Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year, Friends and Neighbors! (a post in which I promise nothing)

There you go, the year is done. It has been a tough one, I guess. Somewhere in the past I promised I'll stop leaving loose ends behind ... Guess what. I'll have to leave so much new stuff in 2016, that the new year will keep me quite busy without me trying to hard. Here's some of it:

A list of things that probably won't happen

Honestly, I'm done predicting what will happen on the blog or when. There's things I'm aiming to do and I'm willing to share those. So this is what I see happening in 2017:
  • Monkey Business will be the first thing I'll put energy into. This will happen and it's almost done ... I've just been kept busy with other stuff ... Argh!! Anyway, more about this soon.
  • More publications in general. I aim to put some energy into getting more stuff out there and through other channels as the blog. It's about time. I have dungeons, mini-games, DM tools, all half finished, all about to get finished.
  • Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is in hibernation right now. There's a couple of sub systems I need to get done, the magic system being the Big Bad among them. We want to relaunch the play-testing in February. If I want or not, I'll need some results by then ... I'll keep you guys posted when I get there. This will be the third year of developing this game and I'm mighty proud of the result so far. Maybe 201 will see a release of the full set of rules. There might also be some online testing in the works. We'll see.
  • The Grind is still a thing ... "D&D-esque steampunk dungeonheists in a gritty world dominated by monsters", I still want that. And I already got a lot for this game, just not a system to run it with. I'll still be aiming for an action/splatter rpg with tactical puzzles and I'm starting to think that I want to go and use cards all the way for it. Just don't expect any fast results. Getting there is half the fun, right? Right? Hey, where is everybody ...
  • The blog will see some of the old and some new. People seem to like when I write about game design and philosophy, so I'll crank that up if I can. Expect more about the Rules Cyclopedia and old school D&D in general. I want to write more about free stuff that's floating around and I had fun writing reviews, but I never get to write them (if anyone out there is still reading and has a suggestion what I could review, I'd be happy to give it a shot). And I owe you guys a last part for that series about Escapism (blame google, because they are at fault here ... fuckers they wouldn't let me use my account, no matter what I did to proof that I am, indeed, myself). Also some development posts as I inch forward completing my games ... So much for the usual.
  • Here's some of the new: I started to read Vampire: the Masquerade again (first German edition, before all the bloat) and it's still a brilliant game. Reading it 20 years later has been very interesting and I'm thinking about making it a post or a series of posts. So that's something. I'd also like to participate more in community project, but I seem to miss them all, all the time. We'll see what comes up. I also have an idea for a play-by-post thingy that could be done across some blogs ... That and a bit more about history.
  • I'll also try to post more. But real life has a word there, too.

So you see, I got quite the program. Mostly stuff I managed to neglect or didn't get around to in 2016. I'll try to be a better blogger, but I'm sure other things will come up and things will, again, deteriorate.

All the best for 2017!

And that's that. I wish you all a good start into 2017 and wish you all the best for the coming year. May the dice be with you and so on. Keep fighting the good fight, write and play if you get the chance ... We'll see and read and write each other, maybe even throw some dice together! I'm looking forward to it.

A card from the 15th century, wishing you "Ayn gut nev Jahr"
(a good new year) [source]

Thursday, December 22, 2016

How to prepare and run a better Adventure (or: the Secrets of Escapism, Part 3A)

Here we are, finally talking about how to exploit the principles of escapism for some successful adventure design. I have to admit, it's a high order and definitely a challenge and many a word have been written to get to this point (Part 1, Part 2, a piece by +Vb Wyrde you can read here and a piece by +JD McDonnell you can read here). That being said, I'd like to add that although the underlying argument is quite complex, deserves even further exploration and will help to find an understanding why I believe it can be used like I'm about to propose, the advice itself can be applied (or read, for that matter) without all that. Let's get on with it, then.

What kind of design are we talking about again?

To a degree, all of it, I think. Because advice like that is by default more on the universal side of things. The focus here will not so much be on the material we use for our games and more about how to present it. Because here's the thing, the best premise can be screwed at the table. It's an area we don't talk often enough about, I believe, as we just assume that people have no problems using what they are given.

As a matter of fact (and this is something that got substantiated in Part 2) it's not quite that easy. We are all prone to escapism, but the techniques used to create a platform for or with a couple of other individuals to create and effectively share a fictive world, be it in writing or as a DM in a role playing game, need an understanding of the whole process and training.

Some will do this instinctively or come to the same conclusions on their own (and I'm pretty sure that many DMs out there already work or write following pretty much the same insights, based on the same theories or not), but again, the "why" might be just as interesting to find an understanding and a foundation to further build on.

The only thing I can say with a certain amount of confidence right now is that those things do work and that they are done all around us all the time. We just need to see them for what they are.

First Layer of Escapism

This should be self evident: good stories are entertainment. We love to be entertained. To make a story a "good story", we need to consider a couple of things about properly planning, communicating and navigating stories in general:
1. Stories have patterns and we need to trigger those patterns so that other participants get an idea what is happening or, in the case of role playing games, what might happen and/or what is expected.
Imagine a Benny Hill skit with horror music in the background. Or the other way around, imagine a video with a brutal car crash and funny music underscoring it. That's you recognizing a pattern and expecting something. The Benny Hill sketch will seem brutal, the car crash funny just because of the presentation. And that's what you should do in your games. Not necessarily with music (which can be fun, too!), but with words.

The easiest way to do so is by actually narrating what is going on, not on a visual, but on an emotional level. Imagine the group encountering a Kobold. The Reaction Roll of the Kobold comes up with "friendly". You should use that, of course. But how you do it will set the tone for the rest of the encounter. You could say "There's a Kobold around the corner! What will you do!!?" and you'll see player going for the dice fast, murder on their minds.

