Mar 25, 2020

Resources for Playing Online

I played in an online OSR group for about six years, refereeing for about two and a half of them. Since everyone is shifting their games online to avoid spreading coronavirus infections, I thought I would share some resources and suggestions to make that an easy experience. As always, all of this advice comes with the caveat to do it with charm and grace and not robotically.

Video Conferencing

I think Discord is the best videoconferencing software for gaming at the moment. Discord allows video chat for up to nine people via group chat with no time limit; asynchronous messaging as either a group chat or a private server; the upload of images under 10 MB, and is less of a RAM hog than Skype. You can also load in a dicebot (the one my current group is using is DiceParser) to handle dice rolling.

 I strongly recommend downloading the app instead of running it in your browser, since browsers' RAM usage surges and ebbs unexpectedly, which leads to very uneven video quality, especially when you navigate away from the tab that the video conferencing is running in. The app is much more consistent.

To get the best experience from Discord, I recommend you start about half an hour early for the first session to properly set things up. You should encourage people to shift to "Push to Talk" in their "Voice and Video" settings. This will mean that they're only transmitting purposefully and will eradicate the majority of problems with echoing and intrusive background sounds. I recommend keybinding the "Push to Talk" to an arrow key, since it won't interfere with typing text.

If people don't or won't use Push to Talk, then encourage them to practice good "mute etiquette" by muting their microphones when they're not speaking or getting ready to speak.

The biggest challenge with any online system is reducing cross chatter, which will cause most computer speakers to spit out gibberish and cause slower computers to lag. A related challenge is the pauses where a person has stopped talking and everyone waits a moment then suddenly starts talking at once because the nonlinguistic conversational turn-taking cues are suppressed in video calls. Push to Talk with help a bit, but you can also do a few things to reduce how often this happens.

My suggestions are to adopt gestures that:

1) People can use to indicate that they want to talk. Raising a hand and holding it up until called on by referee works well. Discourage people from flopping their hands up rapidly once hoping that you'll notice. Once the players are familiar with this, you can encourage them to actively "hand off" to the next person they see whose hand is raised.

2) Indicate disagreement or agreement with some proposition. Encourage players to ask simple yes or no questions instead of open-ended, convoluted questions that require several assumptions to hold. Then do a simple roll call and have people give a thumbs up or thumbs down indicating their assent or dissent.

3) Indicate that they're done talking or finishing up, or that you, the referee, want them to bring their comments to a close. I use the OK symbol or sometimes a horizontal hand slice at face-level (I know this as a "cut it off gesture" but these things are so regional).

The smoother you can make all of this, the easier people will find it to pay attention to what's going on and to follow the flow of discussion. The harder it is to follow a given discussion, the easier it is to drift off or become distracted.

Speed is less important than clarity and focus. I recommend supplementing the conversational component by writing out key decisions to be made, or resolutions that have been decided, in the text channel, and having people who have trouble speaking up write their responses there. Rather than handle it yourself, per se, I would recommend appointing either the Caller or the Notetaker to facilitate these discussions and bring them to the attention of the video conference as they think appropriate.

I recommend using the text chat element frequently. When people cast a spell that "lasts 24 hours" and like, have them type that fact into the text channel along with the estimated time of day they cast it. If the party develops a multi-step plan, have them write out the steps in the text channel. Use the text channel as a prosthetic memory so that you don't have to remember all of this stuff.

Whiteboarding

I also recommend using a digital whiteboard when you play. After trying a few options, I settled on Miro (it used to be called Realtimeboard). You can get a free account, but I actually pay for one that gives me extra space (I use it for work stuff and personal projects as well as gaming).

I like Miro because I think it's got the best and broadest set of tools for organising information, and because it gives you a lot of storage (especially with a paid account). I drag and drop images from around the web to create visual collages, and I toss up pdfs of errata documents, world write-ups, and the like.

With Miro, you can share links where people can only view but not edit the board, or you can invite them using their email address to the board which allows editing even if they don't have an account. I recommend using the latter, and make sure to set it up beforehand. Be warned that boards with lots of stuff that have multiple people logging in at once will be slightly slower to load than bare boards with only one or two people.

