# 2012-01-05 American Charities I Like

The EmacsWiki:EmacsWiki page says “If you like the site and want to contribute something, contribute either time or money: Write content, fix typos, clean up pages by removing old discussions, merging and splitting pages, and linking up and down the page hierarchy. If you do not have time, you can always donate money. Show your support by saying on your homepage on this wiki how much you donated to charity because of the Emacs Wiki.”

But which charities would I prefer, personally? Certainly not the National Rifle Association!

1. EFF – the Electronic Frontier Foundation fights for your rights when it comes to the information society. If you can’t fight this fight, help others fight it for you.
2. FSF – I use Free Software every time I use a desktop or laptop; Richard Stallman warned against the effects of software patents, digital restriction management (DRM), the anti-circumvention provision in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCR). He deserves our help.
3. Creative Commons – our world needs more Free Culture.
4. Wikipedia – I hate the Wikipedia donation “stare” but the truth remains: I use Wikipedia every day. Every day.
5. Project Gutenberg – As you can see, I’m interested in the abuse and corruption of copyright and patents. Project Gutenberg is something positive, for a change. It’s an example of what we could build if copyright were not as strong as it is today. We need much less protection such that much more of these projects can spring up.
6. Internet Archive – As our culture moves online (movies, music, graphics, games, writing, combinations of them all), we need to think about conservation. What will future historians study if they want to understand us? What happens to your web pages and your blogs when you die? The Internet Archive is the first step in the right direction. Another positive project!

I want to be more positive.

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Comments on 2012-01-05 American Charities I Like

I agree about Wikipedia, I finally contributed to them because of the amount of benefit I have derived from their existence.

I have looked into the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the one thing that has held me back is that they spend a bit more on administrative costs than most foundations I normally contribute to (I like as much of my money going to the cause as possible). This segues to my plug for Charity Navigator, which I always try to use when evaluating a charity.

# 2012-01-07 Old School RPG Artists

Discourse & Dragons has a blog post called Wanted: Old School Artists. Some nice links!

Others I found in my feed reader:

People I noted in Fight On! magazine:

Others I remember seeing on actual products I bought:

Argh, I really should pay more attention to the names of artists!

Pet peeve of mine: artist but a website without obvious ways to contact you and no real names? That’s weird.

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# 2012-01-07 Preparing for a Session of Solar System RPG

The rules of the Solar System RPG role-playing game has some interesting advice on how to prepare an adventure. The rules were extracted from The Shadow of Yesterday, which also has a section on designing an adventure. Here’s an extract of what it says:

I take out a sheet of paper and write down the character’s names on it, each in a separate corner. I write down all their Keys around them, and the Secrets they use the most and their best abilities. Then take these notes and think of how this bits o’ character can work into an adventure. You don’t have to hit everything, but hit at least one Key and one other thing per character. Make up some non-player characters that hit these things. […] What do your friends like? […] What do you like in a story? Put some in. […] Key Scenes should be tense, have multiple outcomes, and force players to make a decision for their characters. “Discovering the princess is trapped in a high tower,” “meeting the overlord,” and “confronting the wild beast” are good Key Scenes, as each can result in multiple outcomes and do not put restrictions on what the player decision is for her character. […] Wait for pauses in the game, moments where the players don’t really know where to take things. Then make something exciting happen to one of their characters. They’ll react, and you can sit back again. If the players take stuff in a direction you didn’t expect, be agile. Rewrite your concepts on the fly to fit in the direction the game’s moving. Remember this: nothing in the game exists until a player character interacts with it.
– Clinton R. Nixon, The Shadow of Yesterday

Here’s the result of following this sort of advice for preparing tomorrow’s session. First, I write the player character’s names along the edge of the page. I don’t write down keys and secrets because by now they have so many that looking it all up is difficult. But I know this: one is a vain fighter, one is sorcerer that is always at the forefront, one is a historian, one is an elf that only recently broke free from his dragon overlord, and two low-key elves. They want to stop the foul wizard Onomur that is pumping the black blood of the slain demon lord from beneath Great Roaring Jungle into the area under Dangerous Jungle. The “dungeon” I prepared consists of a funky drawing that acts a lot like Peter Mullen’s Laboratory of the Asmodean Techno-Mage: a visual inspiration, no spacial map or anything like that. In addition to that (I always like to prepare at least two or three things), Galadriel wants to bring back White Tigers. I provided a rumor as to where they might be found in the last session and this session will have a pointer to the first of a sequence of stages leading them there. It may look like a railroad but I hope I’m flexible enough to adapt to other solutions my players think of. In addition to that, it’s a sandbox and thus they might decide to follow-up on the rumors at some other time. I also don’t know how the various stages will get resolved. My hope is that these are some of the Key Scenes.

