Dec 27, 2021

Placing Locations in Hexes

Here's a simple and fast system for placing locations of interest in a single hex on a grid. I am assuming a four hour watch as the basic unit of travel movement. Hexes can be divided into six equilateral triangles, for anyone who didn't know that.

1) Number the six triangles of the hex in clockwise order starting from the top

2) Roll a d6 and a d4

3) The d6 determines which sub-triangle of the hex the location is in. The d4 determines how many hours of travel into that triangle the location is (4 is the centre).

Variant: You could use d4-1 if you prefer fewer things in the centre and more things by the edge.

That's it, that's the whole system. I find it very fast in practice, and you can use a simple notation in your key to track this that looks like:

AA:17 Haunted Castle (1:3) 

where "AA:17" is the hex coordinates and "1:3" is sub-triangle and hours of travel in.

When the PCs search a hex randomly, they either pick one of the six sub-triangles, or the referee can roll a d6 for which sub-triangle they search if they have no preference. I make each search take a single watch.

The speed really helps here with populating a lot of content into hexes.

Sep 1, 2021

Blogs on Tape Does the Six Cultures Essay

Blogs on Tape recorded my Six Cultures of Play article for anyone who finds reading giant walls of text difficult.

I've been featured three times previously on Blogs on Tape, all in 2018.

Tests of Skill and Tests of Chance [Original article]
Considerations on Restocking the Dungeon [Original article]
Layers of the Sandbox [Original article]

Thanks Nick!

(Disclosure: Nick of Blogs on Tape and I are friends and have played games together off and on since 2012)

The summer has continued to be busy, especially as COVID-19 spreads rapidly through the poorest parts of the world, combining with natural disasters and political instability to create a great deal of work. I am delayed on both a response to questions and an article I hope to write at some point following up on the six cultures piece about Vampire: the Masquerade's influence on roleplaying. My apologies for the continuing delay.

At the same time, Blogger has decided it will not let me add more blogs to my sidebar (thus adding to a growing list of incapacities including my inability to comment on my own blog or anyone else's)? The backend of this blog seems to grow less and less functional over time. There are a number of interesting responses people have written to the original article on their own blogs, and I am thankful to everyone who shared it, commented, link to it, and so on, but there are two I'd like to point to in particular.

Chiquitafajita wrote an excellent three-part series using Lacanian psychoanalysis about the structure of desire in roleplaying games: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 It's a great use of existing academic tools for the analysis of literature (while critical of Lacan's version of psychoanalysis, I think CF is judicious in its use and doesn't rely on the most questionable propositions of the system).

Gus of All Dead Generations has also written the first three parts of a series outlining his beliefs about classic play, and how he wants to rejuvenate it. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. I am looking forward to more.

Aug 4, 2021

30 years

I picked up my first roleplaying game book in 1991, when I was eight years old. It was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, which as an eight year-old, I thought was some sort of complicated Ninja Turtle comic / choose your own adventure (CYOA) novel crossover. My family was on what I think was March break in South Carolina, and I convinced my father to buy it for me (the main indulgence my parents gave me as a child was books). I was very surprised, upon reading it in detail, that it was in fact a game book, not a comic or CYOA novel. 

In August 1991, I went to a flea market at the school across the street from my childhood home, and found my first set of polyhedral dice (now long lost), a clear orange set someone was selling off with the rest of their AD&D stuff. I bought them for $5, the entirety of my allowance at the time. Shortly after acquiring dice, I began running my first "campaign" with my friends, a mostly incoherent collection of combat scenes involving various characters we had all created battling the Foot ninja clan. I like to think I've improved slightly in the intervening decades.

Overall, it's been a good thirty years of gaming. Here's hoping for at least another thirty.

Jun 22, 2021

A Time Tracker For You

I am planning to respond to the comments on the "Six Cultures" essay, but it's been a busy few months. I work for an organization that deals with international crises and you may have heard of a few going on lately. I have also recently been vaccinated and am trying to (safely) re-establish social connections with others and enjoy the great outdoors. I've also been doing (some) wedding planning since I am getting married next year. All of this has meant analysing why Reddit was mad or whatever has been a low priority, tho' I do intend to get to it before the end of the summer.