To use a digital whiteboard effectively for gaming, you should break up sections by function. I use frames for each collection of related items to aid navigation. I recommend at minimum the following sections:

1) A resources section that's mostly locked down so people can't accidentally move or delete stuff in it. These are your static images (e.g. the map of the campaign setting), errata documents, a document with the key stats for the PCs (like their saving throws), etc. Use Miro's "lock" function to prevent people from deleting, duplicating, etc. these pieces.

2) A "working files" section. This is stuff that you'll change or grab maybe once or twice a session but will need more than once. This is where you place comments or notes containing information the PCs discover about the world or NPCs, dump icons for enemies and PCs for battle map uses, and stick other reusable elements you might need.

3) A central working area where you'll be drawing battle maps, diagrams, and illustrations, moving icons around, sticking up post-its with NPC names during interactions, etc. This is where PCs should be drawing things and making their own notes before they're moved over into a more enduring section.

The real key to this is to use the whiteboard as much as possible to organise the presentation of information so people can understand things visually instead of verbally. This reduces the strain on your audio channel's bottleneck, gives people a different way to focus in on what's going on in the game, and lets you present information that might take a lot of speech to convey clearly, but can be conveyed very simply visually.

If you're just using it for combat, then two common outcomes are that in-between combats people will log out of it and lose their ability to navigate back to the link, or they will keep the chat program maximised on screen and only switch over to the whiteboard slowly and when explicitly told to. I recommend two practices to encourage more fluid switching between chat and whiteboard programs.

1) As referee, share your screen with the whiteboard on it directly into the chat to call PCs attention to it during deliberations, but not during combat. This lets them continue to use the visual signals established above to handle their deliberation, while also allowing you to focus them on the core elements you want to inform that deliberation (literally, by moving your screen to focus in on those elements).

If PCs want to focus in on something that's not on your shared screen during deliberations, encourage them to share their screen of the whiteboard while they talk (and possibly draw or type something out). It will help them capture the attention of other players.

2) Have them shift over to the whiteboard completely for combat. Start off each round with a call to attention for everyone who has drifted off since they last acted, allow them to briefly discuss tactics for the round, and then go through matters in a strict initiative order with the expectation that they won't interrupt one another. Encourage them to communicate with one another via sticky notes on the board, rather than talking out of turn.

Once again, this is the sort of thing that setting expectations at the start, consistently enforcing them, and investing a bit of time to build player skill and familiarity with these methods and the digital tools will make the whole experience much better for everyone.

I hope this is helpful in assisting you to play adventure games online. Good luck!

Mar 11, 2020

Roleplaying, Decisions, Intelligibility

The core activity one needs to master to be a "good roleplayer" is making decisions and rendering the reasons for those decisions intelligible [1] to the other players.

If you have ever written dramatic works, you probably know that the progression through a character-driven arc is composed of a series of decisions which cannot be reversed or undone. The challenge of this sort of progression is to provide a sense of appropriateness and intelligibility to the protagonists and antagonists' decisions and their consequences. Successfully doing this constitutes "characterisation" properly understood.

The folk understanding of how decisions work is broadly that beliefs about the world combine with desires to motivate acts which are undertaken to bring about states of affairs that correspond to the satisfaction of those desires (this is called the "Humean" account in ethical literature). When we are trying to understand another person's actions (and do not consider their actions arbitrary), we try to reconstruct the above elements in a coherent way that is appropriately situated. We can do this retroactively or predictively.

When we are "roleplaying", we are conveying the necessary information to other players to engage in these kinds of reconstructions, and our success is determined by how well they are supplied with the information they need to do this.

We cannot ensure that they will reconstruct things identically to how we conceived the relation between the pieces of a decision, or even that they are particularly good at doing this, but this is an ordinary problem of intersubjective communication that we navigate all the time, and not peculiar to this situation.

The silly voices, tragic backstories, expository monologues, themes, tones, and the like are (often fairly crude) tools to convey information about the character's beliefs and motivations, and to aid others in predicting the kinds of decisions they are likely to make. We rely on tropes, stereotypes, conventions, history and other activations of the attribution bias to transform these trivial and incidental features into meaningful information.

