files needed for virtual tabletops.

We are at 85% funding and would love to hit that target.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, consider backing it HERE

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Murder at Devil Pines - an early 90's paranormal investigation boardgame

So we recently launched "Murder at Devil Pines",  the theoretically co-operative boardgame I've posted about a few times on here.  It features the artwork of the talented Alex Mayo.

You can back it HERE

We ran this pretty heavily at GenCon for a few dozen people,  plus I ran it a few times at bars and hotel lobbies.  It is a great pickup game for those situations.  Explaining the rules, setting it up, and playing the first game takes about half an hour to forty minutes. Future games are about twenty minutes.

Its unique quirk is that has a potential traitor mechanic where only about half the games have a traitor (and about a quarter have two, an eighth three etc),  so in theory you should all work together.  But you don't know who is a traitor (including you!) until you start unraveling the mystery.  So there is a real benefit in keeping things secret so that other people won't be tipped off that they are a traitor themselves.  In short, you can run into a "but do they know that I know that they know that I know..." loop.  Its a great social game and its quick enough to set up and play that losing because of a traitor doesn't spoil the evening since you can just play another round.  It also means that one person with a stronger personality can't dominate the table like in other co-operative games.

If you like co-op board games or casual games I think you'll like this one.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The magic of Three. 3 days left and 3000 percent funded.

Just a heads up that we are on the final stretch of the kickstarter.  We are on its last three days and three thousand percent funded.   We are also closing in on a stretch goal of having the talented Luka Rejec do a version of the rules using his own art.  I'd like to thank everyone for their support.

Back it HERE

Monday, July 23, 2018

The assumption of failure in information design: Thoughts on the presentation of adventures

I often see people talk about how information needs to be re-organized and laid out differently to aid use of a product at the table.  This is a great idea, but I often see it done bass-ackwards.  People make suggestions that I think are antithetical to the ideal goal of not having to look through a book at all during play.  In short, people advocate for an acceptance of the inevitability of failure on the designer's part.

To explain further on that topic, think of the core rule from Neoclassical Geek Revival "The Known Rule".

NGR contains a large number of rules,
and in the end it is not likely someone
will have them all memorized. The
rules of this game are only applicable
if someone involved actually knows the
rule or claims to. If no party involved
knows the rule then they obviously did
not choose their course of action based
on the mechanics. In such a case, the
GM should issue a ruling and move
on. You should never be looking up
rules during play. Doing so results
in –1 awesomeness for a player or +1
awesomeness to all players if the GM
looks up a rule (per occurrence). Awesomeness
is covered near the end of the
book in the End of the Session section.

That neither GM's nor Players should be spending time cracking open books at the table is absolutely critical to my gaming sensibilities.  Having a quick summary of an NPC would be to accept failure (note: this is distinct from a statblock for mechanics) .  The NPC should already be in your brain, they should be "Sticky" for lack of familiarity to any better term.

And "Sticky" is the key to the whole adventure.  When you read it, the general shape of purpose of the adventure should be in your head.  You don't need a quick summary of the NPC and their motivations because they should be vivid enough in your memory that a simple name or title ("Doug" or "The Apothecary") should be enough to make them leap into your mind fully formed with the details being "right enough".  If you forget a few details that didn't stick in your memory, that isn't a problem.

There are obviously limits to this*.  Shenanigans will ensue and you will need to periodically figure out exactly how certain things work. You may need to quickly scan a map or look at the stat block for a monster when it boils down to game mechanics and dice rolling (usually combat).  These things always go into an appendix at the back when I write an adventure for that reason.  If you need to know what the stats of a lazer-badger are, they will be in the back.  They will also be given a memorable name like "lazer-badger". Spells and magic items are also in similar appendices for the exact same reason.

For rooms I've taken to adding some colour coding,  which means you can see whats important at a glance.  I do this because I see a lot of value of making things easier to skim, provided doing so doesn't interfere with the ideal state of not needing to skim at all.  When I colour code bits of the rooms, I don't need to rewrite the room. It keeps a conversationalist and narrative structure that (to me) more easily forms a mental picture.

Random generators (such as a chart or table) also require reading because there are so many different combinations. Those definitely need good design because you need to generate something new at the table itself. It is something I am always looking to improve (with varying degrees of success).

Sometimes bits of content just aren't "sticky". They don't leave an impression in your brain. My thought to that is, why are they in the adventure?  Are they just fill? padding?  How much are you really losing from the adventure if you ditch them considering a few hours after reading them before the game you'd already forgotten they even existed? Perhaps you've crammed too much stuff in one adventure? The human mind has limits for information chunking and you should take that into account when designing an adventure (3-7 being the magic numbers, ideally aiming for 5).