To tide everyone over, here is a time tracker I put together for someone who will be refereeing their first game sometime in the next week or two. They are setting it in Mystara and running through the B-series of modules supplemented by the Vaults of Pandius fan material and the Gazetteers. I like helping out new dungeon masters and referees, so I'm always happy to create these sorts of things and then share them in case others might find them useful.

Each instance of this tracker covers one day's progress, breaking it down into six watches of four hours each, and then each watch into 24 turns of 10 minutes each. It's meant to be used by the timekeeper role, so I wrote my personal notes on lighting durations under the day-hex, but you can swap in your own preferences, obviously. Fairly standard stuff, but I hope you find it useful.

Download link (jpg)

It even has a hex on it.

Apr 6, 2021

Six Cultures of Play

In this post I am going to present the taxonomy of the six main play cultures as well as a few notes about their historical origins. I am doing this to help people from different play cultures both understand their own values better as well as to encourage stronger and more productive cross-cultural discussion.

There are at least six main cultures of play that have emerged over the course of the roleplaying game hobby. There may be more: my analysis is mainly restricted to English-language RPG cultures, tho' at least three of them have significant non-English presences as well. In addition to these six cultures, there's a proto-culture that existed from 1970-1976 before organisation into cultures really began. 

A culture of play is a set of shared norms (goals, values, taboos, etc.), considerations, and techniques that inform a group of people who are large enough that they are not all in direct contact with one another (let's call that a "community"). These cultures of play are transmitted through a variety of media, ranging from books and adventures to individuals teaching one another to magazine articles to online streaming shows. A culture of play is broadly similar to a "network of practice" if you're familiar with that jargon. 

Individuals in the hobby, having been aligned to and trained in one or more of these cultures, then develop individual styles. I want to point out that I think talking about specific games as inherently part of some culture is misleading, because games can be played in multiple different styles in line with the values of different cultures. But, many games contain text that advocates for them to be played in a way that is in line with a particular culture, or they contain elements that express the creator's adoption of a particular culture's set of values.

The Six Cultures

1) Classic

Classic play is oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly". This is explicit in the AD&D 1e DMG's advice to dungeon masters, but recurs in a number of other places, perhaps most obviously in tournament modules, especially the R-series put out by the RPGA in its first three years of operation, which emphasise periodic resets between sections of the adventure to create a "fair" experience for players as they cycle around from tournament table to tournament table playing the sections.

The focus on challenge-based play means lots of overland adventure and sprawling labyrinths and it recycles the same notation to describe towns, which are also treated as sites of challenge. At some point, PCs become powerful enough to command domains, and this opens up the scope of challenges further, by allowing mass hordes to engage in wargame-style clashes. The point of playing the game in classic play is not to tell a story (tho' it's fine if you do), but rather the focus of play is coping with challenges and threats that smoothly escalate in scope and power as the PCs rise in level. The idea of longer campaigns with slow but steady progression in PC power interrupted only by the occasional death is a game play ideal for classic culture.

This comes into being sometime between 1976-1977, when Gygax shifts from his early idea that OD&D is a "non-game" into trying to stabilise the play experience. It starts with him denouncing "Dungeons and Beavers" and other deviations from his own style in the April 1976 Strategic Review, but this turns into a larger shift in TSR's publishing schedule from 1977 onwards. Specifically, they begin providing concrete play examples - sample dungeons and scenarios, including modules - and specific advice about proper play procedures and values to consumers.

This shift begins with the publication of Holmes Basic (1977) and Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (1977), before eventually culminating in AD&D (1977-1979) and the Mentzer-written BECMI (1983-1986) line. Judges Guild, the RPGA, Dragon Magazine, and even other publishers (e.g. Mayfair Games) get on board with this and spread Classic norms around before Gygax and Mentzer leave TSR in late 1985 / early 1986. Judges Guild  loses its license to print D&D material in 1985, and the RPGA's tournaments have shifted away from classic play by about 1983. Most of the other creators at TSR have shifted to "trad" (see below) by the mid-1980s, and so the institutional support for this style starts dries up, even tho' people continue to run and play in "classic" games.