But despite how obvious this sounds, I recurrently run into individuals who have all of the trappings of characterisation, but can't deploy them to render their decisions intelligible to others. For example, it's quite common to give characters a bunch of "quirks" that occur only sporadically when the player remembers them. They sit around, being invoked or mentioned but not motivating any behaviour or having much relation to the decisions the character makes. Then suddenly, the player becomes bored or thinks it would be funny, and the quirk is invoked in an inappropriate situation as a rationalising motivation for some bizarre action.

e.g. A character might have arachnophobia. Most of the time this quirk is irrelevant to what's going on and so is forgotten, but then one day, while the player is bored at the table, they recall that their character is afraid of spiders and decide to do something stupid like stab the innkeeper, justifying the action with "I saw a spider on his back" or some such.

The problem here is not having a fear of spiders per se, or even stabbing the innkeeper because of it, but that because the quirk normally motivates nothing, it has insufficient persuasive or explanatory force in reconstructing the decision for the other players when it finally does crop up. It just comes out of nowhere and is clearly a post hoc rationalisation, and not a very good one at that.

I believe having a large accumulation of trivial quirks like this is detrimental to roleplaying well, much like allowing a lens to become covered in spots and grime does not improve its clarity or focus. Either they provide too many possible rationalisations, diminishing the ability of other players to pick the right one to predict or reconstruct your motivation, or even if they can be successfully picked out, the actions they motivate are usually unreasonably intense (e.g. murdering someone) in comparison to the trivial and sporadic nature of the quirk.

The more quirks, the more facts about one's self that one can draw on, and the more random and incoherent they are, the more possible situations in which these quirks can be invoked (however intermittently) to provide a ready-made justification. But this renders the character unintelligible. Because the other people at the table have no idea which quirk will apply to which situation, and how tightly any of them will bear on a situation relative to the other quirks, the character seems inconsistent, unpredictable, and incomprehensible.

Most problems of this type rely on an over-estimation of the explanatory force of a character's facticity. That is, they expect a single fact, or very small set of them, about the character or the world to do the bulk of the work of justifying motivation and behaviour, often regardless of other relevant facts.[2] "I am a chaotic evil orc assassin, so of course I stabbed the barkeep in the back". This sort of thing lacks a persuasive account of the desire at work and attempts to fill the gap (or cover over the actual desire) with some facts instead, which is unsatisfactory.

Against this, constancy, simplicity, and clarity of desires and sensibility and salience of beliefs are great aids in conveying a character whose decisions are easy to understand and predict. I think these values and the practices of roleplaying that display them are, if not underrated per se, at least badly taught in many instances where new people are being shown what roleplaying is.

One example of how they are badly taught is the value that is often placed on elaborate backstories for PCs. While by no means a universal value, I do think many people at one point or another come in contact with the idea that a good character has a lot of stuff happen before or outside of the game proper, which a good referee then activates in the game over the course of play. The backstory does the work, theoretically, of rendering the character's actions intelligible to others, by filling in various facts that situate their present actions as part of a larger causal chain. And, if kept simple enough, it can indeed help tremendously with this.

But the moment it requires more than a few sentences or a short paragraph to summarise, it's probably too convoluted and complicated to actually inform the other players' attempts to understand how it fits into the rationale for what you're doing. The more stereotypical and cliched, the longer it can be since we can rely on other resources (familiarity with genre and comparisons with other texts) to help understand it, but otherwise, I strongly suggest keeping it simple.

One perhaps inobvious paedogogical tactic that comes out of this understanding of roleplaying as intelligibility, is to teach people to clearly communicate why their character is doing something and only after they have mastered these kinds of rationalisations to move to conveying them through more coded means.

These can, initially, be relatively brief out-of-character statements, but you can actually get very good roleplaying out of people with even mediocre acting talents by having them provide these rationales in the first person, in-character, to the other players, especially if you have a couple of players doing this at once with one another. Instead of the cognitive load of a funny voice and a convoluted backstory, a player-character can devote their attention to persuasively arguing for their beliefs and desires.

As a supplement to this, you can bring things to a "dramatic crisis" as a referee by establishing the common and shared beliefs about the world that the debaters share near to the start of the exchange, thus removing the factual disagreements and forcing the PCs to talk explicitly about what they want with one another. If there's a trusted neutral party (a PC uninvolved in the debate) you can also have them do it, tho' I recommend also pushing this to occur in character and to be narrated in the first person. You can also do this with PC-to-NPC exchanges too, of course.

I've found that shifting over to this understanding of roleplaying from one that considers it to be more closely aligned with acting has been tremendously useful for teaching new players how to roleplay, especially since it does not simultaneously encourage them to think of campaigns as a type of prewritten story with a troupe of semi-competent improv actors assigned to figure it out. I encourage you to consider the above and determine its effectiveness for yourself.