Or you could do something a bit more subtle, like: "You see a Kobold around the corner. He's in full tribal regalia, bones, tattoos, barbed spear ... As he sees you, he shows you the insight of hands and his sharp and yellow teeth, making a noise like 'Yak, yak, yak!'. What do you do?". The players will know something is up (the DM took too long to describe the scene ...) and will most likely not attack right away, but act (if with caution).

OR you could go all nice and fluffy, making it something like: "So you see that little Kobold around the corner, wearing one of those tool kits you have seen them wear around the dungeon. After turning to you cautiously, he seems to relax pretty fast, waving his hand enthusiastically and showing a very toothy grin. What do you do?". The DM here is signalling that all is good (might still be a trap, though) ...

See? The premise is always the same (encountering a friendly Kobold), but how the DM handles it is crucial for the players to get hints what they are supposed to do. Not because of what is said, but how it is said. So when you prepare a dungeon or an adventure, spend a few thoughts on how you will present it to the players and what mood (among other things) you want to achieve.
2. Use known story patterns, communicate them ... then break them (but always within expectations).
Patterns always emerge from building expectations. The players need to get a fair chance to see a pattern change coming, so they can accept it if and when it happens. Our example here could be a femme fatale assassin, aiming to off one of the characters. The course of action is clear: seduce the guy and kill him when he's most vulnerable.

This is actually one of the rookie mistakes out there (definitely something I've seen happen), as it is easy, of course, to lure the player into thinking he's just having a dirty little episode with an NPC and then giving him a "save or DIE" (if at all). The fallacy happening here is to confuse the player with the character instead of giving the player a chance to make that decision for his character willingly.

That's what a typical player reaction
should look like ... [source]

I mean, the short of it is "always make a thing out of it". You have a femme fatale, describe her, give subtle hints, like how trained she is or a scar the skilled eye could see ... Give the player an impression he can act on and let him decide what he wants to believe it is. There's still a lot of wiggle room regarding the how, but the ambiguity must be there. It prepares the twist of her being an assassin.

Let's say the player not only survives the attack, but also manages to catch her alive. It is established that she's a stone cold killer. Torture won't crack her, but magic reveals that she's, indeed, forced to do this because Big Boss 09 is holding her son as a hostage. The ambiguity here is that people who do evil don't necessarily are evil (it's a classic and you know it ...). 

Going further with this little sob story, you could have her use it just as fall back maneuver, another lure for the characters to fall for. But here is the tricky part: you either have to know it up front or you need to give the room it needs to build up the ambiguity. In this case, it had been established that the characters found out by magical means that her son is a hostage and that should be the hinge here. Say the wizard is pretty sure, but give the smallest hint of doubt right there. Make a thing out of it, give the impression that there might be more to know, but they just can't get there right now ...

And that's how you plan or improvise and adventure. Always try to think a step or two (or more!) ahead. Because what you know will always inform what you describe (or avoid describing) and always remember, if it's established, you can twist it.
3. Give them something to talk about and give them room to talk about it.
Also pretty obvious, I think. But the reason may be not so obvious. It's exactly those emerging story patterns and the need of a group to negotiate a common understanding, because that's what happens. I'd argue that that's all role playing games are about: negotiating the ins and outs of the story that is experienced. The deeper reason might be seen in the fact that we don't all have the same story competence, or at least not equally strong in different areas. Groups compensate by exchanging knowledge and finding common ground to act upon.

So give them stuff to talk about, give them reason to ask themselves what the fuck it could mean. For anything, actually. In that regard it's pretty much the concept of "making a thing out of everything". You don't explain, you give feelings and impressions, because ultimately that's what it means to let the players experience a world through the eyes of their characters while giving them the room to debate what it means and act on those conclusions.

The fringe benefit here is that you, as a DM, get lots of free time to plan even further ahead, once you got them discussing what's happening and why. Simple things can do that, random things in a dungeon can do that (and that's basically the reason that those dungeons have random strange things to discover in them ... players will take the time to check them out ... if they are connected, all the better!).

To achieve this, you need to give them information. Lots of information. And detail. Some of it random, some of it fitting, always with an emotional touch of sorts (fear is an emotion, for instance, amusement, too ... it's a broad palette) and always, always in uncertain terms but with enough information for them to have a chance to piece it together or make educated mistakes.

Usually it's enough to give them the shovel,
they'll do the digging all by themselves. [source]
4. Give closure.
This doesn't mean that you explain them anything. It means you give the players an out if the story needs or deserves it. In a sense it means regulating the results discussed above and it can be as clear as "No, that's not what that is/means/etc ." or unclear as "You won't come to a conclusion to this right now, but [insert plot device] is about to happen and you should move/act/etc..". It's also, in a sense, the use of patterns to allow the players some room to navigate. Stuff like: "You guys are pretty tired and it's about to get dark.". It gives clear hints what's about to happen and that there will be consequences if it's ignored.

Most of the time you'll know time and place to change pace, usually in situations like the end of a fight or a session or after searching a room or when a discussion goes on for too long. Usually I'll ask the players how long they imagine they'll be busy with what they are doing then and there. Then I'll check the chances of something happening or wrap the scene when I think the time is up.

As far as adventure design is concerned, you should always keep not only (1) track of what is happening, but also of (2) what is about to happen or (3) might happen. Those are the three main sources for the story patterns. Again, you as a DM need to know it to let it inform your choices, not to directly tell the players. Make a thing out of it. You know they are heading into an ambush? Describe how a flock of birds is scared away for unknown reasons further up the road. Stuff like that. It's a story (not a roll on perception or wisdom, for instance ... although that might come in handy later on, too). And with all that in mind, give the players outs in the same way. Closure.