Classic is revived in the early 2000s when the holdouts who've continued to play in that style use the internet to come together on forums like DragonsfootKnights and Knaves Alehouse, and others, and this revival is part of what motivates OSRIC (2006) to be released. NB: This is the only name in this essay where it's not an autonym used by the practitioners themselves, tho' Gus L. of All Dead Generations is interested in many of their ideas and does call his own style "Classic".

One weird quirk of history is that people who were trying to revive classic in the early 2000s are often lumped into the OSR, despite the two groups really having distinct norms and values. Some of the confusion is because a few key notable individuals (e.g. Matt Finch) actually did shift from being classic revivalists to being early founders of the OSR. Because both groups are interested in challenge-based play, even if they have different takes on challenge's meaning, there are moment of productive overlap and interaction (and also lots of silly disputes and sneering; such is life).

This intermingling of people from different play cultures who initially appear to be part of the same movement but turn out to be interested in different things is pretty common - story games and Nordic LARP go through a similar intermingling before they split off into different things (more on that in a sec).

2) Trad (short for "traditional") 

Its own adherents and advocates call it "trad", but we shouldn't think of it as the oldest way of roleplaying (it is not). Trad is not what Gary and co. did (that's "classic"), but rather is the reaction to what they were doing.

Trad holds that the primary goal of a game is to tell an emotionally satisfying narrative, and the DM is the primary creative agent in making that happen - building the world, establishing all the details of the story, playing all the antagonists, and doing so mostly in line with their personal tastes and vision. The PCs can contribute, but their contributions are secondary in value and authority to the DM's. If you ever hear people complain about (or exalt!) games that feel like going through a fantasy novel, that's trad. Trad prizes gaming that produces experiences comparable to other media, like movies, novels, television, myths, etc., and its values often encourage adapting techniques from those media.

Trad emerges in the late 1970s, with an early intellectually hub in the Dungeons and Beavers crew at Caltech, but also in Tracy and Laura Hickman's gaming circle in Utah. The defining incident for Tracy was evidently running into a vampire in a dungeon and thinking that it really needed a story to explain what it was doing down there wandering around. Hickman wrote a series of adventures in 1980 (the Night Verse series) that tried to bring in more narrative elements, but the company that was supposed to publish them went bust. So he decided to sell them to TSR instead, and they would only buy them if he came to work for them. So in 1982, he went to work at TSR and within a few years, his ideas would spread throughout the company and become its dominant vision of "roleplaying".

Trad gets its first major publication articulating its vision of play outside of TSR in Sandy Petersen's Call of Cthulhu (1981), which tells readers that the goal of play is to create an experience like a horror story, and provides specific advice (the "onion layer" model) for creating that. The values of trad crystallise as a major and distinct culture of play in D&D with the Ravenloft (1983) and Dragonlance (1984) modules written by Hickman. TSR published Ravenloft in response to Call of Cthulhu's critical and commercial success, and then won a fistful of awards and sold tons of copies themselves. 

Within a few years, the idea of "roleplaying, not rollplaying" and the importance of a Dungeon Master creating an elaborate, emotionally-satisfying narrative had taken over. I think probably the ability to import terms and ideas from other art forms probably helped a great deal as well, since understanding trad could be done by anyone who'd gone through a few humanities classes in university.

Trad is the hegemonic culture of play from at least the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, and it's still a fairly common style of play. For an example of a fairly well-thought through style of trad by someone who's been influential on the last 15 or so years, check out S. John Ross's RPG Lexicon. 

Both of the next two styles emerge out of problems with trad, especially the experience of playing Vampire (a tradder-than-trad game in its authors' aspirations), but the details of that are larger than this essay can contain so I'm just going to mention it and leave it for another time.