[1]"Intelligibility" as I'm using it here means the motivations and considerations involved can be successfully reconstructed by an external party in such a way that conserves their persuasive or explanatory force. It contrasts with two failure states that are distinct from merely bad decisions or decisions one disagrees with:

a) "Bizarre" or arbitrary decisions are ones that cannot be reconstructed, or that when reconstructed lack persuasive or explanatory force.
e.g. Stabbing an innkeeper because you're bored and want something to happen, or spontaneously deciding that you hate innkeepers and plan to kill them all, despite having interacted with many of them in the past in non-murderous ways

b) "Perverse" decisions where one makes the decision based on a different space of reasons than the one normally under consideration in play
e.g. Screwing over Jim's character because you're pretty sure he's sleeping with your partner IRL or, alternately, making a choice that boosts your character's mechanical power but involves introducing an explanation that can't be reconciled coherently with elements of the character you've previously established.


[2] There is a related problem in games where people scrounge around looking for the single fact that will trivialise or eradicate the need to make a decision for themselves even when no such fact exists or can be discovered by them prior to making the decisions. This involves the extension and repetition of a useful behaviour - identifying and eliminating from consideration undesirable or less-optimal alternatives using evidence - until it becomes detrimental, in a sort of speculative turn by which a thing turns into its opposite, The further the desire to eliminate all but some theoretical totally optimal and satisfactory option is extended past the point of possible knowledge, the more detrimental it becomes, until one can no longer understand the situation or progress through it to some other decision. This is an example of Hegel's famous "bad infinity".

Feb 21, 2020

Campaign Setting WIP: Verra


I'm starting up a Pathfinder 2nd Edition campaign, and have nine people potentially interested in playing (probably ending up with a core group of 4-5 regular players and another 4-5 occasional players). So I needed a P2 campaign setting. I decided to go with something early modern, and "Verra" (an allusion to the Latin words "veritas", "vir", and "terra") is the result. I'm going to show a few pictures from my work-in-progress.

Verra is a combination of ideas from several settings I've created over the years, some of which I ran campaigns in, and some which never get off the ground. Elements of Moragne, Emern, the Wolf Sea, and Feuerberg / the Old Lands all recur, with Feuerberg, as the most recent, having the greatest influence.

Verra is an early modern setting paralleling our own early-to-mid-17th century, one of my favourite time periods for games. You have full plate, guns, the birth of modern science, the emergence of the second wave of colonial empires, megacorporations, the emergence of the novel and mercantile capitalism, etc. It's when we first start calling people "adventurers" historically, IIRC.

The isle of Ursino. 10km hexes.
The campaign is going to be set on the isle of Ursino, which is loosely inspired by early modern Corsica. The entire island was created a million years ago when a dragon of titanic proportions died in the ocean and its bones and back sticking up above the sea became a mountainous island. The island was settled in successive waves of peoples, including the ancient Pturian serpent men, the Xarxean elves, and the Krovian Empire. They mined the dragon's bones and body for magically potent substances and raided the ruins of preceding empires.

About 150 years before the campaign begins, the last king of Ursino attempted to gain immortality through lichdom. The ritual worked, but led to the death / undeath of everyone in his capital (the grey dead forest in the southwest), the excommunication of the king himself, the depopulation of most of the island, and the cessation of diplomatic relations with the major powers of Urovia.

The Kingdom of Ursino's end left an opening for the devil-run Banca di Asmodeo, the most powerful institution of the nearby Magnificent Republic of Gorga. They spent astonishing sums of money buying land rights, bribing monarchs for recognition, and outfitting a fleet that relieved the struggling remnants of the kingdom that had held on in the north-east of the island. The Yomishtan Pope refuses to recognise their claim to sovereignty over the island since the Banca di Asmodeo is ultimately run by heretics but everyone else does. The BdA now controls the lucrative trade in draconic remnants.

The local nobility are still not completely happy about the bank's rulership. There are lots of nationalists who want one of their own to ascend to the throne. Some are desperate enough to conspire against the bank, especially with the Serene Republic of Nerral or the Verenigde Vroost, other major maritime powers who are interested in mining the dragon's remains. This has been intensifed in recent years as gnollish pirates have begun occupying the the western swamps and raiding across the mountains to attack the mining communities. It's felt that the bank only cares if their financial or political interests are at stake.

