Monday, April 29, 2013

Efficiency in RPGs

So the ever-educational XKCD has this up as today's comic:

Basically, it's a chart showing you how much time you can spend on making some task more efficient, before you're losing ground.

Now, apply this to RPGs.

Assuming you play once a week (the 4th column in the comic), if there's some task that you can shave one minute off of, you can spend up to 4 hours to make it happen, and it's worth the time you spend. What can you do to shave one minute off some task? (All the numbers apply to a campaign that runs at least 5 years; if yours runs less, decrease the maximum time spent improving the task accordingly.)

One idea is to make things easier to find during play (so you save one minute per week). You could spend up to 4 hours doing any of these, and come out ahead:

  • Put metadata (keywords) in images, electronic map tiles, mp3 files, etc.
  • Sort your miniatures by CL.
  • Make a customized DM screen with the tables you use constantly, not the ones the publisher thinks you should use.
  • Make a list of NPC names.
Or, you could make your life easier when writing adventures. Can you shave 5 minutes off the process? You could spend less than 21 hours doing any of these things, and come out ahead:
  • List all the monsters and animals commonly found in the wilderness, so you don't have to search through the monster book each time you're putting together an encounter.
  • Make detailed lists of NPC encounters (including spells memorized, personalities, magic and mundane items, etc.); rival adventuring parties, merchant caravans, border patrols, tavern inhabitants, etc. Don't be afraid to reuse them.
  • Make a custom index of a supplement or campaign guide you use often.
  • Learn how to use mapping software, so your maps don't take quite as long to make.
These are just a few things off the top of my head. I'm sure you all can think of other ways to make things go just a little bit faster; in the long run, you'll come out ahead. 

(Yeah, I know the comic is making fun of hyper-efficiency, but it doesn't mean it's still not useful sometimes...)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

ST:TNG in Theaters Tonight

Fathom Events is running a special showing of what are arguably the best two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in select theaters tonight. From their description:
The Best of Both Worlds – the two-part storyline comprising the third season finale and the fourth season premiere of the beloved series Star Trek: The Next Generation®- will, for the first time ever, be seamlessly tied together as one continuous and uninterrupted story digitally restored with new CGI effects… on the big screen! Audiences will also see special clips from “Regeneration: Engaging the Borg”, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Best of Both Worlds.
Sounds like a hoot, and fortunately my local theater is showing it tonight. I'm very curious to see what those "new CGI effects" are. These are also my two favorite episodes, so I'm really looking forward to this tonight!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pat Robertson still doesn't like D&D

Really? I know that 80's nostalgia is all the rage right now, but recycling tired, debunked claims from M.A.D.D. and Jack Chick? Seriously?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What's *not* in the Bestiary?

Rather than going through an listing every creature from the original MM, FF, and MM2 that is represented in the upcoming Adventures Dark and Deep™ Bestiary, I thought it might be illustrative to list the beasties that aren't to be found in it:

Adherer, Aleax, Astral Searcher, Berbalang, Carbuncle, Cifal, Clubneck (but there are three other kinds of giant walking birds to make up for it), Crypt Thing, Denzelian, Disenchanter, Oriental Dragons (to be included in a forthcoming supplement on Wuxia-type adventures), Enveloper, Eye of Fear and Flame, Frost Man, Gambado, Garbug, Giant Strider, Gorbel, Hook Horror, Hound of Ill Omen, Imorph, Kamdan, Killmoulis, Lava Children, Magnesium Spirit, Meenlock, Needleman, Pĕnanggalan, Protein Polymorph, Sandman, Sheet Ghoul, Sheet Phantom, Shocker, Skulk, Terithran, Tiger Fly, Tirapheg, Trilloch, Ice Troll, Spirit Troll, Tween, Umpleby, Vision, Vortex, Witherstench, and Xill. 

Aside from possibly an odd dinosaur or two, everything else from the original three monster books is going to be found in the Bestiary (or at least something that can be used in lieu of those creatures which cannot be included due to their not having been declared Open Game Content). We're talking over 900 creatures, including nearly a hundred new ones.