3) Nordic Larp

This is again an autonym. The "Nordic" part is more about origins and mass of the player base than a true regional limitation of any sort. The "Larp" designation is part of the name for reasons that are unclear to me, even tho' its ideas started in tabletop roleplaying, and its philosophy and aspirations are realisable in tabletop games just as much as in dress-up games. (Edit: Spelling it as if it wasn't an acronym is a shibboleth of Nordic Larp, so in keeping with the autonym principle I've edited it to follow that convention when referring to the culture, but kept the activity as LARP)

Nordic Larp is built around the idea that the primary goal of a roleplaying game is immersion in an experience. Usually in a specific character's experiences, but sometimes in another kind of experience where player and character are not sharply distinguished - the experimental Jeep group often uses abstract games to affect the player directly. The more "bleed" you can create between a player and the role they occupy within the game, the better. Nordic Larps often feature quite long "sessions" (like weekend excursions) followed by long debriefs in which one processes the experiences one had as the character.

Embedding the player's character within a larger story can be one way of producing vivid, absorbing experiences, but it's not necessary and may even interfere with pulling it off (especially when done badly). Nordic Larp players emphasise their collaborative aspects, but when you drill into this, it's a rejection of trad's idea of a single DM-auteur crafting an experience, and the collaboration is there in service of improving immersion by blending player and character agency more thoroughly.

I think LARP conjures up images of people doing fantasy cosplay, and there are sometimes elements of that in some Nordic Larps, but I actually think the trend has been away from fantastical games to scenarios and set-ups that are closer to real life since it allows the incorporation of modern architecture, technology, and other details from the real world to facilitate immersion.

Nordic Larp's first major publication that I know of is the very self-conscious Manifesto of the Turku School by Mike Pohjola in 2000, and I think the early community is in dialogue with the Forge crew, tho' the two groups have very different ideals of play. By 2005 you have specific groups like Jeep developing these ideas, and in 2010 you get the publication of the Nordic Larp book. Nowadays there's also a wiki and an official website

Nordic Larp is the part of roleplaying that seems to receive the most grants and funding for academic study. I'm never sure why, tho' I suspect some of it has to do with the interest in commodifying LARP ideas to create immersive entertainment experiences for tourists at mega-resorts in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. I'm not going to link to any specific individuals connected to Nordic Larp who have jobs there to avoid doxing private individuals, but they exist (please don't dox anyone in the comments, either).

4) Story Games

Again, an autonym. Most people who dislike them call them stuff like "Forge games" or "post-Forge indies" after the Forge indie RPG forums. "Indie RPGs" was a term for these at one point as well, but I don't think it was particularly distinctive or edifying, and evidently neither did the adherents to this culture since they mostly abandoned it. Here's a post discussing the origin of the term "story game" from Across the Table.

The Big Model is notoriously obtuse and post-Forge theory has a lot of ideas I strongly disagree with, but I think a fair characterisation of their position that doesn't use their own terminology is that the ideal play experience minimises ludonarrative dissonance. A good game has a strong consonance between the desires of the people playing it, the rules themselves, and the dynamics of the those things interacting. Together, these things allow the people to achieve their desires, whatever they may be. "Incoherence" is to be avoided as creating "zilch play" or "brain damage" as Ron Edwards once called it.

The story games crowd, to their credit, is willing to be very radical in terms of techniques towards that end - both the mechanics proper and the development of positions (story gamers often call them "Creative Agendas") like "narrativism" are meant to produce consonance and avoid dissonance on as many levels as they can picture it happening.

Story games starts with Ron Edwards in 1999, when he writes System Does Matter and sets up the Forge. By 2004 you have the Provisional Glossary and the Big Model, and one million arguments on the internet about what is or isn't "narrativist" and how much brain damage RPGs are causing, etc. The Story games forums themselves are founded in 2006 as a successor to the Forge. For the past decade, the big cluster of story game design has tended to orient itself around "Powered by the Apocalypse" games patterned after or building on Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker.

BTW, if you want a great example of someone applying the cultural norms of story games to a game that was written to be played in a trad way, The Sacrament of Death by Eero Tuovinen describes his experiences doing just that.