Closure is important ... [source]
In a way this is describing transition points between scenes or chapters of the narrative during an adventure. If you want something new to happen, something that'll change the course of the story, you need to bring to an end what has been happening. Again, this doesn't mean the players won't leave unsolved strands of story behind, just that they have reason to leave them behind.
5. Give rhythm.
Pretty much the same as with closure. When you plan an adventure you need to plan how long things should take. Is travelling something that just happens or something that'll be played out? Same for dialogue or stays at the inn or shopping or (for that matter) combat. During preparation and during the game those decisions will have to be made and they'll shape the experience.

This is, again, framed by using patterns. A bit like deciding between the intermission with the plain flying across the globe in the Indiana Jones movies or going all Snakes on a Plane on the players. We already talked about escapism in rpgs means exploring shared platforms for our imagination. As a DM you decide the size of that platform.

Rhythm in connection with closure should make for a pretty natural flow at the table, but you could always expand on that by using established story patterns for movies, tv shows or books (which are a plenty online or just use what you know and like). While closure is the transition between scenes, rhythm is the decision when that transition happens. You want tension? Short scenes, with lots of stuff emerging in short succession (because remember: things don't just happen, they announce themselves). You want an relaxed atmosphere? Take your time and describe more scenery, give the players room to do stuff and talk. Vary as needed, pace as needed (goes for planning and improvisation).
6. Always say "Yes, but ..."
In short: learn to say "No" by saying "Yes, but ...". Always. It's the "Making a thing out of it"-concept again, but it'll grease your story like nothing else as you constantly expand it through the ideas and questions the players bring to the table while giving it a positive spin as a bonus. There is no fair question in a game you couldn't answer in one way or another with "Yes, but ..." (unfair questions would be those where the players know the answer must be no ... but they won't be surprised about the answer then, either).

This is also where preparation comes in. The better an adventure is prepared, the more likely you'll have an idea what that "but" could mean.

And that's that. There's a myriad of ways handling all this at the table or during preparations, but if you want an in depth example how I do this right now at the table, you should check out the Random Narrative Generator I describe in this post (if you haven't already). I roll it very time I think the narrative needs an impulse and improvise the ins and outs from the information I get ...

Second Layer of Escapism ...

... will be about the kind of stories we need to tell to trigger our urge to let go and immerse ourselves in it, now that we know some of the techniques to make it work. It also has to wait for another day. This is already too long as it is and I need to do other things today, too :)

I hope this hot mess was already somewhat useful. It sure all is important to give a game some flow and it's connected to the first two parts with the whole "story pattern" angle of escapism (see what it needs to generate "The Flow" in Part 2), but it really is only half the story. The surface, if you will.

It's also where it gets a bit more abstract, as it's not necessarily the content of a story that doesn't work for us, but the presentation. Some of it is already here and yet ... you can read the rest of it in Part 3B!

It's family time and all quite busy, as you might imagine. I'll try, though, and wish you all a good time until then :)

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Secrets of Escapism (or: How to prepare a better adventure, Part 2)

Onward, I say. Last time we established a ground argument, basically saying that the meaning of the word "escapism" not necessarily goes hand in hand with its connotations, or in other words: escapism can be (and will be most of the time!) a good thing. Healthy for the mind and, in a sense, a more natural state of the human being than our industrialized western culture would us like to acknowledge. We also mentioned "The Flow", some Tolkien and the notion that we don't need to defend our hobby or escapism in general. Part 2 will tackle a few ideas how this (that is: escapism) works and why ...

Feel the flow ... [source]
Happy to use Freud again (German wordplay intended)

Freud is not the end of the argument, but a beginning. Because that's what you do, right? You take alternate arguments and apply them to what you perceive as true, in the hopes to get some additional insight you hadn't before. At least that's how I write lots of my posts: I have an idea and before I write it down, I'll fact-check it and see what comes up. Turns out, Freud had a lot to say about the subject. And interesting stuff, too. Let's start there.

So Freud wrote a rather famous essay in 1908 about the process of creative writing and day-dreaming and basically says that day-dreaming is what adults do when they stop playing and writers found a way to make their day-dreaming aesthetically appealing enough for others to make it accessible and socially acceptable.

This connects to some degree with what we established in Part 1 as a consequence of the concept of productivity and why even today playing adults are frowned upon. Anyway, Freud states that everyone day-dreams "safe places". Check this out:

So Neurosis is what could go wrong here ... [source]

So there is pleasure and there's reality. The conflict between the two results in play, fantasy, day-dreaming and so on. They are complimentary, so the harsher your reality, the more intensive the reaction. Deny yourself the pleasure principle and you'll end up with some sort of damage because of it. I'm not a psychologist (or is it psycho-analyst here) but it sounds easy enough. Actually, I don't have to think hard to come up with some people who fit that description.

At this point we are back to the initial assessment: playing/escapism/day-dreaming ... we as humans need that kind of stuff or we go bonkers.

And he isn't inventing the wheel either. It's a long established concept and something Friedrich Schiller, for instance, wrote about in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Humankind (1795, 14th letter, if I'm not mistaken). Schiller said that the drive to play is the fundamental aesthetic and coined the terms homo ludens (the playing human) and Spieltrieb ("drive to play").

No more dead guys, please ...

I know, I'm sorry, it's all a bit heavy on the theoretical and quoting guys that died decades ago. Let's try another perspective, so here's an observation that might be able to illustrate a huge part of it: we have no problem, neither in literary theory nor in the media, to describe the protagonist in a story as the "hero", but it's far less common to do the same in role playing games. As a matter of fact, we like to be referred to as heroes/heroines (= men/women of superhuman strength or physical courage), but the way more common description would be adventurer (= those who play at games of chance, etymologically speaking).

There are several noteworthy distinctions here. For one, it fits Freud's evaluation pretty much spot on, as we tend to diminish activities of make-believe (like playing role playing games) to something less socially acceptable, in fact quite the opposite of what we define as a "hero". The acknowledgement to get described as heroes really is the icing on the cake here, it's like a nod from that fictive world that it's all right (in other words, it's us using our fictive worlds like hand-puppets to tell us it's all right ...).