Most of the omissions were made simply because I find the particular creature either useless, goofy, unnecessarily complicated, or a combination thereof. I'm sure some people are going to be unhappy at some of my specific choices (I await the torrent of comments from fans of the Protein Polymorph with both dread and anticipation), but without specific guidance from Gygax as to which creatures, exactly, he was planning on excising from his 2nd edition, I had to go with my own judgement. 

However, I didn't have the heart to take out the flumph. That's in there.

The Kickstarter to fund the artwork for the Bestiary will be starting up sometime in May. Keep an eye out!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dealing with Unexpected Success

No, not a complaint about through-the-roof sales of the Adventures Dark and Deep™ Players Manual (although I am pleased to report that sales are good, and the book is in the top 80 last time I checked on, but rather an examination of how, exactly, to prevent unexpected success from leading to disaster or near-disaster.

Kickstarter has had its share of unexpected monster hits, and more than its share of those successes turning into failures. And the reason?

People see the enormous numbers coming in and think they need to react to them, rather than sticking to the plan.

On one level, reaction is expected and good. As in, walking around with a stupid grin on your face, or being positively gushing in your thanks and praise of your backers. But what I fail to understand is why, when one gets a ton more money than expected on Kickstarter, one feels the need to then change the project to make it more grandiose than originally planned!

Take the Steve Jackson Ogre Kickstarter (it's noteworthy because SJG just released their annual report, and Ogre figures prominently for the first time in... well... ever). They asked for $20,000 and ended up with nearly a million dollars. So what did they do when faced with this windfall? They had two options:

  1. Produce a metric buttload of the modestly scoped game they were originally going to produce, get it done on schedule, and make a nifty profit on each one, or
  2. Produce a vast monster of a game that went way beyond the original scope, with expensive  components, intricate custom packaging, a box that's so large retailers will have problems making room for it on their shelves, and which costs so much to produce and ship that they actually stand a chance of losing money on each game sold. Not to mention oodles of bonus swag that add to the cost, all still borne by that same pledge that you were expecting to pay for option #1.
Which do you think they chose?

I honestly don't fault Steve Jackson Games, and I'm not slamming them. I support them as a company, I supported this Kickstarter, and I am and always will be a fan of Ogre. This was their first Kickstarter, they were completely unprepared for the avalanche of interest, and as they kept seeing the pledge meter climb higher and higher, doubtless felt enormous pressure to make a game worthy of a million dollar Kickstarter Campaign.

But that's my point. Even when you get that huge unexpected success, you don't need to change what the supporters were supporting in the first place. To my mind, having 3,500 pre-orders for a game that first came out in 1977 is a huge milestone in and of itself. You don't need a box that could be used to make a 1:1 scale model of Stonehenge. Getting the game back into stores on a regular basis, for the long term, would have been more of an accomplishment than making a single big splash for a summer and then moving on to the next big thing. 

And this isn't just about Ogre, either. We've seen this a lot, with games such as Axes and Anvils (added a bunch of extraneous stuff that ended up distracting the creator away from the game itself), Dwimmermount (added tons of stretch goals, on top of other problems too well-known to go into here), and others. 

My advice to anyone (and this goes for non-game Kickstarters as well) is to stick to the original plan. Just because you now have a ton more people supporting your project doesn't mean you need to change what that project is. Be content with doing more of the original than you expected to do, do them on time, and do them well. That, in and of itself, is a success.

EDIT: Removed references to keeping Ogre in production. The larger point, of not changing the project just because one gets a lot of support, still stands unaltered.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Star Wars Every Year for Five Years

There is some great Star Wars news just out, if you're a fan.

Starting in 2015, a new film in the third trilogy (Episodes VII, VIII, and IX for those who are counting) will be released every other year. So the whole Skywalker Family Saga will be complete by 2019, 42 years after it began.

In addition, there will be at least two spin-off movies coming out in 2016 and 2018. The subjects of those two films haven't been confirmed yet, but rumors say the money's on Yoda and Boba Fett. They won't necessarily be set in the same time-frame as the third trilogy.