5) The OSR ("Old School Renaissance / Revival") 

Yes, it's this late in this chronological listing. And yes, the OSR is not "classic" play. It's a romantic reinvention, not an unbroken chain of tradition. 

The OSR draws on the challenge-based gameplay from the proto-culture of D&D and combines it with an interest in PC agency, particularly in the form of decision-making. The goal is a game where PC decision-making, especially diegetic decision-making, is the driver of play. I think you can see this in a very pure form in the advice Chris McDowall gives out on his blog for running Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland. 

An important note I will make here is to distinguish the progressive challenge-based play of the "classic" culture from the more variable challenge-based play of the OSR. The OSR mostly doesn't care about "fairness" in the context of "game balance" (Gygax did). The variation in player agency across a series of decisions is far more interesting to most OSR players than it is to classic players.

The OSR specifically refuses the authoritative mediation of a pre-existing rules structure in order to encourage diegetic interactions using what S. John Ross would call "ephemeral resources" and "invisible rulebooks", and that the OSR calls "playing the world" and "player skill", respectively. Basically, by not being bound by the rules, you can play with a wider space of resources that contribute to framing differences in PC agency in potentially very precise and finely graded ways, and this allows you to throw a wider variety of challenges at players for them to overcome. I could write an entire post on just what random tables are meant to do, but they tie into the variance in agency and introduce surprise and unpredictability, ensuring that agency does vary over time.

I tend to date the start of the OSR from shortly after the publication of OSRIC (2006), which blew open the ability to use the OGL to republish the mechanics of old, pre-3.x D&D. With this new option, you had people who mainly wanted to revive AD&D 1e as a living game, and people who wanted to use old rule-sets as a springboard for their own creations. 2007 brought Labyrinth Lord, and the avalanche followed thereafter. The early OSR had Grognardia to provide it with a reconstructed vision of the past to position itself as the inheritors of, it had distinct intellectual developments like "Melan diagrams" of dungeons and Chris Kutalik's pointcrawls, and I would say it spent the time between 2006 and roughly 2012 forming its norms into a relatively self-consistent body of ideas about proper play.

6) OC / Neo-trad

This is the only one of the terms that isn't fully an autonym, tho' "OC" can be appended to a "looking for game" post online to recruit people from this culture consistently, so it's closer. I also call it "neo-trad", firstly because the OC RPG culture shares a lot of the same norms as trad, secondly because I think people who belong to this culture believe they are part of trad. You also see this style sometimes called "the modern style" when being contrasted to the OSR. Here's an example of someone who calls it "neo-trad" elaborating a very pure vision of the style (tho' I disagree with the list of games provided as examples of neo-trad at the end of the article). On Reddit, "OC" is often called "modern" as in "the modern way to play" or "modern games".

OC basically agrees with trad that the goal of the game is to tell a story, but it deprioritises the authority of the DM as the creator of that story and elevates the players' roles as contributors and creators. The DM becomes a curator and facilitator who primarily works with material derived from other sources - publishers and players, in practice. OC culture has a different sense of what a "story" is, one that focuses on player aspirations and interests and their realisation as the best way to produce "fun" for the players.

This focus on realising player aspirations is what allows both the Wizard 20 casting Meteor Swarm to annihilate a foe and the people who are using D&D 5e to play out running their own restaurant to be part of a shared culture of play. This culture is sometimes pejoratively called the "Tyranny of Fun" (a term coined in the OSR) because of its focus on relatively rapid gratification compared to other styles.

The term "OC" means "original character" and comes from online freeform fandom roleplaying that was popular on Livejournal and similar platforms back in the early 2000s. "OC" is when you bring an original character into a roleplaying game set in the Harry Potter universe, rather than playing as Harold the Cop himself. Despite being "freeform" (meaning no die rolls and no Dungeon Master) these games often had extensive rulesets around the kinds of statements one could introduce to play, with players appealing to the ruleset itself against one another to settle disputes. For the younger generations of roleplayers, these kinds of games were often their introduction to the hobby. 