I also prepared some stats for foes, opposition for all the key scenes. For Solar System, this is easy. Pick the most important abiliy. If you can’t think of one, use the monster name as it’s “essential” ability. 1 is weak, 2. is competent, 3. is heroic (this is generally the maximum for player characters), 4. is mythic (if players use stats in this range, there’s a danger they are taking the risk of transcending – utterly achieving their end and ending their active involvement in this campaign), 5. is supernatural. Pick a few more abilities if you feel like it. Assign pool points to indicate their resilience: 0–2 is goblins, 10 is where player characters start, 15-20 is what I have been using for campaign-level bad guys. Assign gifts such as magic schools or other interesting feats. The player characters might get a chance to learn these, if they have the necessary points to buy them and if they manage to befriend the opposition.

That’s basically it. Very different from how I usually prepare my low-level old school D&D games using Labyrinth Lord rules.

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Comments on 2012-01-07 Preparing for a Session of Solar System RPG

This was a fun session. We were down from the usual five to three players, which led to a somewhat more relaxed dynamic. This was the sixth session, and Alex had successfully managed to crank up the pressure; we met one of the Big Bad Evil Guys(TM) and failed to stop his machinations, but we gathered quite some intel and were able to withdraw, regroup, and enlist the aid of unlikely allies after our chronicler laid to rest his hatred of Goblins.

One thing that often is brought forward as a point of criticism for this kind of PC centric prep is that the world seems to revolve around these PCs instead of existing for it’s own sake. There’s several things that work against this in this group, but the most important is that the game world itself is known to everyone from their previous campaigns and informs a lot of the prepwork. It’s also quite enjoyable when Alex introduces an NPC that the players know from previous campaigns, either old villains or even PCs themselves; he only needs to bring up a few details like the leogriff riding goblin assassin and I, as a relative newcomer, can see tons of emotions in the faces of the other players which tell me more about this NPC than longwinded GM descriptions ever could.

This also means that there’s no constraint to doing what Alex prepared; if you go out of your way a bit, it’s still part of a living, developed world. Sure, I could go and try to find the nymphs that originally lived at the spring of the poisoned river … and it all fits into the game because it’s part of the world.

A+, very enjoyable, would play again!

Harald 2012-01-08 22:23 UTC

Thanks!

AlexSchroeder 2012-01-08 22:59 UTC

Starting my first SS campaign, first session last night. I’m a player but really digging the system. And the setting, Dark Sun, is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Anyway, read you post with interest, cheers!

Sven 2012-02-07 14:46 UTC

Thanks. Post a link to a session report or game post-mortem if there is one!

AlexSchroeder 2012-02-08 08:09 UTC

# 2012-01-10 Fifth Edition

Yes, everybody is doing it.

