Wednesday, October 31, 2012

X1, The Rings of Doom

X1, The Rings of Doom, my adventure for The Secret Fire RPG, made it to just in time for Halloween. You get 18 pages of old-schooly, underground mystery and death for $7.99. I recommend it highly, of course, but I would. With any luck, it will garner a few impartial reviews before too long.

I'd love to write more about it now, but I'm swirling round and round in the deadline drainpipe and if I don't keep my mind on the money, I'll get flushed. So it's back to work. I promise that I will give a fuller accounting of X1 sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lure of the Unknown

“The unknown” has a hypnotic lure. If you’re anything like me, then you started exploring the dark recesses of the closet the moment you were old enough to switch on a flashlight. After the closet came the basement, the attic, the garage, neighbors’ yards, the woods down the hill, and eventually the storm drains that carry runoff hundreds of yards beneath the streets through pitch black, echoing concrete pipes the perfect size for a 10-year-old to crouch in.

A world without secrets is a world that doesn’t need adventurers. It might need heroes to save it from some catastrophe or looming evil, but it doesn’t need explorers willing to strike out into the darkness with no guarantee that they’ll make it back home to the light or investigators driven to peel back layers of concealment and deceit from ancient horrors or modern crimes.

Let’s look briefly at three types of secrets that can be buried in a campaign: geographical, historical, and magical.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Terrible Place to Visit

How often have you heard the phrase, “It’s a great place to visit but I’d hate to live there?”

When designing a fictional world, you’re actually aiming for the opposite reaction: “It’s a terrible place to visit, but I’d love to live there.”

Your world is a terrible place to visit because it’s falling apart at the seams. It might be threatened with conquest by a godlike necromancer and his undead legions; it could be undergoing some sort of magical catastrophe; it might be in the final throes of social collapse, overrun by zombies, engulfed in war, split into dozens of squabbling city-states ruled by iron-fisted, would-be emperors, or at the beginning stages of rebuilding from the ashes in the wake of any of the above.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Land Beyond the Shrine

This week, Adventure Notebook takes you to the secret land beyond the forgotten shrine. This is a great little gateway to further adventure deeper down inside the Earth (or wherever your adventures take place). I'm a sucker for lost world romances, and this is the back door to the lost world.

This might be the last Adventure Notebook for a few weeks. Interest seems to be waning, if the number of page views and downloads is a reliable indicator, and my time will be at a premium until early November. We'll see how things go this coming week.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy The Land Beyond the Shrine. I'd love to hear where it leads your heroes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Follow Friday

I'm proud to be a member of a writer's group called the Alliterates. This group was started way back in the '90s, with members drawn entirely from the ranks of TSR. It's expanded a lot since then. We now have 32 members, including people who never worked for TSR or Wizards of the Coast. Our complete membership roll is below.

This being Follow Friday, you can tune in to everything the Alliterates do -- which is quite a lot, between games, novels, kickstarter projects, ebooks, poetry, art, and whatnot -- by subscribing to the Alliterates list on Twitter, by liking our new Facebook page, or by checking the Alliterates website.
* You should also follow Steve Sullivan. He's one of the more prolific Alliterates, but because it's his list, he can't put himself on it.

Alliterates Roll Call
  • Wolf Baur
  • Jason Blair
  • Bill Bodden
  • Stan! Brown
  • Tim Brown
  • Jamie Chambers
  • Monte Cook
  • Bruce Cordell
  • Troy Denning
  • Matt Forbeck
  • Dave Gross
  • Jeff Grubb
  • Scott Hungerford
  • Rob King
  • John Kovalic
  • Jennell Jaquays
  • Jess Lebow
  • Will McDermott
  • Jason Mical
  • Doug Niles
  • Don Perrin
  • John Rateliff
  • Thomas Reid
  • Mike Ryan
  • Steven Schend
  • Lorelei Shannon
  • Lester Smith
  • Stephen D. Sullivan
  • Monica Valentinelli
  • Eddy Webb
  • Johnny Wilson
  • Steve Winter

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Apocalypse or Post-Apocalypse?

All my favorite RPG settings are either apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. Yours probably are, too.

Is that a surprise? Take a moment to think about it.

The most obvious footprint of the apocalypse is the ruins it left behind. When was the last time you saw an RPG campaign map that didn’t have a symbol for ruins in its key?

Somewhere in the Gazetteer there will be a discussion of the empires that rose and fell in the centuries leading up to the current era. The causes for their downfalls always involve megawar, anger of the gods, or techno/magical calamity on an unimaginable scale—assuming the place wasn’t just overrun by zombies.

The fact is, an apocalypse has much to offer a world of adventure.

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Adventure Notebook: Maze of the Dreamer

Another Monday, another Adventure Notebook!

This one is a bit trippy, and that's by design. It's a case of an idea that's too big for this format. I'd love to design a full-size dungeon around this theme. It cries out for more. If you use this, throw in whatever else pops into your head. It will work.

