Archive for June, 2008

Dungeon Jam 1: The Dwarven Underground

2008 Jun 17

Dev and I are having a dungeon jam. This is the kick off post. I’ll link to others as we go.

Svartálfaheim was an ancient underground dwarven city. The Svartálfar generally worshipped Moradin the crafting god, but among them lived a sole starlight warlock who claimed he could glimpse the heavens even through fathoms of stone. This warlock, called the Skymind, was vexed by visions of impending doom that would destroy Svartálfaheim utterly. Being practical people, the dwarves placed their face in their artifice, building impressive fortifications and traps that would withstand any invasion. They were ready.

However, the Skymind, driven insane by visions of the horrors to come, somehow opened a portal to a plane of utter madness, bringing about the doom by his own hand. The 147th Grandchilde of Vecna (itself a demon godling) stepped through the portal and Svartálfaheim instantly became an orgy of chaos and destruction, with star-mad dwarves turning on their family members and themselves before being reborn as undead alien horrors.

The sole survivors of Svartálfaheim’s destruction were a few cautious families that had previously moved to the surface. Ruing the failure of their artifacts and war machines to prevent the disaster, they turned away from the worship of Moradin, honoring the Raven Queen as a conduit to the spirits of all those lost. The remaining Svartálfar were now a people wreathed with the ghosts of their dead. Every child was expected to memorize and recite the names of all the lost dwarven houses.

One hundred and forty-seven years later, the original survivors — still around, thanks to the dwarves’ lengthy lifespans — have instructed their grandchildren in the Svartálfar ways. And this new generation is determined to retake their homeland or die trying.

(Yes, so far, this is basically Gimli and his posse retaking Moria from the orcs and Balrog. Suck it.)

The Ghastly Inversion of Hellmouth Purgatorium

2008 Jun 16

Just a campaign concept.

The Hellmouth is an immense crater, spewing fire, opening directly into the Abyss itself.

A lone tower stood within it, huddling close to the northeastern wall. Its base was rooted in Hell but its peak faced the eastern lip of the crater, an emissary sent into the mortal world. Demons built the tower as a passageway between the underworld and our own. They emerged from it, seized whom ever they could find, and dragged them back inside, where unspeakable horrors awaited.

There was also formerly an obsidian bridge, stretching from the top of the eastern slope to the tower’s highest window. Mortal kings would bring criminals and political prisoners to the lip of the Hellmouth, placing them into the hands of the eternally damned for “safe keeping.”

According to a promise made centuries ago to the gods, the demons of Hellmouth were forbidden from permanently claiming the righteous or the indifferent. Only evil souls belonged to them forever. Nevertheless, insufficiently corrupt individuals placed in their care by moral hands could be held for up to a fortnight before the gods demanded that they be released across the bridge. Predictably, the demons did their best to ensure that even a temporary visit to Hellmouth Purgatorium was a worthwhile one.

However, all this changed when the demons failed to uphold their part of the bargain. Lightning fell from the sky and tore through the obsidian bridge, shattering the connection between the Purgatorium and the mortal world. The tower itself up-ended, its point falling like a dagger into the heart of the Abyss. Currently, the Purgatorium still stands, but with it’s infernal foundation wreathed in the clouds and its peak buried in the center of the Hellmouth.

Unfortunately, your fortnight of incarceration, based on the dark whims of a local tyrant, had just begun when the gods rained fire on the bridge. Now, trapped in the peak of an upside-down tower embedded in hell, you and your companions have to fight your way back towards the surface, up towards the levels of the Purgatorium that were formerly closest to hell, where the foulest criminals and most hideous demons dwell. And, then, you have to find some way of getting out.

(Along the way, maybe you can figure out who the demons are holding, such that the gods smote them for their transgression.)

What is a Game?

2008 Jun 15

Cross-posted from Cultures of Play

A game is a set of guidelines, whether explicit or implicit, for structuring play. Recreational sex is, by this definition, a game. That’s fine with me. I have little interest in definitions narrower than that. I only use those when I’m trying to construct a particular kind of game. Why limit yourself artificially unless you’re purposefully trying to?

Two Threads on SG

2008 Jun 12

Somewhere in the midst of dissecting China’s internal security policy, I found time to start two threads on Story Games, Can We Talk About Turtling? and Hardcore Gamism and Dysfunction Within the Big G. Both have been very educational for me and, hopefully, for other people too. Now back to work.

P.S. Go Portugal and Croatia, woo-hoo! Oh, yeah, and the Celtics too.

How We Came to Rock Hard

2008 Jun 8

Spent part of the day working on the ashcan layout for Brennan’s upcoming mythic Anasazi game, How We Came to Live Here. Here’s my first crack at a character sheet:

This game is going to rock so hard. Along with Sign in Stranger (and last year’s Blossoms Are Falling, actually), it’s going to help make a case for making “culture” central in our play, not merely superficial color. Hopefully Brennan will be happy enough with my work that we can collaborate again once HWCTLH is dubbed ready for the Big Time. I hear Thor is giving it a healthy going-over right now, but it’s pretty damn good already. Like Brennan said, “Game design is definitely a skill you can practice, since I seem to improve with each attempt. This is the best game I’ve written so far.”