Aside from providing the broad outlines of the story for the third trilogy, and some other details about the Star Wars universe, George Lucas won't have his hands on the actual production of any of the films. J.J. "Lens Flare" Abrams will be helming Episode VII, while Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the best film of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, will be writing one of the spin-off films.

Time for me to get to the gym. I need to live at least to 53 now.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

ADD Bestiary Kickstarter Coming Soon!

So now my attention is being drawn more and more to the Adventures Dark and Deep™ Bestiary. In doing some preliminary work on the Kickstarter campaign to fund the art (this sucker is going to need about $15k to get all the art done), I'm trying to figure out what suitable rewards might be.

The problem is complicated a bit by the fact that offering multiple copies of the book is just not a viable option. It made sense to offer additional copies of the Players Manual to high-price backers, since every player needs one. But for the Bestiary, you really only need one per table, so offering "One for you and two for your players" doesn't make any sense.

Here are a few things I've come up with as rewards for higher pledge levels:
  • A complete set of books; the PM, GMT, and Bestiary (with a few permutations of numbers and styles)
  • A picture of you being eaten by one of the monsters in the book ("You have been eaten by a grue")
  • An online game run by me for your group
I'm also phrasing everything in terms of how many monster illustrations your pledge is buying. So when you pledge $15 to get the pdf, you're also funding one complete monster picture. $30 and you're funding two, etc. There will be a big graphic that gets updated every time we raise enough to pay for another 100 monsters.

Look for this in May-- just around the corner!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Recipe I Think I'll Try


1 part hex crawl,
1 part The Lost World,
1 part The Man Who Fell to Earth,
1 part At the Mountains of Madness,
1 part A Journey to the Center of the Earth,
and a dash of Serpent Men of Valusia

Cook for 5-8 months until done. Serve in three portions:

  • The Vale of Yesterday
  • The City of Yesterday
  • Beyond the Vale of Yesterday

Enjoy for the holidays!

Players Manual Hard Copies Now Available!

I'm pleased to report that the Adventures Dark and Deep™ Players Manual is now available for sale in both hard cover and soft cover versions through the BRW Games online store.

The soft cover costs $19.95 and the hard cover costs $29.95. Each comes with a complimentary pdf version.

If you purchased a pdf copy of the book before now, in a day or two you'll be receiving a special offer via email that will allow you to purchase either book for $9.95 off the cover price, so you're not penalized for buying the pdf early.

Thanks to everyone who supported the Kickstarter for the book, and everyone can also look forward to the Game Masters Toolkit, which should be available in the May-June time frame.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Where's the Apostrophe?

Now that the books are hitting the hot little hands of the Kickstarter backers, I suppose it was inevitable that someone mentioned the lack of an apostrophe in the title of the Adventures Dark and Deep™ Players Manual.

I can definitively state that this is neither unintentional, nor is it grammatically incorrect.

The question of whether or not the book should be more properly titled the Player's Manual or the Players' Manual was actually brought up by both the editor and my wife. As author and publisher, I made the executive decision to leave the title as-is for two reasons.

Regarding the first, the nature of the project is such that it does have strong ties to the first edition of the world's most popular RPG. Since the 1E books omitted the apostrophe, I thought it would be appropriate to do so as well. Failing all else, this could fall under artistic license, but there is actually a sturdier reason.

As to the second, the apostrophe is used in two cases; singular possessive (Player's) and plural possessive (Players'). In the case of the present work, neither applies.

It would apply if the intent of the title were to imply possession of the manual by either a specific player or all players in general. However, that is not the case. The manual is intended for the players. Thus, the term "Players Manual" is the equivalent of saying "Manual for Players". In which case, the word "players" is the object of the (implied) preposition "for", and thus no apostrophe is needed.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: Nightwatch

Caution: Spoilers

Our next review is a romp through a pretty obscure bit of Greyhawkiana; the novel Nightwatch by Robin Wayne Bailey. Published in 1990, this was a one-off novel whose author was best known for his contributions to the ever-awesome "Thieves' World" series (which is a topic for a post unto itself).