The tiles in Maze of the Dreamer were drawn by David Millar, who hasn't been featured in an Adventure Notebook before now. AFAIK, Millar is the man behind Dave's Mapper, the online tool that generates these Adventure Notebook maps. I can sit in front of the computer, clicking up new maps endlessly and just exploring them with my eyeballs. Dave's Mapper is a really excellent tool. Experiment with it for a while and I'm sure you'll agree.

Friday, October 12, 2012

X1, The Rings of Doom Cover

Earlier this week I got my first look at the cover for my adventure written for The Secret Fire RPG, "X1 The Rings of Doom" (slight title change from the original "Rings of Death"). I'm told there might be slight tweaks to the illo or layout before it's finalized but nothing anyone is likely to notice.

The illustration doesn't show any specific scene from the adventure (wolves don't play much of a role in it), but I dig the painting anyway. It's a great piece of art for a Halloween release, which this is slated to be.

If you haven't tried The Secret Fire RPG, it's well worth a look. George Strayton and Tony Reyes packed more than a few interesting ideas into it. If any more X1 news comes my way, I'll be sure to pass it along here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Keeping Your Balance on the Power Curve

The Legends & Lore column by Mike Mearls on Oct. 8 concerning magic items in D&D Next has set off a predictable flurry of online ... hmmm, let's call it "conversation and debate."

The debate is not just over how magic items should fit into D&D. It goes straight to the mathematical heart of D&D and raises fundamental questions about how the game should work.

The argument boils down to this. If magical bonuses are "balanced" across the system, then they become wired into the game's math so that magical accessories become mandatory if characters are to keep pace with the power curve set by monsters. If those bonuses aren't wired into the math, then even a small magical bonus boosts characters ahead of the monster/NPC power curve and upsets the balance of "level-appropriate" encounters.

The problem as I see it is that those positions assume there are only two ways to deal with the power curve: You either define it rigidly as 3X and 4E did, or you ignore it and punt the problem into the DM's lap, as the original, 1st, and 2nd editions did.

I say a third option deserves a look. That's to develop a simple, reliable way to assess actual character power that looks beyond character level. The rigid systems currently in use assume that all level X characters are equivalent in power. Actually, they don't assume it; they are engineered toward the goal of ensuring it. Every level X character is forced to be equivalent to every other, or so goes the theory.

In practice, it doesn't work. Players rebel against uniformity. There are those who always look for means to pull ahead of the pack, and in a complex system like D&D, ways are bound to be found. Others make suboptimal choices, intentionally or unintentionally, that put them behind. Some DMs give away too much magic juice and others don't give enough. Once the rulebooks leave the warehouse, it's beyond the publisher's ability to control.

So the Average Power of a level X character is a statistical datum that has little bearing on the Actual Power of a specific character. Very few level X characters sit on the average. For a host of inescapable and desirable reasons, most will be some degree stronger or weaker than the arithmetic mean. In a group of five characters, those variations can average everything back toward the center or they can cumulatively create a whopping gap between expectation and reality.

If character level is an inadequate gauge of PC power, that doesn't mean the alternative is having no gauge  The alternative should be to develop a tool that is adequate -- a way to measure a character's effective level as opposed to its XP level, if you will.

I haven't developed such a system nor do I intend to, but I can illustrate how it would be used.

  • Speary Mason is a level 5 fighter. He has Str 12 and no magic weapon or armor, making him slightly below average for a level 5 fighter. His EL (effective level) is 4. 
  • Bill Guisarme is also a level 5 fighter, but he has Str 18 and a guisarme-voulge +1. He kills things faster than an average level 5 fighter would, so Bill's EL weighs in at 6. 
  • Lance Wielder is another level 5 fighter, but Lance has a girdle of awesome muscles, a warhammer +3/+5 vs. creatures with bones, and a pair of Can't Touch This dancing pants. Beefed up with all that magic, Lance operates at EL 8 -- three ranks above his level.

When the DM designs an encounter for these three characters, she knows that 18 ranks of foes, not 15, will give a balanced fight, and that those foes should average around EL 6. The fact that all three PCs are level 5 is irrelevant. They could just as well be level 3 or level 8. What matters is that they function as a group of three characters at approximately EL 6.

The needed component is the system that lets DMs and players assess the real power of a character, accounting for level, ability scores, and magic. It should be easy enough to use so people will actually use it, but it doesn't need to be simplistic. The calculation needs adjustment only when something changes, as when characters go up a level or "inherit" a significant magic item. Effective Level would be more dynamic than character levels but only slightly so.