To be clear, this isn't a claim that I always succeed in creating "sticky" adventures and situations. The colour codes I add to rooms are there because sometimes I will fail in my goal with the room and it doesn't hurt to add them in. Writing and design are skills like any other.  You can always improve, and the only way to do that is through practice. Practice involves failure and its prudent to take steps to minimize the impact of failure if they don't interfere with doing things right.  I am working on some additional appendix ideas that I hope to release in the future that should make investigative and heist adventures easier for that very reason.

If you write with the idea that the GM will be reading it at the table you've already failed in my mind. I am not going to read a damn thing at the table unless the situation has already broken down into analysis paralysis. This happens. Usually it happens when there is some cockamamie scheme from the players that devolves into abusing some minute fact or mechanic.  It also happens when the party travels long distances and the players "zoom out" from the matter at hand into a more abstract mindset. But if you expect me to read even one line every time the party goes into a new hallway or searches a room you've already lost me. Every time I have to read at the table I see that as a failure.

Getting near the final countdown on the Kickstarter

Edit: * Obvious limits currently.  I am sure different things could be changed in either game prep habits, adventure expectations, system design or who knows what to minimize this in the future.  Mechanical interaction is a big break point for example, but in NGR the process in which stats are derived allows for easier (though not yet perfect) "Just In Time" stat generation.  The weighted pro/cons on things like weapon tags make it easier to forget rules as well.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

On the virtue of persistence

Producing RPG material as a labour of love requires persistence. When it starts to involve a team it requires even more so.  When you get real particular about wanting the talents of extremely specific individuals who have their own schedules and their own projects, you better get used to waiting.

It was in the far off year of 2012, six years ago, that I ran two campaigns (one at home, one online) through the City of Tears.  It was my goal to really hone down on what made a good dungeon based campaign from years of theory and past campaigns.  The City of Tears is designed so that your group can spend months of real life weekly game sessions delving into a dungeon and puttering about the immediate area on "side quests" which all lead back to the dungeon.

And it has been a fair amount of time to get this work polished.  I wanted the layout of a specific graphic designer (Jensen Toperzer) because she does absolutely gorgeous work. I wanted the art work of Jez Gordon because his stark art is exactly what was in my minds eye. I wanted the maps of Dyson Logos, because if I am going to do a proper dungeon I want dungeon maps from the best. All of these people it turns out had different priorities of their own and weren't just sitting around waiting me to call.  It took 5 years before I got through all three queues.  I've had a completed City of Tears since last fall.  But after five years of working on something, I want it to get a little more fanfare.

So I saved it up to be part of a three part release of the major projects I have been working on:

An Omnibus of all my self-published adventures
A full art version of Neoclassical Geek Revival

And the City of Tears

A lot of the attention on the kickstarter has been about the first two points.  But I want to make sure that the news of City of Tears isn't lost in the shuffle because it is an absolutely gorgeous work. It is worth the wait.

Get it HERE

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Ennies and writing on autopilot

As you may be aware,  the writing contest between Kiel Chenier and myself that spawned "The Scenario from Ontario" is up for an Ennie award.  You should vote for it to win. If you rank it a 1 and don't rank anything else in that category we'd be much more likely to win.

Kiel recently did an interview about the adventure and talked about how the short time frame made it so that he wrote it almost on autopilot and so a lot of his natural inclinations for how adventures work bled into it.  He discusses how themes such as the banal yet powerful evil of greed mixed with industrialization can easily overshadow the supernatural in terms of true misery caused. The theme that deposing a powerful person creates a vacuum and that the players will have to weigh filling that gap and becoming the villain themselves or seeing if the new person who fills the void is even worse than the last.  Those are his "autopilot" themes.

A friend referred to my own entry (Maple Witch of the Beaver Wars) as very visibly "Zzarchovian",  when pressed on what that means he brought forth a few points that would seem to be my own autopilot for adventure writing:


1. Some sort of ongoing problem emerging from the dungeon that provides hooks (like kids missing in Pale Lady)
2. Interact-able factions surrounding/inhabiting the sandbox (the haud/nish/french/witch division in MW, the priest/pagans/others in ATDB)
3. abstracted/random navigation surrounding the dungeon, often with clues pointing to dungeon 
4. a dungeon with one or more artefacts/magic effects intended to have complex consequences for PCs (the bassinet, the cube) 

So, seeing as I have an Omnibus of all my NGR/OSR adventures temporarily available over at the Kickstarter I am running, I figure I have enough of a body of work for people for people to make their own thoughts on what a "Zzarchovian Adventure" is and I would love to hear them.

Money Money Money.....MONEY