The novel focuses on Garrett Starlen, a captain of the Night Watch of the city of Greyhawk, as he tries to unravel the mystery behind why all of the city's most powerful experts in divination are all killed in the space of a single evening. Soon things start to escalate, with ominous black birds filling the skies and more dead bodies piling up. It's very much a detective novel, with some nice plot twists, false leads, and the like. It ends up with an invasion of the city, which is fought off thanks in large part to Starlen's tricking the various factions into turning out all their followers armed to the teeth at the right moment. The whole thing takes place within the City of Greyhawk, except for a jaunt to the Mistmarsh.

The secondary characters are very well defined, and the whole thing is well-written, well-plotted, and well-paced, just as I would expect of a veteran author. I found myself actively looking forward to the next chapter as I was reading.

The timing of the novel is problematic. It is said to be fifty years since the Circle of Eight was last heard from, but there are some odd incongruities. It's implied, for instance, that mayor Neroff Gasgall has just died, which would make his time in office unbelievably long. Too, the Horned Society is a major force once again, but there are reasons to think that it now controls the Shield Lands.

While it's plain that Bailey took a lot of time to research the setting, it's also plain that his researches only went so far, as there are glaring factual errors that any editor should have caught. The names of the moons of Oerth are incorrect, for instance, and he continually mentions that Greyhawk's nickname is "Necropolis". There's also something subtly... wrong... about his descriptions of the city that I find it very difficult to put my finger on. Orcs and dwarves are "magical races"? It almost feels more like Sanctuary than Greyhawk. Still, these are minor things in what is otherwise a pretty good book.

There isn't much that can be used directly in an RPG campaign, owing to the future setting, but it could be mined for younger NPC versions of the characters, depending on when the campaign was set. The twelve swords known as the Pillars of Heaven could be a nice catalyst for a game, and the fact that the Hierarchs of the Horned Society will rise once more could provide fodder for plots as well.

All in all, a pretty nifty read, even if it is a future Greyhawk that's a quarter-plane of reality removed from the one we know. I give it four wizards out of five.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Enemy of my Enemy...

One of the things that I don't see mentioned too often in an RPG context is the notion that the bad guys don't always get along with one another. It's a theme that's critical to the classic D1-3 "Descent into the Depths of the Earth" modules (as I discussed a few years ago), but it's not something that gets much talk in my corner of the RPG community.

Having villains that are not only not all on the same team, but who are actively opposed to one another, can add a lot of depth and texture to a campaign. It opens up the possibility of engaging one enemy to oppose another, and can lead to delightfully devious plot twists, as a villain's actions are finally revealed to be directed not at the PCs, but at some other villain.

As an example, let's look at Batman: The Animated Series (one of my favorites for this sort of thing):

  • Two Face hates Poison Ivy, because Ivy tried to kill Harvey Dent before he became Two Face
  • The Joker hates the Creeper, because the Creeper tried to steal his act (and Harley Quinn...)
  • The Joker hates Poison Ivy, because she and Harley Quinn were more successful criminals than he was
  • The Joker, Two Face, and the Penguin hate Dr. Hugo Strange, because they believe he tried to cheat them
  • Clayface hates Roland Daggett, whose Renuyu drug disfigured him permanently
  • Cat Woman hates Roland Daggett, who tried to kill her for interfering with his plan to spread a virulent disease throughout Gotham
  • Cat Woman hates Scarface, who set her up to take the fall for a robbery
  • Two-Face hates Rupert Thorne, who was responsible for his disfigurement and transformation from Harvey Dent into Two-Face
  • Rupert Thorne and Arnold Stromwell are gangland rivals
  • Lock-Up hates just about everyone, because he used to be a guard at Arkham and is now an inmate
There are doubtless others that I'm forgetting, but you get the idea. 