I think OC RPG emerges during the 3.x era (2000-2008), probably with the growth of Living Greyhawk Core Adventures and the apparatus of "organised play" and online play with strangers more generally. Organised play ended up diminishing the power of the DM to shift authority onto rules texts, publishers, administrators, and really, to players. Since DMs may change from adventure to adventure but player characters endure, they become more important, with standard rules texts providing compatibility between game. DM discretion and invention become things that interfere with this intercompatibility, and thus depreciated. This is where the emphases on "RAW" and using only official material (but also the idea that if it's published it must be available at the table) come from - it undermines DM power and places that power in the hands of the PCs.

These norms were reinforced and spread by "character optimization" forums that relied solely on text and rhetorically deprecated "DM fiat", and by official character builders in D&D and other games. Modules, which importantly limit the DM's discretion to provide a consistent set of conditions for players, are another important textual support for this style. OC styles are also particularly popular with online streaming games like Critical Role since when done well they produce games that are fairly easy to watch as television shows. The characters in the stream become aspirational figures that a fanbase develops parasocial relationships with and cheers on as they realise their "arcs".

No Quizzes, No Buckets

When I first presented these on a forum, someone joked that I ought to create a quiz for people to determine which culture they belonged to, but I'd rather not. Truthfully, I think most individual gamers and groups are a blend of cultures, with that blend realised as an individual style. The play cultures are more like paradigms - they cohere at the level of value and reflection on what "excellent play" could mean (put more formally, they share teloi of play). To be a part of a play culture is in some sense the capacity to recognise when someone else is playing in accord with a set of values you share with them.

My main purpose in the above taxonomy is to help people better understand that there are distinct paradigms of play that esteem different things, tho' they can be sutured together (with all sorts of fun results) in concrete situations. I doubt this list is exhaustive, and there are probably cultures I've left out as well as ones that are yet to emerge. The purpose of the list is mainly to briefly illustrate that there are many different values of play, and to discuss the logic animating some of the more well-known ones.

The original purpose of this essay was to talk about OC roleplaying, since I think it's the least well-characterised out in the wild, and most characterisations are relatively pejorative (see the above "tyranny of fun"). There also tends to be a lot of confusion between people working within the paradigm of OC and trad, since they often use the same terms to refer to very different things. 

Also, without wanting to be a jerk, OC roleplaying tends to be the default paradigm of new players coming to the hobby through streaming, and thus has the largest group of people who are low-skill and ignorant of the history of roleplaying. I'm hopeful that articulating their values and relation to the larger hobby will encourage them to develop OC roleplaying culture in interesting and robust ways, while also steering them away from arrogance about the universality of their vision.

I am hopeful that the above taxonomy will help people to apprehend and navigate the differences between cultures and styles rather than constantly running into dead-ends as it turns out that the baseline assumptions about play that one is working from simply aren't shared with one's interlocutor(s).

I unfortunately can't respond to comments on the blog directly, so if people leave comments or questions about the above taxonomy, I will collect them up and respond in a blog post.

Mar 19, 2021

[Revew] Downcrawl and Skycrawl

I picked up Downcrawl and Skycrawl, both by Aaron A. Reed. My overall evaluation of both is quite positive, tho' I expected not to like them when I first ran across their descriptions. A key source that gave me enough information to decide to buy them was this extract of the core Downcrawl mechanics that Reed makes freely available. I suggest you go read it to make up your own mind.

Downcrawl is 59 pages long, and contains rules for generating and administering an Underdark campaign built on point-crawl principles. The PCs move in abstracted journeys between "volumes" (collections of related sites) with tools for both generating complications and encounters on journeys, and for generating volumes, sites of interest within them, and their inhabitants.

Skycrawl is 75 pages long and uses the same basic system with a few tweaks and adaptations to generate and administer a campaign set in an endless expanse of aetheric-sky pocked with small floating islands. The islands serve the same role as "volumes" do in Downcrawl, tho' there is an additional mechanic to represent the islands moving around over time.