But that's not all of it. The term "adventure" also describes something episodic. When you "have an adventure", you're doing something out of your daily routine ... Crazy, isn't it? Being heroic comes with obligations, being adventurous is taking a chance. And if you think about it, you'll never find a successful story about daily routine. Characters in stories are always in exceptional situations. Always.
Not your average day at the office ...
a great piece by Ralph Horsley [source]
There's also the distinction between us enjoying a story by ourselves (be it book or movie) or doing so with others. If Freud is right and we are all day-dreaming to some extend or another, it means that we actually do see ourselves as heroes. Just not in front of others ...

It gets really complex here. Take super heroes, for instance. Yes, they are heroes, but they are also always in exceptional situations (like the need to hide their identities or the consequences of being different). So we (the viewer/reader) know why they really are heroes. We identify because it describes that very gap between reality and fantasy.

It's that blue pill all over again!

Take that socially shunned Spieltrieb, translate it into stories and you'll see what flies and what not. The only scenes you see Neo at work, is when leaves it behind, Luke Skywalker is a redneck going on an adventure, Harold Crick is the most boring tax man on earth until the voices start talking to him
... Honestly, I can't think of a book, series or movie that has it any other way. Always the exceptional, be it drama, comedy, science fiction, horror or fantasy.

You got to see a documentary to see some real life, but the stories we tell won't have any of it. Not for the main protagonist anyway. You might see a glimpse of it, but most of the time it's humiliating, boring or crazy. Check the stories you like for what the main protagonist is doing. I'll wait ... You see? Freelancer, drifter, adventurer or they seek something else or they are unhappy with it. It's always the same.

In a way, that's the buy-in. It's what we want to see. A platform for our own fantasies. This is where immersion starts. But if it really turns out to be a flow, is an entirely different matter. It's part of the aesthetic, if you will. Partly this is about the techniques and story traditions mentioned in Part 1. It's also why we label our stories, to a degree. If horror is nothing you want to project on, you wouldn't like it if your romance turned Friday the 13th.

How flexible or competent we are with our stories is way more than taste and culture, though. Education, personal experience and age, there are many, many factors responsible for the expectations we might have for the stories we see and it's worth a whole damn post alone. The bottom line is that your mileage will of course vary, but there are constants and one of them is that if a story doesn't happen within certain expectations, we won't experience that flow. On the contrary, if the story leaves us cold, we will lose interest and move on.

Let's back this up a little with more theory. Here's a great post about the serious leisure perspective (which is a thing, I assure you) and the flow. In it is a nice summary what you need to achieve a flow and I'll set that in relation to, say, seeing a movie:
  1. We need a sense of competence in executing the activity (seeing a movie, you know movies);
  2. there's a requirement of concentration (sure, you pay attention so the story can do its thing);
  3. clarity of goals of the activity (genre and duration of the movie are known or assumed or guessed soon enough);
  4. immediate feedback from the activity (you pay attention and it pays of ... scares, laughs, emotions ... you know the drill);
  5. sense of deep, focused involvement in the activity (you know, if a movie gets to you, you'll be along for the trip);
  6. sense of control in completing the activity (tricky one, but most people know not to drink too much before and during, smoke a cigarette before the movie and put their mobile in sleep mode ... you know what to do when you're going to see a movie);
  7. loss of self-consciousness during the activity (if things go as they should, you'll lose yourself for a while);
  8. sense of time is truncated during the activity (and time flies ... we all now that one).
If you score in all 8 categories, you'll experience the flow. Even if we are not aware of this, it will influence how we evaluate our experiences and we all know what it feels like to be in a situation where boredom due to lack of immersion (or flow) makes us Feel. Every. Minute.


There is yet another aspect I want to write a few words about. It's the idea that we like stories because we can learn something from them. Even more, by experiencing second hand emotions through stories, we also get to experience catharsis, a spiritual and emotional cleansing, so to say. And we seek that, too, be it cheap thrills, tears, laughs, you name it.

So emotions are an important part in stories. We want to feel something, actually, we need to feel something other than boredom to get immersed.

There you go, that's Part 2

And here's what we've established: stories are an important part of us and the best ones make us experience some sort of flow. Time flies, we get carried away and we feel better for it afterwards. Although story competency might vary between individuals, there are some constants and expectations we all share towards the stories we experience. That's what makes movies or books or games successful or not. And: it's NEVER about "work". Also: Freud. 

Our drive to play is the main motivation to share stories. They are a platform for our private imaginations, but it is possible to experience all that by, for instance, playing role playing games. You might already guess a good part of it, but Part 3 will handle how I think we as Game Masters can use those ideas for our adventures.

If you can come up with a movie that somehow wouldn't fulfill the above summarized criteria (even just subjectively), I'd be happy to hear about it. I thought long and hard about this one, but I just can't come up with any ...

And you can read on with Part 3A and Part 3B!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Secrets of Escapism (or: How to prepare a better adventure, Part 1)

Catchy title, eh? I wanted to add "He did this to prepare his next adventure and you won't believe what happened next!", but it would have been too long for the header ... Anyway, here is a couple of thoughts I had bouncing around in the nasty old wetware for some time now. Maybe it's a bit too obvious, I don't know. But I believe it can make our games a little better to keep some of those insights in mind when preparing our adventures. Let's see.

Giving escapism a bad name since 1917 ...