Tombalberi is the town in the northeast. 10km hexes.
Tombalberi ("Tombtrees") is the main port and settlement on Ursino. It's a large walled town of approximately 15,000 people. It's the centre of the Banca di Asmodeo's power on the island.

I created this map using: https://watabou.itch.io/medieval-fantasy-city-generator
I'm planning a session zero to bring as many of the potential PCs together to create characters, so we'll see what people come up with. I'm expecting a fair number of pirate-types.

Jan 23, 2020

A Brief Note on Alignment

So I finally struck out "Good" on my originally "Chaotic Good" wizard's character sheet and wrote in "Evil". It's funny, some of my most popular characters have been Chaotic Evil wizards, which many people consider an "unplayable" alignment for PCs.

I'm not a great believer in alignment's value, but I have played with many people who consider it tremendously important. I have therefore had to develop a "theory" of alignment.

Most people I know who really care about alignment love the version with the full nine positions, as opposed to the earlier Law vs. Chaos version. They also tend to prefer the psychological interpretation of alignment, rather than the Moorcockian cosmological interpretation.

My position therefore attempts to be comprehensible to those people and address both their desire to specifically situate any and every character in one of the nine positions and to address the psychological elements that cause them to be so situated.

Broadly speaking, I treat one's position on the good-evil axis as a matter of sentiment, conscience, and instinct.

Good people are by default deeply concerned with the well-being of others, and callousness or harm to the well-being of others is an exceptional state that requires strong reasons or experiences and is constrained to the minimal scope necessary (at least ideally). Their conscience militates for them to care as a general tendency, albeit one that can be resisted or overcome in specific situations.

Evil people tend to callousness to the well-being of others. This does not mean they are universally and completely callous, but rather that caring deeply for the well-being of others is the exceptional state of affairs for them, and is specific in the same way that callousness is the exceptional state for the good person.

Neutral people are not strongly inclined to be either particularly concerned with, or callous to, the well-being of others, and mostly default to states of mild concern or distaste unless given specific situational reasons to lean one way or the other.

In this rubric, the law-chaos axis is about whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivations predominate in one's reasoning. That is, a chaotic character is strongly driven by conscience and individual drives, while a lawful person is mainly concerned with extrinsic motivations (whether materialistic or more abstract ones like "respect" is irrelevant).

I do stretch extrinsic motivations slightly here to include extrapolations or extensions like "a right authority orders it" where the extrinsic motivation is a more just (or whatever) world built on universalisable moral principles, though I don't consider this essential to being lawful.

The focus on extrinsic motivations in lawful people tends to require their engagement with social structures or individuals who can provide these extrinsic rewards, and this engagement (even potentially antagonistic engagement if they want to do something like reform a rotten institution so it can function properly) is the basis of their lawfulness.

Neutral people don't have a strong tendency either way, and instead tend to waver between whichever of the two - extrinsic or intrinsic motivations - is stronger in a given situation.

Anyhow, all of this is codswallop since real human morality does not work this way, but I do find that this set up is more robust than most folk-theorising about alignment online, while allowing one to assign alignments to characters in games in ways that people find prima facie appropriate even when they are not aware of the rubric.

I play a lot of Chaotic Evil wizards under this rubric because I like playing characters with strong intrinsic motivations (I'm a "proactive" player) and because my characters tend to be relatively callous towards the well-being of others (they do kill monsters and harm people who resist them, after all).

On the other hand, the reason I can get away with playing Chaotic Evil characters in games is because rather than playing them as sadists with poor impulse control, I portray them as above, and often take care to make sure the other PCs are the exceptional instances of sentimental attachment.

I also try to make the inner motivations of these characters interesting and fun and then to portray them trying to actively and positively recruit others to help them realise them, while also being extremely risk-tolerant about the consequences (whether for themselves or others). This fulfils being Chaotic Evil based on the rubric laid out above, but tends to be taken extremely well by other players. 

I don't have any recommendations here. I developed this rubric to form a mutually-intelligible basis for analysis with some people I play with who love alignment and who want to use it characterise the psychology of characters, and I do so successfully. I find that its development aids me in playing characters with all sorts of unexpected alignments in ways that don't diminish the other players' fun.