The journey system in each involves accumulating a resource known as "tack" through various activities (both abstract downtime activities and adventures) which combines with accumulated rumours (that the referee creates and hands out to players). The abstraction is such that most journeys, unless something goes very smoothly or very wrong, will produce 3-5 encounters moving between volumes or islands. The systems sit at a nice mid-point where they're not just "plan out three encounters and have them happen along the way" - PC choice matters - but they're also not so granular that you need to draw out the exact route that PCs use to get from one spot to another.

Both systems work using principles and formats taken from Powered by the Apocalypse. I'm not a great fan of the what I think is the modern format of PbtA "moves" where they are presented as self-contained boxes that begin with the conditions of their invocation, and the order to enact each procedure is either nested in another box or must be determined through careful reading. 

With both PbtA games more generally, and specifically with Downcrawl and Skycrawl, I would prefer the addition of a visual element to the boxes that distinguishes top-level procedures (one that are not typically called as a consequence of another procedure) from procedures that are nested within others.

Downcrawl's moves are a little easier to parse of the two because most of the procedures for travelling are listed on separate pages from one another, or at most, a procedure and its most commonly called sub-procedure are on the same page (pgs. 10-15). Skycrawl's moves (pgs. 16-20) are a little more jumbled with several small moves hidden at the bottom of the page and referring to things that require one to flip pages to sort out. In both cases, the complexity is kept in hand well enough that some careful study will bring the relations into clear view, but for me it took reading Skycrawl's moves about three times before I started to understand firmly what move gets invoked when.

It's only a small usability detail, but it's also my most serious gripe with the book, which I think speaks more generally to how useful and well-done both books are. 

The encounter procedures in both books are capable of producing highly varied results, using small nested tables built off a single roll of 3d6, with each die determining an aspect of the encounter. The tables proceed from general to more specific, more abstract to more concrete, and the examples under each result (typically four per) are a good mixture of inspiring and straightforward. 

The tables are set up so that they are meant to be used during play, rather than generating random encounters ahead of time, so a referee will need to be comfortable with improvisation to make the most of them, and you'll want to note any unusual results beforehand and ensure you have suitable monsters prepared.

Each book contains a different alchemy system. In Downcrawl, you're mixing up harvested fungus to produce various drugs and potions, while Skycrawl has you gathering magical sediment that also serve as the main form of transportable wealth. Both systems seem set up to basically have one or two players who are really into them, while they can mostly be ignored by everyone else (Skycrawl says this explicitly). It's worth reviewing both systems before play and deciding what kind of magnitudes and powers you want to give these potions and drugs, since they're suggestive, much like the monsters.

I haven't had a chance to playtest either yet, but I will say that these books passed a very important pre-playtest threshold, which is that they made me want to use them in a game. I'm tempted to adapt them to Openquest (the new 3rd edition just released to backers - a review forthcoming once the first round of backer revisions and errata is incorporated into the text) and run a short Downcrawl campaign as soon as I can free up the time to do so.

Once again, I'd recommend checking out the extract above before making up your mind to purchase these. If you do like one, you'll probably like the other, so I'd recommend getting both at once.

Mar 16, 2021

Some Suggested Reading

I've been keeping myself busy in quarantine during 2021 by reading academic papers.

Here's a few papers about games that I've found interesting recently:

No One Plays Alone (Bateman, 2017) about communities of player practice
Towards a Theory of Choice Poetics (Mawhorter, Mateas, Wardrip-Fruin, & Jhala, 2014)
Understanding Procedural Content Generation (Smith, 2014)
Player Types: A Meta-Synthesis (Hamari & Tuunanen)
Design Metaphors for Procedural Generation in Games (Khaled, Nelson, & Barr, 2013)

And one that isn't directly about games but bears on the issue of choice:

Cognitive Economics and the Functional Theory of Stress (Wolfendale, 2018)

I'm not rereading this, but it's an important, short paper about contemporary game design theory which I've talked about elsewhere that I strongly recommend if you're at all interested in designing games:

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research (Hunicke, LeBlanc, & Zubek, 2004)