The 1917 refers to a S. Freud quote cited in the Wikipedia article about escapism and isn't entirely fair. But I'll get to that. First the quote:
"[T]hey cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction they can extort from reality. 'We simply cannot do without auxiliary constructions', Theodor Fontane once said"
I think Freud and Fontane are right. We can not do without those "auxiliary constructions". We always told stories to each other and they hold meaning for us. That's a simple, undeniable truth, evident in stories that are thousands of years old and still get told (the Bible, the Edda, the Tao Te Ching ... just to give some very old examples). Stories are, to some extent, the collected wisdom and knowledge of the sentient monkeys we are. One more tool, if you will, to give us an edge.

It's easy to see now that stories, being as important as they are, must lead to a huge array of traditions surrounding the phenomenon. Ways to tell stories, to structure them, ways to preserve them and of course ways to use, understand and interpret them. The solutions are as varied as we have cultures today and go all the way back to the first spoken word.

Stories help kids to understand the world and fight their fears! Art by
the pretty fantastic Laure Fauvel [source]
To learn to understand stories is one of our earliest "games" and deeply connected to our social development. In a way, we learn to tell stories by experimenting with all its aspects with testing what works. And the sweet thing is, we mostly do it as leisure activities. In fact, telling and experiencing stories for leisure is so powerful that it also spawned several traditions and industries, leaving us with a wealth of options for, yes, escapism.

One could argue now that there are useful and less useful (harmful, even!) stories and that there also are healthy and unhealthy ways to consume stories. This is where the 1917 reference above is a bit unfair. Freud, obviously, looked at the unhealthy aspects of the whole affair and Fontane was an author, writing novels (arguably the less useful variety of stories). Both had also been children of the era of Enlightenment, holding "rational thought" for the highest achievable goal.

To some extent it's no surprise that escapism was regarded as something unhealthy or a problem in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Industrialization and all that jazz led to cheap labor, cheap entertainment and cheap mass production on an until then unknown scale: newspapers and books, then radio and finally television all brought chances to educate and/or entertain to an exponentially growing population.

And while it all worked very well to keep "the masses" entertained, it also came with all the trappings you'd expect with such a thing: unhealthy obsessions, fan following, manipulation (propaganda), intellectuals frowning upon "lesser entertainment" and all the other things that got associated with the term "escapism" (it being "unproductive", for instance ...). And it has a bad name until today. Google it and you'll easy enough find people seeing a need to justify, for instance, playing role playing games for exactly those reasons.

Well, things aren't black and white and while engaging yourself into a hobby or a story, you will always do it to experience something else, to expand yourself, to use that ability we have to give ourselves up and find a "flow" in an activity. Studies (like this interesting paper by Frode Stenseng) show that we can use all of that for our well-being and not only to flee our harsh and evil reality.

That's a big ass exposition and I still haven't started talking about adventure design. But it describes the first "secret" about escapism. It's not only daydreaming (which is also healthy for the brain, by the way). There is purpose in those leisure activities we choose to fill our spare time with and we are better for it (most of the time, anyway). And yes, it gives meaning to your gonzo-weird role playing escapades. To understand this is the first step towards preparing better adventures.

So that was part 1?

Yup, that's it for today. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here when I say that we should be proud of our hobby and that escapism isn't a bad thing to begin with. The brain needs it and it isn't so strange to believe that even if you "just" hunt purple smurfs for their feet in the fringe nebula of the fire-shard forests (or whatever), it fulfills a necessary human need and we get quite the benefits from doing so.

To some degree it's part of this century long debate that started with the industrialization of work and the idea that came along with it that we need to be "productive" in the things we do and the term "escapism" is actually derived from "escapade", which originally described a horse jumping out of the trained pattern ... Need I say more? Well, I'll close with something Tolkien said on the matter in his essay On Fairy-Stories:
“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
You know, I somewhat agree with Tolkien here. That said, I'd like to add that I really don't think the word is fit to describe the phenomenon it describes. So I wouldn't say we are in a prison like he did, but that our imagination is wider than the limits of our individual reality and it's a strength that we can go places, regardless of whether those places exist or not.

Anyway, more on that in Part 2, which will deal with the "why" for a bit, basically connecting Serious Leisure with escapism and searching for some common denominators. Part 3 will then talk about how all of this is connected to good or bad (and ugly?) adventure design ... I want to get this done till Wednesday.

And that's that. Life has kept me very busy the last few weeks, but I'll have more time in the coming days and some writing to do before the year ends. (Damn, it's almost Christmas ...).

You want to read on? Here are part 2, part 3A and part 3B!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

This blog just got 5 years old ... (a post with useful stuff in it)

Damn it, I hate it when that happens, but I'm so frecking busy right now that I won't make the progress I'd like to see with Monkey Business.  You know what they say: "A plan is a list of things that don't happen." Anyway. I'm also further ahead in this than I thought possible to begin with. 50 pages laid out, another 35 conceptualized and ready to make their way into the module as soon as I find the time and the rest being at least outlined. That's good, right? Well, it isn't enough. So I'll go ahead and show some juicy bits of the module, some real crunch, so you people get a good impression where a good part of the time went I could have used blogging.

For those completely unaware: Monkey Business will be my first published module. It's a procedural jungle sandbox with drug trafficking apes, crazy cannibals, sloppy aliens and all kinds of good weirdness. It keeps growing and growing, so there'll be a shit-load of content. Here is a (wee) bit of it.

A post where I show more than I should ...

First some layout and text. There's still a last spell check and what-not in order, but I think this is presentable:

One of around 160 possible encounters with some pd art for flavor.

And here is the rumor table:

10 ideas how to get the party started ...

... and still raise you one Cannibal Village Drop Die Generator

Alright, I'll go all in and show you a bit of the procedural sandbox tools I've been working on for this thing. It's part of a hex-field generator and will be accompanied by a ruins generator. One roll on this table alone will already give you enough fodder for an adventure, including some hooks for more. The whole thing should give you enough for a campaign. The "Cheat Sheet" at the end is supposed to be the icing on the cake. I think it's important to give the random content produced for the module a home to make book keeping as easy as possible.