Jan 17, 2020

Planning a Campaign as a Series of Decisions

Back in January of last year, I wrote what is rapidly becoming one of the most popular posts on my blog, The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions. One of the things I mentioned there was planning sessions and campaigns around reaching decisions instead of the referee pretending they were writing a novel's plot that the PCs imperfectly realised. I say a bit more about why one ought to do this in the anti-narrativism post I wrote years ago, but I also had a request to demonstrate the practice of planning this way.

As background, it would be helpful to read the Alexandrian's post Don't Prep Plots. I also believe in preparing situations (or problems) instead of plots and consider my decision-based method to be one way of doing so.

The method I'm going to describe is intentionally quite sparse when compared to other methods of preparing. I use it because it is "low prep" and undemanding.

You generate a handful of key decisions, assign elements from the campaign world and specific adventure to one of the possible branches of that decision, and spend most of the time between any two decisions playing out the consequences of the previous decision and setting up the next one.

When you start to get towards the end of the chain of decisions, you either extend the chain further, or conclude it and move to running downtime before setting up another. You can run multiple chains of decisions at once if you so please, so long as you make it clear to players which decisions are associated with which chains.

Here's an example:

You have four PCs: A, B, C, and D, playing in a Necrocarcerus campaign set in the Ooze Salient. The PCs are freebooters and camp followers hanging around the Association of Useful Citizens' military base. You want to run them through a scenario where they are hired to break into an abandoned incarnation temple in no-ooze's-land, steal a load of nepenthe (memory-juice) crystals, and then escape before either side can capture them.

The first step is to break this into a series of discrete decisions and graph out answers where you can:

Will they take the job? (Yes / No)
How will they get out of the military base and into no-ooze's-land? (Stealth / Talking their way out / Fighting / Magic)
How will they find the temple? (Guided by something / Searching the area)
How will they secure the nepenthe? (Not my problem)
How do they escape without getting caught? (Fleeing / Killing / Trickery / Magic)

The answers don't have to be complete lists, but it helps if you have a rough sense of the most obvious options PCs tend to employ. The important thing is really to get the questions rights rather than the possible answers, because the questions form prompts you can ask the players directly at the table.

I write these on index cards, but there are fancier technical ways to do it. I then line them up left to right, in order, from the first problem to the last problem.

The second step is to generate a bunch of elements that can feature in the adventure. You're going to want at least two for any given decision point, but more is better. I encourage you to recycle things, but since this is a mock example rather than an ongoing campaign, here are some ideas based on regular fantasy stuff:

Ooze-knights on motorbikes
A Cuban communist air-pirate + her air ship
Somebody's specific memory-juice in a reusable thermostat
A twelve-armed demon who is chief marketing officer of an "Uber for dental hygiene" start-up
Cyber-trolls that all started off as one troll
A dog with strong opinions
A cool magic tank that shoots lasers but not from its gun
The prophetic intestines of a guy named "Joseph Blankenwell"
A boiling cloud of acid with a New York accent and a heart of gold
A skeleton rights activist who is also a cleric of the Big Fire
A giant wolf-spider thing who works for an insurance company
A Jacobin golem with wheels
Thousands of obols
Cyberbullying
Schistosomiasis
A nuclear reactor on tank treads with a giant glowing crack
A 33-gallon fishtank with no top that's full of expired fireworks
Six ghost paladins on a holy quest that's kinda sketchy and low-key racist
An EDM dance party club
The colour "red"

I write these on post its or cards, one per post-it or card. At this point, if you're still jacked full of energy, you can pick a few of the cards and sort them under each problem like a curator. Or you can just shuffle them and stick few under each until you get a good combo.

The pile of cards are the relevant elements that you're going to introduce that can be used to solve the problem. The PCs can introduce their own elements of course, and you want to hold back a few cards so that if they come up with an idea that depends on them knowing something or dealing with someone, etc., you can whip out an element card to slot into that proposed solution.

If you want to get clever and run a "living world" you can also foreshadow elements under the next card or introduce them as Chekhov's gun type thing, and you can allow elements from previous problem cards that weren't used to recur (I just grab the unused ones that seem interesting and stuff them into upcoming piles). As elements are revealed, feel free to throw the cards onto the table for them to keep track of. You can write the name or location or use or whatever else they need to know on the other side of the index card. You can also write up new cards as you go.