I’m with Justin Alexander: it will almost certainly fail, ie. I don’t think D&D 5E will have significantly more success than D&D 4E and thus it won’t make the mystical $50 million in annual sales. Here is what I would do. First, I’d decide that the business plans after the publication of the D&D 3.0 core books failed. Ryan Dancy said: We make more revenue and more profit from our core rulebooks than any other part of our product lines. The only thing that really seems to work in the very long term is to publish a core set of rules and keep publishing until there is general consensus that they need updating. If so, fix them. See Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Tunnels & Trolls. Everything else is just “a giant, self-financing marketing program to drive sales of those core books” (Ryan Dancy again). Second, I’d understand that this doesn’t need a lot of R&D, support, web design, and so on. Sure, all these dudes would like a paying job in the role-playing game industry, but it just doesn’t seem to work that way. Thus, scale everything down. Scale down to the size of Paizo, and if the market won’t bear it, scale down to Mongoose, or to a one man show. If the market picks up again, grow. Third, I would leverage the D&D brand. Money can still be made, but it will be in the things surrounding the business of selling the core book. It will be in licenses to run D&D in after school programs, that kind of thing. Tavis Allison wrote On Monetizing RPG Play. Be sure to read Zak S.’s counter arguments in the comments. For me, it all comes down to the problem Dan Proctor wrote about in 2010 on Product vs. Service and Brand Dilemmas (well, minus the pulling of legs when it comes to the “solution” he proposes ;)). What if “Dungeons & Dragons” were less about a product and more about an experience? What if we can dispel the entire idea of “editions” from consumers of Dungeons & Dragons? The edition angle worked for a while, but the mileage on that is running out. Is there really going to be a D&D 10e? No, it just won’t work. The whole paradigm of editions suggests a “reboot” and the expectations that customers will have to buy the exact same material again and again, though retooled for however the rules have been changed. I think we can convince people less often that our new edition is “the best ever” every few years. This seems to lead to a significant proportion of consumer resentment. Instead of spending big bucks on a fifth edition, I’d keep the old stuff available. They’re all good. There is no “evolution” in games because there is no selection process except in the head of marketing. There is no improved Risk, no improved chess, no improved Monopoly, no improved poker – the games are just fine the way they are. If they sold well when they got released it was because they were good games. They are still good games! There are, of course, better resource management games, less abstract war games, more colorful card games – more and different games! That’s why it is OK to have the old and the new side by side. It’s true that keeping the old stuff available probably doesn't make the company a lot of money, but I think it’s important to do in order switch from an edition churn based business to a brand based business. Fourth, now that we have focused again on our core business, the printing of the one book and on making the old stuff available (and improve the bad scans as time goes by, accepting the help of “pirates” and other fans and volunteers where possible), we can act as a curator and publisher of third party products. Take what the DIY people are doing and select the stuff you like best, procure the license to republish it, commission art, do the layout, print it, distribute it, have your own shop on the web like many of the small publishers do. Don’t encourage rules bloat. Encourage adventures and settings and new things that we haven’t seen yet. I like maldoor’s idea of roll your own rules: I choose the rules for my next campaign and get to buy a POD edition of the specific chapters and options I want, both for me and for my players. The black and white or color, stapled, softcover or hardcover, no art, line-art, glossy colors – I get to choose my own. Maybe I can upload the house-rule section for my campaign and they’ll put it in the appendix, too! Fifth, have a good time! Play, talk, tweet and post about your games. There is no need for a fancy Gleemax. There is no need for your own virtual table. Use EN World to post news, grant existing virtual table top publishers the license to use your rules for their software. Here is a comment by Sean Robson on somebody else’s blog explaining what most of us intuit: This, and any other edition that !WotC publishes, will ultimately fail because to capture the hearts and minds of players a game needs to be a labour of love, not a labour of profit. You won’t make 50M or a 100M USD this way, that’s true. It also means less jobs in the RPG industry. In my attempt to stop the shameful firing of employees before Christmas, I would have prevented them from getting hired in the first place. In my attempt to prevent the crashing and burning of a new, short-lived edition in a few years, I would have prevented it from getting funded in the first place. Small is beautiful. I guess I don’t need an 800 lb gorilla. I’m happy with indie games (“hipster games” as they were called on Fear the Boot), I’m happy with small publishers, with DIY players and referees and their blogs and their forums and their tweets and their circles. Commercialism, Consumerism – let go of your stranglehold. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Tags: Add Comment # 2012-01-11 Scorpions On Google+, John Allder Stephens has a question for D&D Basic/retro-clone referees: How do you handle something like the mundane scorpion? My first instinct is to handle it as a color scene. “A scorpion falls from the ceiling and clings to your hair. You barely manage to shake it off in time.” No roll required. “Do you reach into the scorpion infested hole in order to pull that lever?” I’d assume that players would use a rope to pull that lever or flaming oil to burn those scorpions, or any other similarly plausible idea. If so, still no roll required. If this is a trap, I’d make sure they had seen a bloated scorpion victim before, they see scorpions crawling on the ceiling, and if they don’t tell me how they’re cautious and sneaky or using their shields to cover their heads, then I’d say a scorpion will fall and might sting them with a deadly poison. Save or die! I would not add a dexterity modifier because in my game saves are not modified by abilities; they are last ditch efforts, strokes of luck, the fruit of experience, an interference of the spirit world. By all rights you should be dead but there is a slight chance that you will not die after all – a saving throw. I wouldn’t run combat with a mundane scorpion, though. Does plate armor or a shield help against tiny scorpions running around on the floor? Can they even reach you unless you’re helpless or surprised since their legs are about two inches long? Won’t a simple leather boot grant 100% protection? It just feels too weird. There are too many questions; a mundane scorpion might be deadly poisonous, but it isn’t a dangerous opponent in melee. Tags: Add Comment # 2012-01-13 It Feels Different On Google+, Zak Smith asked What are the differences between D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder? Some people answered with links to changes in the rules. To me, however, this is a tricky question. Assume a D&D 3.5 DM provides his players with one level appropriate encounter after another – boring, right? But you can use the 3.5 rules and run a Sandbox, and I have. In that case, it is possible to run into foes you cannot defeat. At the time I wanted to switch from D&D 3.5 to older and simpler rules but my players did not. Thus, I decided to play “old school” behind the screen and let my players use “new school” at the table. It sort of worked until we finished Rise of the Rune Lords. I think a more interesting question would be this: How did your play experience change when you switched from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder? • In terms of character creation I felt that I got no ability penalties, just bonuses; I got more feats. I felt more powerful. • In terms of rules, I felt that combat maneuvers were a bit more standardized, but it really didn’t make much of a difference to me. We tackled Trip and Disarm early on and most people limited themselves to “trying to break free” when using Grapple. Thus, the rules changed but that didn’t significantly improve game play at our table. • As I didn’t have any Pathfinder splat books – I had only a few D&D splatbooks – my players naturally assumed that we were just going to play with the Core Rules only (this was before the Advanced Player’s Guide and before the Ultimate Blah books). With only the Core Rules available, I had practically no discussion about allowing this spell, that feat or yonder prestige class. Other than all of that, it felt pretty much the same. The last point in particular was something I absolutely loved. In addition to the campaign that changed from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder, I also started a new campaign using Labyrinth Lord. Same question: How did my play experience change with the switch? • The most obvious change was that very few of my D&D 3.5 players wanted to play old school D&D. I had tried before. The only thing that worked was starting a new campaign. Two players I had recruited towards the end of the adventure path joined the old school campaign. My old players all left to play elsewhere. • Character creation is faster! Some people grumbled about having very little choice, however. I decided to spice things up by allowing player characters to discover new races (make friend in the goblin market and eventually you’ll be able to play a goblin; make friends in Halgorn at the bard’s college and eventually you’ll be able to play a bard; make friends with the monks of Taipur and eventually you’ll be able to play a monk; render a great service to Mitra and eventually you’ll be able to play a paladin of Mitra) and gain new abilities (basically I implemented bards, monks and paladins using special abilities instead of new classes). • Combat at low levels is more dangerous. It’s deadly because you die with zero hit points. I use the Shields Shall Be Splintered and Death and Dismemberment house rules to soften the punches. My players also learned to hire people to help them. This is why hardly any player characters died in this campaign. We do have plenty of dead hirelings and several hirelings and player characters that lost a leg or broke their bones, though. Tags: Add Comment # 2012-01-17 SOPA Blackout Protest I just saw Twitter CEO says SOPA blackout protest "silly" on BoingBoing. I wonder: Should I shut down Emacs Wiki for US residents? I’d have to do a quick geo location of the IP numbers before serving anything. That sucks. kensanata Do US #Emacs users require a reminder to fight #SOPA and # PIPA? I think Emacswiki will stay up for the USA. I doubt US Congress uses it. I always felt that I was as safe as I can be running Emacs Wiki: I live in Switzerland, the server is hosted in Germany, the domain name registrar is French, the top-level .org domain is the only thing connecting it to the USA. But then I read US Can Extradite UK Student For Copyright Infringement, Despite Site Being Legal In The UK – and now I wonder about the worst case. Perhaps I should get myself a different domain name. Actually, I think the main problem is that with all the scare mongering around copyright infringement and the astronomical punishments dealt out in the US, I have lost my confidence in their judicial system when it comes to copyright and patents. The most positive explanation for that is that I’m just misinterpreting all the bad news I’m reading online. My impression is formed by following , , and , following the occasional link. I end up reading Actual damages for single unauthorized download of software program held to be cost of single license fee (from$1,370,590 down to \$4,200) and I wonder how much it cost the accused in time, energy and money to get this result. I would not want to fight this battle in court, even if I win.