Well, here we go:

Random Village Generator
Roll 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d12 and 1d20 all at once. Add the result up, that's your population. Copy the pattern the dice form as relative positions of the different village areas and the numerical results as indicated in the tables unto the Cannibal Village Cheat Sheet (at the end of the module). Die size indicates hierarchy, die numbers indicate how strong or weak (high or low results) that aspect of the village life is. Doubles indicate a strong bond between two results and if one result is the double of another result, than the higher one has some kind of dominance over the lower (ignoring/conflicting with hierarchy).
Use the Cannibal Village Cheat Sheet to fill in the die results and draw a sketch of the village. Although this method is pretty fast (taking not more time than one roll of a couple dice and noting the results), I'd prepare a couple of those up front. Hex results will indicate further details as soon as you drop a village somewhere. Let's get to those tables.
D4 – Sick Huts (old, wounded & sick)
1: Many here are insane (-4 to basic culture roll)
2: The Sickness is here ( 3d6 of the population are really sick)
3: Many wounded (2d10 wounded because of war)
4: People take care of the old and weak (+3d6 to population, +4 to basic culture roll)
d6 – Big Communal Huts (women, children & simple work)
1: People are angry, something riles them up (-4 to reaction rolls)
2: People are afraid, something bad is about to happen (possible quest, -2 to reaction rolls)
3: People are nervous, something is wrong (possible quest, correct reaction roll 2 towards neutral)
4: People are content, all is as it should (+2 to basic culture)
5: People are curious, something strange happened (possible quest, +2 to reaction rolls)
6: People are happy, something fortunate happened (possible contacts, + 4 to reaction rolls)
d8 - Storage Huts (valuables, workshops, food & prisoners)
1: This is not their village! (1d6 prisoners, -4 to reaction rolls, -6 to basic culture)
2: They are very primitive hunters & gatherers (-4 to basic culture roll)
3: Primitives with basic farming & rudimentary tools (-2 to basic culture roll)
4: Greedy Savages, they lack nothing (+2 to resource)
5: Wealthy savages, fat is a beauty ideal (+4 to resource, +2 to reaction roll if a fat character is in the group)
6: Living in the ruins of a lost culture (+2 to basic culture roll, +2 to resource level, -2 to reaction rolls)
7: Sophisticated savages who'd eat you nonetheless (+4 to basic culture roll, shaman is M-U, +1 to resource level)
8: Retired group of adventurers brought civilization & blond children (+2 to reaction roll, +6 to basic culture roll, shaman is M-U, trainers for all classes, +2 to resource level)
d10 – Initiation Huts (combat training, armory & trophies)
1: All warriors dead, dying or wounded (2d6 of population are warriors in the sick huts, +4 to reaction rolls, -4 to basic culture, -4 to resources)
2: Cowards (+2d6 warriors to population, -2 to resources, -4 to Morale)
3: Poorly equipped (+3d6 warriors to population, +1 to level for warriors, +2 for two veterans/leaders, -4 to resources, -2 to Morale)
4: Lazy (+2d6 warriors to population, +2 level for one leader, -2 to Morale)
5: Peaceful tribe (+1d6 honor guards to population, +3 to level for each warrior, +2 to resources)
6: Very Young (+3d6 warriors to population, +1 to level for warriors, +2 for three veterans/leaders, +1 to resources, +2 to Morale)
7: Only old veterans (+2d6 warriors to population, +3 to level for veterans/leaders, +2 to resources, +4 to Morale)
8: Organized and trained (+4d6 warriors to population, +1d6 prisoners of war, +2 to level for warriors, +3 for one veteran/leader, +2 to resources, +2 to Morale)
9: Experienced warriors (+3d6 warriors to population, +1d6 prisoners of war, +2 to level for warriors, +4 for two veterans/leaders, +4 to resources, +4 to Morale)
10: Elite warriors of fame (+3d6 warriors to population, +2d6 prisoners of war, +3 to level for warriors, +6 for three veterans/leaders, +4 to resources, +6 to Morale)
d12 – Shaman's Hut (boneyard, shrine & altar of sacrifice)
Even result: male shaman, uneven result: female shaman
1-2: Faking it (possible quests, because needs help, +1d6 prisoners for sacrifices, -4 to resources, -4 to reaction rolls, -4 to resources, -2 to morale)
3-4: Sold soul to evil for powers (+2d6 prisoners for sacrifices,+2 resources, -4 reaction roll, -4 to basic culture)
5-6: Controls a demon (+1d6 prisoners for sacrifices, -2 to basic culture, -2 to reaction rolls, +4 to morale +4 to resources)
7-8: The spirits of the jungle listen! (level 3 shaman, +2 to basic culture, +4 to resources, +2d6 to population)
9-10: A holy presence (level 6 shaman, +4 to basic culture, +4 to resources, +2 to morale, +2 to reaction rolls, +2d6 to population, +1d6 level 3 holy warriors)
11-12: A place of pilgrimage (level 8 shaman, +4 to basic culture, +4 to resources, +4 to morale, +4 to reaction rolls, double population, +3d6 level 3 holy warriors)
d20 - Chieftain's hut (Chief's family, honor guard & place of assembly)
Roll is base value for basic culture.
1: Old & senile (-4 to morale, -4 to resources, +4 to reaction roll with even reaction roll or -4 with uneven reaction roll, because senile)
2: Stupid (every other village in the same hex-field makes fun of him, -4 to resources, +2 to morale, -6 to reaction roll)
3: Crazy (half the population, -2 to resources, -2 to morale, +2 to reaction roll)
4: Young & inexperienced (-4 to resources, +2 to morale)
5: Incompetent (always does the opposite of what would be wise, -6 to resources, -4 to morale)
6: A drunk (-4 to resources, -2 to morale, +2 to reaction roll)
7: Extra savage cannibal (always aims to eat you, +1d6 prisoners for soup, +2 to resources, +4 to morale, -6 to reaction roll)
8: Warmonger (at war with every other tribe in the hex-field, +2d6 level 1 warriors, half of the warriors are down to half their hit points, +4 to resources, +2 to morale, -6 to reaction roll)
9: Superstitious (easy to impress with magic, -4 to all saves vs. magic for the tribe,
10: Greedy (tribe is poor, chief is rich, -2 to resources)
11: Rich (bought alliance with one other factions in the hex-field to be the strongest force in the area, +4 resources)
12: Wise (chief is level 2 cleric, +1d6 visitors seeking advice, +4 to reaction rolls)
13: Suave Savage (chief is level 2 thief, +6 to resources, +2 to morale, +2 to reaction rolls)
14: EVIL! (other tribes fear this tribe, leader is level 4 chaotic warrior with issues, +2 to morale, -4 to reaction rolls)
15: Warrior Chief (+3d6 warriors to population, +1d6 prisoners of war, +2 to level for warriors, +4 for two veterans/leaders, +4 to resources, +4 to Morale)
16: Educated Savage (chance to buy normal equipment, leader is level 4 wizard with 3 level 1 apprentices
17: Prodigy of the gods (chief is level 6 cleric, double population, +2d6 level 3 holy warriors, +4 to morale, +4 to resources)
18: Diplomat (allied with all other tribes in the hex-field, chief is level 6 fighter+1d6 honored hostages, +4 to morale, +4 to resources)
19: Noble Savage (respected by all tribes and factions in the hex-field, chief is level 6 fighter, double population +2d6 level 3 elite warriors, +4 to morale, +6 to resources)
20: A king among cannibals (level 9 warrior, if there are other villages in the same hex-field, they also accepted him as king*, double population and warriors, +2d6 level 5 elite warriors, +4 to morale, +6 to resources)
*Unless they also came up with kings, which would mean war, unless they are all kings, then they also control every hex-field sharing a border with them.
Reaction and Basic Culture Rolls (always 2d6 +/- modifiers)
Tribes always act as a whole. That means that the first reaction roll with the members of a tribes also counts for interactions with other members of a tribe until the characters do something to force another reaction roll (like bringing gifts, killing someone and so on). Basic culture rolls are always made when characters ask if a tribe has something or not (medicine, tools, knowledge) to find out if and how they might have something. The results read:
negative result (deep seated hatred/alien customs, they oppose what you want)
1-4 (aggressive prejudice/different customs, they don't have what you want)
5-8 (neutral and cautious/close enough, they might have what you want, but for a price)
9-12 (friendly and open/the same thing, as you'd expect)
13-16 (they celebrate you/they are happy to accommodate)
higher results (they think you are gods/they top what you want)
Take that just for the value it has in the beginning. If it's above zero, they are wealthy and if it's below zero, they are poor at the moment. A tribe uses a number of resource points equal to a tenth of its population per week (rounded up, so a tribe of 32 cannibals would use 4 points per week) and gain their resource level (see Appendix 1, p. XX or on the Cheat Sheet) in d6.
And here's the sheet:

Results go to the left, drawing of the village and connections to the right!
That's all I'll write today ...

And less than I promised, I'm afraid (as I wanted to give you the whole thing today). I hope you guys enjoyed this extensive look behind the curtain, there's going to be way more of the same where that came from. It'll be around 100 A5 pages of rampant procedural weirdness to throw at your players. It'll also be PWYW, so you all can have it for what you think it's worth :)

I really tried to give this to you guys as celebration for the 5 years existence of this here blog. And it will be that. Just a couple of weeks later. I'll try December, but I shouldn't promise.

Anyway, to end this on a positive note: I still enjoy doing what I'm doing here. Lots of great people all around and although I'm pretty damn slow in finishing what I started, I'm pretty sure I will get there sooner or later. All I'm trying to say is, maybe, I really don't know when I'll be done with Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, The Grind, The Mines under Karrakez, The Goblin-Tribe Simulator or Monkey Business, but the more I do all this here, the more confident I get that I will eventually get there.

So please stay tuned, if you have the patience :)

Thanks for staying with the blog, everyone, however long you dared to endure my ramblings. I really appreciate all of you. Here's to 5 years more!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Ratpeople Class for the D&D RC (or Labyrinth Lord and so on)

Just a quick one because I need that class for a player today. In other (short) news: I wrote some place that I aimed to publish Monkey Business before November. Well, what scatter-brained me actually had planned was publishing it IN November (sorry). That's still the plan and has a good chance of happening. I'm also still pretty busy with exams stuff, so no regular posting until mid-December, I'm afraid (I'll try, though). For now: enjoy a class of Ratpeople for your D&D games!


No matter how you call them, they are around in most fantasy settings and about as popular as goblins. But they make good workers, passable shock troupes and better scouts. Their eyesight isn't the best (short sighted, color blind), but they make up for it with excellent hearing and smelling. They are good at hiding, sneaking around and squeezing through very small holes.

Skaven are, of course a prime example. Just not very cute ... [source]
Ratpeople are as fast as humans are, but a little smaller in general (reaching the height a dwarf would, but without the broad shoulders). Language doesn't come easy to them because of their snouts. They also have big ears, whiskers and, of course, a tail.

Prime Requisites: Dexterity and Constitution

Experience Bonus: 5% for DEX or CON higher than 12, 10% for DEX and CON higher than 12

Hit Dice: 1d6 per level up to 9th level.