Having such relationships, rivalries, and antagonisms between your villains can be the impetus for a lot of action in the campaign. What if that necromancer isn't raiding the crypts for fresh corpses because of a plot against the town, but rather to attack his great rival the green dragon who lives in the forest? What if the goblins are raiding the village because they heard a rumor that the ogre mage wielding the sword Goblin-Hammer was there? What if the vampire is sending his minions abroad at night not with the intention of terrifying the locals, but in search of the lich who originally killed him years ago? 

Having more complex relationships between your antagonists gives you a way to add layer of richness to your plots. I'm definitely going to explore these sorts of possibilities in my next campaign.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Backer Rewards On the Way!

Here we are, two months ahead of schedule, and the Adventures Dark and Deep™ Players Manual is being shipped off to the awesome Kickstarter backers who made it possible!

It'll probably take tonight and tomorrow to get all the orders set up for the backers. Once that's done, the softcover and hardcover versions of the book will go live on (don't worry-- I'll make sure that news gets spread far and wide!). Anyone who purchases either the hardcover or softcover versions will also get a pdf copy included at no extra charge.

Anyone who previously purchased a pdf copy of the Players Manual will get an email with a discount code, allowing them to purchase a hard copy of the book at $9.95 off the regular price, so they're not penalized for being an "early adapter" of the book.

Thanks again to everyone who made this possible. Next up: the Game Masters Toolkit!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: The Tomb of Horrors

Caution: Spoilers (both of the novel and the module on which it is based)

Today we come to the last of the "Greyhawk Classics" novels, Keith Francis Strohm's The Tomb of Horrors, published in 2002. This is Mr. Strohm's first entry to the Greyhawk novel series, but it seems pretty obvious he's no newcomer to the setting itself.

The novel follows one Kaerion, a former paladin of Heironeous who fell from grace a decade ago when he was captured by the forces of Iuz in Dorakaa. Since then he hasn't been able to shed his holy sword, Galadorn, and has sunk into drink and despair at his shame. Gerwyth is his erstwhile elven companion.

The novel also follows one Durgoth, a priest of Tharizdun who has allied himself with the Scarlet Brotherhood in order to secure the release of his imprisoned deity. We get to see a lot of the bad guys on their own in this novel, which is something I always like, but not enough that every twist and turn of their scheme is revealed to the reader. The villains were very well handled, and I like the rivalries, jealousies, and different agendas of some of the characters.

Kaerion and Gerwyth are enlisted as guides by a group of Nyrondese nobles seeking to pillage the tomb of the long-dead wizard Acererak in order to use the loot to help bolster Nyrond's rebuilding after the recent wars (the novel is undated, but seems to take place in or around CY 591). Durgoth, on the other hand, has discovered, through some pretty vile but fascinating means, that a key to releasing Tharizdun can be found within the tomb. So Durgoth and his followers (agents from the Scarlet Brotherhood, the thieve's guild of Rel Mord, and a flesh golem) trail the Nyrondese party through the Rieuwood and the Vast Swamp, waiting until the good guys wear themselves out defeating all the tomb's traps and guardians before coming in to finish them off.

During the journey, Kaerion falls in love with one of the Nyrondese nobles, a half-elven bard named Majandra, and that's a relationship that is handled quite skillfully. Needless to say, the plan doesn't quite go as expected for Durgoth and company, and Kaerion regains his paladinhood just in time to bring the evil cleric low, defeat the demi-lich, and save (most) of his companions. The defeat of Acererak himself is almost perfunctory, but I didn't find it at all bothersome, as it was obvious that it was Durgoth, rather than the demi-lich, who was the real protagonist of the novel.

I found the writing and characterization of this novel to be very well-done, and the pacing was excellent. This is another fine example of using a location-based adventure for purposes that go far beyond the original module; in this case, setting up the cross-purposes of the cleric of Tharizdun with the more mundane loot-the-tomb mission of the Nyrondese. There is some good detail about Rel Mord, the Rieuwood, and the Great Swamp that can be used in an RPG game, and even some new geographical details added in the map in the front. All in all, I enjoyed this novel tremendously, and only wish that Mr. Strohm had been tasked with bringing some of the other classic Greyhawk modules to life.

I rate it five wizards out of five.