For example, if the PCs want a guide to the incarnation temple and the dog with strong opinions is the thing they need, you could write "Imprisoned within the heart of a giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond" so they remember that they have to break into the heart of the giant stone statue of well-known ethical philosopher Sabina Lovibond to free the dog so it can show them the way.

I suggest badgering the PCs with the questions periodically because they'll forget them and get off-track. If you let them get off-track frequently, you're running a "sandbox".

You can change specific questions ( and create more or remove others) as PCs progress through them and gain or lose interest in them, and move everything around - this isn't meant to be a rigidly mechanical system, but precisely the opposite - a way of condensing one's focus to only spend time on what one needs to in order to move things forward.

I hope this helps illustrate the idea that campaigns can just be series of decisions of varying scope via the demonstration of one technique of planning and implementing such a campaign.

Dec 24, 2019

Gaming & Blogging Year End Review

My top three blog posts this year were all in the first three months of the year and were fairly theoretical. They are:

The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions
Adventure Games: What I Meant When I Coined the Term
The Rhythm of Procedure

The "decisions" post was my #1 post this year, buoyed by fairly frequent reposting by others, and some nice shout-outs and mentions (Thanks to Patrick and Skerples and anyone I missed). I'm hoping to follow up in 2020 with more posts developing some of the ideas I laid out there.

It was a fairly light year for gaming for me. I had one main offline campaign that I played in, and two campaigns I did prep work for but that didn't get off the ground. I also didn't play in any one-shots or online campaigns, in a departure from my usual behaviour over the past few years. My extended social circles have known that I play D&D for a few years now, and as the game comes back into popularity, I find that I'm getting recruited as a "professional DM" from time to time to run one-shots for semi-strangers.

My main campaign is a D&D 3.5 game set in an Al-Qadim-like setting and is finishing up its second year. It's a classic AD&D 2nd edition-style high fantasy game driven by characters and grand plots with a fairly stable group set up for long-term play.

The first failed campaign was an Unknown Armies 3e campaign set in rural Ontario for a group of women players I know who all love true crime podcasts. The premise was that a reclusive billionaire recruits a team of freelance journalists to investigate why small rural towns are vanishing (literally). I ended up hitting a wall creatively when it came to fleshing the concept out and cancelled it.

The second failed campaign was a Mythras game set in the Dawnlands (my third or fourth campaign set there, now). It failed because of scheduling issues that meant we would have had to cut into the Al-Qadim game. Of the two failed campaigns, this was the one I was more excited about, and I'll admit to being a bit sad that it didn't get off the ground. However, it did get me to write up a reference document for the Dawnlands, which is a bit of a silver lining.

I was also invited to play in three D&D 5e campaigns, all of which I turned down. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about 5e, and I'm more eager to run a campaign in my limited time for gaming than to play in a second campaign. I also find that a lot of the "professional DM" stuff I get asked to do tends to be 5e, so I'm happy to contain it there.

Since the death of G+ earlier this year, I've found it a bit harder to get involved in online games, which has reduced my active participation in old school gaming. I am rarely on Twitter and Discord, which seem to be where a lot of these games recruit players from. I'm eager to step this up in 2020 and become more active again.

In 2020, my 29th year of roleplaying, here's what I'd like to accomplish. My plans are:

1) Continue in my main offline game as a player
2) Run a 5e one-shot for a friend's partner's son in January (I'm doing her a favour)
3) Update Into the Depths to incorporate Necrocarcerus-specific rules and equipment
4) Run some one-shots or short games online in Necrocarcerus to playtest the new rules
5) Create a new setting using ideas from five different dead campaign settings I have
6) Run a Pathfinder 2e campaign in that new campaign setting
7) Write up the Dawnlands as a big manuscript for publication
8) Keep on blogging

Here's to a great 2020!

Nov 25, 2019

Great Battle Map Drawing Tutorial

This video starts off as a review & discussion of some Pathfinder 2e module called "Fall of Plaguestone" but around 20:40 "Classic DM" (T. Elliot Cannon) begins showing you how to draw good-looking battle maps. I thought this was a very good tutorial and easily adaptable to non-Pathfinder purposes. I'm not great at drawing battlemaps, but I've always wanted to improve.

It looks like Classic DM might be making this a series - on Oct 1 he uploaded a second tutorial video focused on "the Indigo Oasis" module.