Maximum Level: 12

Armor: No heavy armor, shields permitted

Weapon: Any (also has claws)

Combat Progression: like Fighter

Weapon Mastery (if you use that): normal

Saves as: Halfling

Special Abilities: SQUEEZE (if the head fits, the rat fits ... character can get through very small holes), SNEAKY RAT (character gets [(3 x DEX) + (2 x Level) %]-chance to be stealthy when sneaking around), HEIGHTENED SMELL AND HEARING (what it says on the tin, can only be surprised in smelly/noisy environments), HIDE INSIDE (like Halfling), HIDE OUTSIDE (like Halfling)

Ratpeople Experience Table (advances like Fighter/Thief)
Level     XP
1           0
2       1.400
3       2.800
4       5.600
5      10.000
6      20.000
7      40.000
8      80.000
9     160.000
10    280.000
11    400.000
12    520.000
And that's that. As far as origins go, the Crazy Wizard Experiment works best in my games. SCIENCE DID IT, that's how. Got out of hand during imperial times (because we have that, too) and they have been reproducing ever since. Their birth place is lost in obscurity, though, because we like to keep it interesting. Society pretty much accepts them as you'd expect ... so they don't. Elves in particular really don't like them. Rats go at length to assimilate, mostly just by wearing cloths but some going as far as cutting their tails off to seem more humanoid (although half the rat community frowns at such behavior).

I used Building the Perfect Class as a guide to make the Ratpeople. You should check that out, if you haven't already (and here is why).

Next up should be more Monkey Business!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Ultimate Game (Blog Challenge!)

Yeah, this blog is still running 😀 Done with the Weltschmerz, too (for now). I'm just stressed between exams and all over the place. Still with lots of gaming in my head, but not so much in my fingers right now ... Anyway, +Adam Dickstein wrote a November Blog Challenge over at the Barking Alien and it's actually posing a question I've been asking myself every now and then. Here it is in his own words:
"I'm wondering if I've already run my greatest campaign, or is my greatest campaign yet to come? Would I know it if I saw it? What would it consist of?"
"So, what would my Ultimate Campaign look like? What would yours look like?"

Not an easy question (being a challenge and all) and I'm not sure what my answer would look like, say, 10 years from now. But I'll give it a shot anyway. Let's see where this leads.


Pseudo-historic, gritty and epic, low on fantasy and low on magic (but with both present).

Or something like that ... Oh damn, DM ADD? Again?! [source]

A sandbox campaign with several stages:

It begins somewhat 550 AC, somewhere in Europe, the Roman Empire is down and the Germanic tribes start to take roots, forming the roots for what would be kings and noble families in the Middle Ages. And that's what the characters will do. They'll explore the lands their parents claimed for fame and glory. Adventurers in the beginning, leaders after that and legends in the end. The players build here the foundation for the next game ...

... it gets a bit vague after that, but I imagine it would be great fun to see how the descendants of those legends fared through history. The High Middle Ages come to mind, something like "Knights & Sorcery". It'd be the same sandbox, but centuries later and with new threats and horrors (and maybe some old coming back?). Territorial disputes, epic battles, the crusades ... old magic and monsters, the fay court still strong, but fighting a losing battle against Christianity. Stuff like that.

And once those characters got old and that part of the campaign cycle comes to an end, it'd jump to the 17th century, early 18th century. Cloak & Dagger, gunpowder, 30 years war, again with the descendants and in the same sandbox (expanding, growing and changing over time, I believe). Might have pirates, too.

I know it's crazy in scope and way too big. But we have that Dark Ages game going already and there is hope. I also have a plan ...


Pace is a problem. I like it when things have the time they need to unfold and I like to give players the time they need to get wherever they are heading. The only pressure I like to have in the game is the narrative. But that might be a luxury from my youth, where we met every Friday to game for hours and hours .. a luxury I don't have nowadays. So ideally I'd be able to have 2 games a month and some Play by Mail in between to keep it focused on the juicy bits during our face to face gaming.


I like to have players that invest in the game and the story (well, who doesn't?). It's also necessary to play on a regular basis for people to get accustomed to each other, ideally becoming a group of friends over the course of a campaign (or at least a good team). It's good to just gather and have fun from the get-go, but for me there is a layer where the players start getting good at a game (player skill?) and go beyond beer & pretzels. This is where I want to get again.

Early stages of group formation ... [source]
Characters ... well, as mentioned above, I'd like to instill a sense of history for a couple of strong, individual characters and there descendants. One character per player and it's more about scars than about dying (if they get old enough, that is).


If you've been around this blog, you know my answer must be "highly customized and DIY". That's the "plan" I was talking about above: if I write it, I get to test and play it. That's often worth a campaign or two and usually gets more experienced players interested. Another aspect is that if I want to explore a specific idea or concept, I'll make it an adventure module and offer play-tests for that, too. Sounds easy, turns out to be quite challenging but also rewarding and intense.

So that Dark Ages game I talked about above? That'll be Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, of course. It'll be done and ready next year (I think). The first supplement after that would be about the Domain game when the characters hit level 10 in Lost Songs (title: Lost Kings of the Nibelungs) and after that it's epic (like "Beowulf"-epic) level adventures (title: Lost Legends of the Nibelungs).

Once the core rules are done, I'm thinking about exploring other epochs, just like described above. I hope it'll keep being that easy to find players interested in playing and testing those games, because as long as that's the case, I will also end up playing them!

Maybe it happened already?

And that's it. I already had the pleasure of DMing three great campaigns in my 24 years of gaming. I never managed to top my first campaign, though, and it might be that I already had my Ultimate Campaign. It might be that I'll never manage to have something like that again.

But who knows? For now I'll keep trucking. Writing Lost Songs is a great experience and it might not come as a surprise that I never felt that close to any other set of rules. Writing your own game is something I'd recommend to every DM out there.

To grow with a set of rules like that, to see it develop in play-testing and as the campaign unfolds, to see it all through, I think that's my Ultimate Game right now ...

And now I must get back to learning. I have a tough month ahead. If I get the chance, I'll take the time for another post or two this month.