Case in point: How USPTO's recklessness destroys business, innovation, and competition – a company produces something and years later a competitor is awarded a patent. The cost of going to court is prohibitive, and so they just give up.

Overprotective copyright and a judicial system that encourages statutory damages, patent offices unable to cope with new technology, a highly networked world making it easy to publish internationally with incompatible legal systems. It makes my head hurt!

Update: I decided to post a more personal message on EmacsWiki:2012-01-18.

# 2012-01-17 Skiing

We spent a long weekend skiing in Wallis.

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Zak has a GM Questionnaire up.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be? To use Sandbox conventions and the Entourage Approach in my D&D 3.5 game. I finally realized that a lot of what I didn’t like about D&D 3.5 wasn’t set in stone.
2. When was the last time you GMed? Eight days ago.
3. When was the last time you played? Sixteen days ago.
4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven’t run but would like to. Find the lair of the green slime flask throwing, air shark riding orcs living in a cave near the river Styx and win them as allies in your assault against a mindflayer panzership.
5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things? Undecided players automatically delay. When there is nobody left wanting to go, I go. If there is no opposition I use the moment to introduce a color scene or non-player characters to interact with.
6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play? Players bring chips, cookies, chocolate, grapes, cherry tomatoes, mandarins, or pastry. Occasionally, I have offered bread and cheese.
7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting? No. When the game is over, however, I am often tired and don’t like to talk too much.
8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing? My barbarian tied some shields together in preparation for a sled escape down a snow-covered mountain as frost giants were approaching our position.
9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither? No. There is a lot of joking, but when I’m unsure, I’ll ask “do you really say that?” All the sillyness happens out-of-game.
10. What do you do with goblins? They are a player race. Goblins are sexless and born out of warm mud kept underground; the earth magic does it (a form of spontaneous creation).
11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)? Material from the Mesopotamian section of the Louvre, articles on Wikipedia on the Mesopotamian pantheon.
12. What’s the funniest table moment you can remember right now? A player character has a blast spore in his backpack and suspects that it might explode when pierced. He intends to destroy a magic-user spectre using it. As he sneaks into the treasure room, the spectre turns visible behind him and casts a spell on the rest of the party. He cries a warning, throws the backpack and fires a cross-bolt. The explosion causes 22 points of damage, save for half, and I decide he’s caught in it. The character has but 10 hit points. He also has a healing potion. At this point the player gets up and exitedly demonstrates how the character could throw the backpack, shoot the crossbow bolt and drink the potion “in one smooth move” by throwing his own shoulder bag across the living room and miming the entire scene in bullet time. We cried tears of laughter.
13. What was the last game book you looked ataside from things you referenced in a gamewhy were you looking at it? I was looking for cool ideas in ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment but it was very long and I got tired.
14. Who’s your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator? At the moment I really like Kelvin Green.
16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn’t write? (If ever) The top levels of the megadungeon published in Fight On have been providing many funny sessions.
17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in? I like my living room. It has a big table, it has benches, it’s comfortable, we don’t have kids or pets competing for our attention, we can laugh and shout without the neighbours complaining.
18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be? I like both Mountain Witch and Labyrinth Lord.
19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be? The old school blogosphere and the indie games I’ve been playing biweekly.
20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table? Funny, friendly, polite, non-smelly, pro-active, cooperative, interesting people.
21. What’s a real life experience you’ve translated into game terms? A visit to the passage tomb of Newgrange inspired several burial mounds in my games.
22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn’t? I would like a return to parsimonious adventures. I used to like Paizo products until I realized that I wasn’t actually reading them. They were too damn long.
23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn’t play? How do those conversations go? I have a poster of Orcus and an explanation of what role-playing games up at the office and once or twice a co-worker asked me what this was about. I provided a short explanation, they nodded and moved on.

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You mention that you don’t read Paizo adventures because they’re too long. What do you do with them instead? Or rather, what parts do you take from them? I’m currently trying to run the Rise of the Runelords adventure path for my players and am too finding it extremely odious to read through the 100-page adventures.

RichardBoyechko 2012-01-21 21:38 UTC

Aiye – I don’t have a good answer for you. I ran Rise of the Runelords. All the others have been shelved, unopened, unread, unused. A total waste.