Right at the start of the year, I read this book, which I found to be excellent:
Games: Art as Agency by C. Thi Nguyen

Also, check out these two videos by Nguyen that explain elements of the book and combine them with social epistemic analysis: Games, Public Policy, and the Pandemic and Why Games are Good but Gamification is Terrible)

I've put Brian Sutton-Smith's The Ambiguities of Play on my to-read list, since he's the guy who first coined the idea of a "play culture", a term I've used a lot over the past decade and a half, but haven't actually started it yet. It's more strictly about play than games (an important distinction!) but I'm hoping there's some good stuff in there.

In other news, I am currently in two D&D 5e games. I don't love 5e, but the groups are good. One is the same group that I'd been playing 3.x with since early 2018, just switched over to 5e. The other one is a long-running group (20 years) that I've temporarily joined.

Mar 10, 2021

Digestive Cookies and Barbie Clothes

I was talking with Jojiro of Dungeon Antology yesterday about designing dungeons for 5e, and while doing that I used the terms "digestive cookies" and "Barbie clothes" and then had to explain them. I thought I might as well share them for others to use.

Digestive Cookies

A digestive cookie outside of games is a something that looks delicious but is actually good for you. In a game, it's a small interactive element presented as a problem even tho' there is no actual risk, the purpose of which is to cultivate useful habits in low-risk situations.

That sounds confusing but I think it's can be illustrated clearly with a few examples.

1) An ancient mural is covered in dust that obscures its subject. The PC is tempted to clean it off and reveal what's underneath because it's a mural (PCs love murals). After they move to do so, you say something like "This will require touching it with your bare hands, are you sure?" and then after a moment's panic or so, if they still wipe it off, you reveal that there was no trick or poison or anything. 

2) There is a loose cat doing something adorable nearby (cats are great when you haven't prepped anything). The PCs stop and interact with the cat for a moment, and you're like "It seems hungry and dirty". The PCs debate a few options before realising the cat is not their responsibility, at which point it wanders off.

3) The PCs are in a dungeon and there is a two foot wide crack in the earth giving off vapours. You ask them how they plan to cross it, and each person takes a turn describing how they get across. When one of them is going across, the notice a gleam down in the steam. If one of them is brave enough to reach down through the vapours into the crack, they can pull up a single gold piece.

These are all very minor, somewhat silly examples, but they inculcate a practice of interaction with the environment and serve as minor opportunities to demonstrate bravery, a command of salience, and provide a moment of characterisation. Digestive cookies almost always appear in "empty" dungeon rooms in a Gygaxian sense, tho' they're also quite common in city adventures. They usually serve as a good opportunity to convey atmosphere at the same time as they make the environment interactive beyond a strict matrix of challenge or risk.

Barbie Clothes

Barbie clothes are mechanically-meaningless cosmetic rewards you can give players, sometimes in the form of loot, sometimes in the form of scars or other changes. A cloak that billows in a cool way, or an eyepatch with a design etched in silver, or a beautiful but near worthless vase or a title of nobility that conveys no real power or authority or wealth are all types of Barbie clothes.

 Once, in a campaign, a PC got sprayed with an alien acid, and even after the wound was healed, the flesh on his chest was translucent. Another got his skin burnt off and wore a silver skin-tight nanosuit as her new flesh. That's Barbie clothes. I think they achieve their greatest effects when they are used to soften a PC failure, or when they incentivise PC action (perhaps the cloak is on a statue in the dungeon that they have to loot it from).

5e Dungeons

This all came up in the context of talking about 5e dungeon design, as mentioned above. I'm currently playing in two 5e games (and am shortly to join a Swords and Wizardry game as a PC to keep my old-school cred intact). Because of the centrality of combat to the pacing of 5e dungeon exploration, I think 5e dungeons need a lot more "empty" rooms where there are various kinds of environmental interactivity that don't deplete resources or force agonizing decisions. Barbie clothes and digestive cookies are two ways (of several) that I introduce that interactivity without simultaneously slowing everything down with resource attrition.