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.