As for the one adventure path I did run: I started skimming the text, looking for cool pictures, looking for bold text, picking encounters, improvising a lot by just looking at the maps. The result was a game that was packed with exciting locales and interesting fights – and not much more. I felt the invisible hand of affordance pushing me along. Moving to the next encounter was simply easier than actually empowering the players, giving them meaningful choices and letting them shape their own destinies. The adventure path turned into a gargantuan railroad from beginning to end. A joyless affair, and I blamed it on the D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder rules and on the adventure path. TL;DR – too long, didn’t read.

Now that I’ve played through Legacy of Fire using Pathfinder rules with DM James, now that I’ve been running a sandbox campaign using D&D 3.5 rules, now that I’ve been running another sandbox campaign using Labyrinth Lord rules, I have decided that I’m just not a good adventure path DM. I feel that decent preparation would require as much as time as writing my own.

Since I already own the books and they’re sitting on my shelf, unused, I sometimes promise myself that “one day” I will take them and simply add the stuff in the books to my sandbox campaigns. Players may or may not stumble accross the locales and enemies mentioned in the book, they can meet them in the wrong order, and if they decide not to meddle, I’ll just improvise whatever disaster the adventure path has in store for my campaign world.

Should I do that, however, I’ll rely on the same technique I have been using before: “skimming the text, looking for cool pictures, looking for bold text, picking encounters, improvising a lot by just looking at the maps.” The difference will be that the adventure path will be optional. It will provide sidequests and non-player characters, little dungeons, maps, names, inspiration instead of plot.

I guess I’m still looking for the best way of making use of all the material.

AlexSchroeder 2012-01-21 22:01 UTC

# 2012-01-18 Privateering For Fun And Profit

Yesterday, I wrote about my thoughts on SOPA and how the USA’s legal arm had grown long indeed.

Today, I want to comment on something I’m seeing in a lot of the statements in protest to SOPA, eg. on Google’s End Piracy, Not Liberty page: “Fighting online piracy is important.” Wil Wheaton says on Today the US Senate is considering legislation that would destroy the free and open Internet: “I’ve probably lost a few hundred dollars in my life to what the MPAA and RIAA define as piracy, and that sucks, but that doesn’t come close to how much money I’ve lost from a certain studio’s creative accounting.”

I agree that SOPA and PIPA are terrible. They will reduce our freedoms, increase legal uncertainty, make it harder to do business, make it harder to host user contributed content (forums, wikis, archives, social networking and more). The goal, of course: Big Hollywood’s Big SOPA Defeat.

But while the citizens of the USA fight stupid legislation (which the USA will then most probably try to impose on other countries as well), let us not forget that the current copyright regime is stupid, too. We need less protection. We need shorter protection. We need less punishment.

I want to be a privateer!

Update: Supreme Court Chooses SOPA/PIPA Protest Day To Give A Giant Middle Finger To The Public Domain – they keep extending copyright, what a shame! I prefer the Public Domain.

Update: I love this rant: Why I'm a pirate!

Update: A step in the right direction: Another Interesting White House Petition: Reduce The Term Of Copyright – even though 56 years is still way too long and even though the president appears to be the wrong addressee.

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# 2012-01-24 Changing Gameplay Over Time

I’m posting it here because I’ve mentioned it on Google+ for the third time, today. It all started with Zak posting about Evolution. He lists some well known role-playing games and shows that each one of them offers some sort of long-term promise of change for players. His point: every session produces “changes in that session”, but the really successful games promise “a specific kind of change will occur over the long haul.”

I definitely think that the promise of ever changing game play is what makes D&D interesting. The reason this works, I think, is because the spells you gain don’t simply scale. The game changes if you can be invisible and fly. The game changes when you can dimension door and teleport. The game changes when you can travel to the planes. Outside of the specific rules, the tradition also encourages changes to the game when you reach name level and build a stronghold, and it changes once more when you start to forge alliances with and wage wars against neighbors.

I think it’s also one of the reasons that Traveller can be boring. At least it didn’t hold a long-term appeal to me when I ran it. Perhaps I should have imagined the long term changes to the game play (more and bigger ships, get involved in the war) instead of focusing on changes to the setting (in my campaign, small colonies were being resettled or exterminated by the players – at the time I felt this was already a big step up). I feel like I should give Traveller another try soon.

I think Zak’s spot-on when he wonders whether campaigns using relatively simple rules have a hard time maintaining a long term appeal. For example, I claim that the long list of non-general spells with their non-linear progression of power create the long term changes over time. But what will you do in a simpler indie game? What will I do with my Solar System RPG game? Over time, I can add more gifts (feats, stunts, powers), but there’s really no promise that I will keep delivering. Plus, if I do, I’ll have to invent it all myself.