The benefit, which I see as huge, is that it cuts the wires binding together the XP tables, treasure tables, and monster tables. DMs can be as stingy or as generous as they like with magic swords and girdles, and they won't upset anything. Each campaign can establish its own power gradient unfettered by an official curve that depends on levels alone for gauging power. Whether I equip everyone with vorpal swords and pet dragons, or with bearskin diapers and t-rex jawbones, I'll still be able to put together a balanced, challenging encounter. Whether I want to is another story entirely; at least I'll have the tool.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Question #1

Worldbuilding is about telling stories. Storytelling and worldbuilding flow from the same spring. When no one knew what lay on the far side of the hills or across the wide river, any story about those places was set in an imaginary land that could be as fanciful as the storyteller cared to make it. (“Snakes there have two heads, fish speak in riddles, and the people walk on their hands! I have seen these things, and I tell you they are true!”)

When beginning to sketch out a new world, the first question I ask is not about cultures, races, geography, politics, science, or gods. All of those come later. Question #1 is, “What happens here?”

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Sporcerer's Lair

Yes, that's sporcerer's lair, not sorcerer's lair. You should understand the difference after reading the notebook.

I suppose I ought to say something about rules. These little adventures clearly are aimed at early editions of D&D -- OD&D, AD&D (1 or 2), B/X -- along with any of the current crop of retroclones or OSR titles. They all work equally well in this context. I don't specify levels of play because everything about these adventure notebooks is meant to encourage seat-of-the-pants GMing. If you can run one of these notebooks at all, then you should be able to make it work for almost any group of adventurers. The target is low; in my mind, I'm always writing for characters in the level 2-5 range.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Me Friday

A week ago was Friends Friday. Today will be Me Friday. Here's what I'm working on currently.

1. A big 4E city adventure. This is the longest chunk of anything that I've written for a while, at 65,000 words. That's great for me, because after a decade of publishing short, daily material on the web, I've missed really sinking my teeth into a subject.

2. Planning for Kickstarter. Two fantasy projects are firming up in my brain for Kickstarter campaigns. Both ideas have percolated in my head for two decades or more, waiting for the right combination of timing, financing, and opportunity. They never got any traction at TSR, which probably ought to make me wary, but Kickstarter is the perfect venue. They'll be geared toward Labyrinth Lord as the system of choice, with conversions to other OSR systems and possibly to Pathfinder, 4E, and even 5E, depending on funding and legal terms. I'll have a lot more to say about these in the future, obviously, but one is an adventure with a peculiar theme and the other is a campaign setting.

3. Some D&DNext conceptual stuff. This project involves putting together an optional rules module for D&DNext. I can't disclose much more than that for contractual reasons, but it's a subject that's close to my heart and I'm digging it. Probably a bit too much, because I was already behind schedule when I had to set it aside to tackle the city adventure on a short turnaround. (When I fall behind on a schedule, it's usually because I'm having too much fun and don't want to stop working. Jim Ward calls this affliction designeritis.)

4. Coming up sometime soon in Dungeon online will be "The Blood of Gruumsh," a 4E adventure for heroic tier characters. PCs explore a lost elven religious colony and uncover some buried secrets that certain followers of Corellon would rather not see exposed.

That's a whole lot of vagueness amounting to little more than "I'm writing things I can't talk about yet." But soon I will be free to talk about them, and I hope that all of you will find them as exciting as I do now.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Target Zones

Balance has always been a big concern among RPG players and designers. My friends and I had our first debate about whether D&D’s classes, races, spells, monsters, and magic items were “balanced” during our very first D&D session. We reached no definite conclusion other than that balance is a fleeting target.

D&D is not a competitive game. Players are not trying to force the DM into checkmate or each other into bankruptcy. The whole situation is fluid. If characters are winning too easily, the DM can ramp up the opposition; if they’re losing unexpectedly, the DM can toss them a lifering from the S.S. Deus ex Machina.

As RPGs have grown more detailed, characters have become more specialized. In practical terms, this means they can dominate the situations they were specifically designed for, they probably can pull their own weight in related situations, and—if their specialization is really thorough—they could be almost helpless under exactly the wrong circumstances.

As a group, these players can be given what they want only by a narrow range of encounter types. So the question of the day finally arrives, and it’s this: is the GM required to deliver that narrow range of encounter types?

(Read the rest at Kobold Quarterly ...)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Adventure Notebook: The Flooded Temple

This week marks the tenth installment of Adventure Notebook. That makes me happy. These started out as an exercise in rapid creativity. The challenge was to see how quickly I could design a small dungeon using a randomly assembled map of free geomorphs and a few randomly selected notions from Risus Monkey's DungeonWords. The answer was "not as fast as I'd like," but everything takes longer than I expect it to. These little dungeons have been great fun to work on, and I'll keep writing them as long as you keep making the effort worthwhile by downloading them.

To celebrate AdvNtbk 10, I added a new monster in The Flooded Temple. Of course, in this format, designing a new monster means assigning it HD, AC, damage, size, and treasure, so don't exult too much. But exult a little.

I've also compiled Adventure Notebooks 1-10 into a single PDF for the "collectors" among you. It's a non-numbered, unlimited edition, but you should still get yours now at the Adventure Notebook page.