Can’t wait to play it.

Seattle Awash in Cthulhu

2008 Jun 8

The Pacific Northwest sure seems to love Geiger Counter. So far, every outside playtest that I know of (and I keep a record of them on the Geiger Counter page) has taken place in sasquatch country. Even after two different games going down at Go Play NW, Ben Robbins has just thrown down another one, involving an experimental underwater mining facility and some Deep Ones. That’s one killer map too.

Nextwave Hack Cover

2008 Jun 5

Nextwave Notes

2008 Jun 5

Eric mentioned that you couldn’t read my notes on the Nextwave hack without being logged into Story Games, so I’m going to collect and consolidate notes that I’ve made so far.

I was thinking about all the criticism I’ve heard about D&D4:

  • encounters strung together by minimal narrative bridging
  • focus almost entirely on combat and action
  • ridiculous setting elements hap-hazardly thrown together
  • characters have huge power levels right from the get-go, but fight big bosses with even more ridiculous power levels
  • set pieces are very important, with battlemaps and such

And I was like… “Oh, so it’s Nextwave.”


NOTE: They’re the ones in the trench coats.

They’re basically a classic adventuring party.

  • Wizard: Monica (Capt. Marvel)
  • Fighter: Elsa (Moonstone)
  • Paladin: The Captain
  • Cleric: Aaron (X-51/Machine Man)
  • Rogue: Tabby (Boomer)

Clearly there needs to be some hippie storygamer way for characters to have flashbacks in order to get temporary bonuses to rolls. Like, the team is fighting MODOK (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing) and some character makes an offhand comment like, “This beast is nothing compared to my first boyfriend.” And the entire group yells “FLASHBACK!” and we get 15 seconds of the boyfriend before cutting back to the action and giving the character a bonus against this lesser evil.

I also think it’d be dead simple to drop in some TSOY style keys that give you Action Points. Like Elsa gets an Action Point whenever she acts ridiculously British.

I’d say no leveling. Characters would probably still develop in some hippy storygamer way, but they wouldn’t gain new powers spontaneously. They might be able to refine existing powers into new types of attacks, though, or gain new equipment or something.

Honestly, I bet you could design it so that the characters have to stunt well in order to get past significant encounters. Like, their basic powers are pretty effective against mooks and certain bad guys, which form a major part of encounters, but the only way to defeat, like, Fin Fang Foom or MODOK is to stunt like crazy and transcend the basic rules of the battlemap.

And enemy attacks would, like, disrupt your effectiveness instead of actually doing damage to you, or something.

I’m going to stat up one of the Nextwave crew today or tomorrow, probably Boomer because she’s the most straightforward, to see how she works in 4e. I figure I’m going to cobble them together from various 1st-3rd level racial and class abilities. Frex, Monica would probably get Magic Missile and she and Boomer will probably split a lot of the Warlock’s energy throwing powers.

And, then, you know, you scour HeroClix for enemies like this dude:

This Is What They Want

2008 Jun 4

My first 4e design project

Why Publish?

2008 Jun 4

GB Steve asks, “Why Publish?”

I said:

I’m moving towards publishing things for free or as near to free as I can manage, because keeping track of the money and paying taxes was more trouble for me than the money was worth. I’ve got several games that are going to be available as free PDFs and at-cost print versions from Lulu. I’m also distributing free print ashcans of Geiger Counter at GenCon, through a promotion with the Design Matters booth. I don’t want to have to treat my hobby like it’s a small business; that just kills all the fun for me.

But I’m still publishing because, with the tools at our disposal nowadays, there’s literally no reason not to. There are plenty of reasons not to put out a “finished” hundred-page full-color hardcover edition of something, at least not until you’ve spent several years preparing the thing, but with PDFs and cheap print ashcans instantly available (you don’t even have to store them, they can exist as electrons until someone wants one from Lulu), sharing your work is quickly becoming the rule, not the exception.

Publishing doesn’t mean just getting your book into game stores anymore. It means every step along the way. Release a basic outline on a blog or forum. Release a playtest version as a free PDF. Release an ashcan (what other folks call an Alpha or Beta version) in a print format for a few dollars. Playtest the hell out of it. Maybe release multiple playtest versions over a few years. Finally, put together a final version. Time is on our side. There are no corporate folks giving us deadlines. We can afford to take things slow, writing games like some folks write novels, taking 10 years even, not being Stephen King, especially if we want them to stand the test of time and not count on later editions to clean things up. These are games that, supposedly, will keep being played whether they’re still “supported” by further publications or not.

But — and this is something we don’t talk about much — it’s totally okay to release short games or ashcans that you don’t necessarily expect to go all the way with (Ben’s XXXXtreme Street Luge is a great recent example). We shouldn’t expect that everyone wants to be a small-time business person or, at least, that they want to follow that model for every publishing project. Maybe they just want to put together a product solid enough that they can play it with their own play group and a handful of other interested folks can play it too. That’s totally cool. I’m totally down with products that aren’t really commercial in the sense that they’re not aimed at a wider public audience. Publish a game for 10-25 people, or for 5 people, or for 1 person. That’s publishing. Follow your passion.