This is the key part: I have to come up with it myself – and I need to foreshadow it, make sure my players know it, want it, work towards it. In D&D, it’s simple. There’s a big Monster Manual full of critters in the book shelf. There is a big Players Guide full of spells right next to it. And there’s a list of magic items hidden away somewhere. You want to fight all this crazy stuff? Sit down at my table! That’s the promise the game makes without me saying anything at all. All the players sitting down at my table knowing the game cannot be faulted for assuming that this is going to be a big part of the game.

The Solar System campaign I’m running and the Barbarians of Lemuria campaigns I’m playing in are awesome. We’ve had a dozen sessions in each of the campaigns. They have enough potential to last us at least half a dozen more. But I think that’s because of the setting, the scope of the current plot, etc. What we don’t have, as Zak puts it, is a system that promising that “a specific kind of change will occur over the long haul.” The onus is on us, the table, to make this promise, to foreshadow it, to work towards it, etc.

In other words, it’s on us to foreshadow mechanical changes (new gifts, feats, schools of magic, spells) and new modes of play (land owning, castle building, plane hopping, politics) within the campaign. The system and the tradition around it doesn’t do that like D&D does.

I like to play all these games. This is not a value judgement per se. But the above observation can help you make value judgements elsewhere.

Here’s an example that I’ve come across twice in recent days: people propose a change to the D&D magic system; they want to make all the spells are available from the start. This is how spells work in HARP: more powerful variants just cost more power points – my second level mage, for example, has haste and fly as his two spells. Using the above observation, I must assume that these proposals remove the distinct modes of play I like so much. Any player character might have the necessary spells right from the start. As far as I’m concerned – and this is where the value judgement comes in – these proposals are taking away something I liked. What are they going to give me instead? If the answer is “more flexibility” for my character, then I feel that this change isn’t worth it. It might work for others, but I fear it won’t work for me. If I had wanted more flexibility I would have picked more flexible rules. Something with skills and point buy instead of classes and random ability scores, for example.

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Comments on 2012-01-24 Changing Gameplay Over Time

How much of this “promised longterm change” do you think is necessary? 3.5e and 4e really shine in that regard but what about all these OSR games? Searchers of the Unknown Is pretty cool but certainly doesnt promise anything and also stuff like LL with its rather small spell selection and only with a short blurb about what happens at name level seems to fall into the same place as many indy games. Does a game need a huge amount of source books to be able to deliver on the promise of change?

– Florian 2012-02-03 07:15 UTC

I don’t think we need a lot of source books to achieve it – in fact I think Labyrinth Lord is close to the minimum. It has changes over time in a couple of dimensions. It has changing dynamics for some classes: start slow as an elf, start weak as a mage, have a level cap as a halfling, etc. It has enough of the game-changing spells: invisibility (2), fly (3), dimension door (4), teleport (5) to name the ones I am most familiar with.

I agree that it doesn’t offer rules for strongholds and mass combat like the Rules Cyclopedia did or like Adventure Conqueror King promises.

Searchers of the Unknown doesn’t have rules to differentiate races and classes as far as I can tell. No level caps, no different XP requirements, no spells, no specific abilities (those abilities contribute to the long term changes in that they are very important at first but loose importance as the characters gain levels).

As for how necessary this “promise of long term change” is: I don’t think it’s necessary at all. But it helps. If the system provides for change, then the game master will be forced to follow suite. Basically the system promises “this game will change over time.” At first we will have murder mysteries, but once we learn how to speak with the dead, we’ll have different adventures. At first we’ll do a lot of dungeons, but once we gain a castle, we’ll have different adventures. At first we’ll do a lot of exploration, but once we gain access to teleportation, we’ll have different adventures.

Now, I think that the game master can make the same promise. First we’ll run errands for the Jarl. Then we’ll travel south for a long time. We’ll be pirates of the seven seas. And then we’ll infiltrate a secret society. It sounds great, I’m in. The difference is that I can’t read the rule book and think “this is going to be great.” I need to trust the game master to pull it off. And if I’m a struggling game master, the system doesn’t encourage me to change my game. This may increase the risk of the campaign stagnating.

AlexSchroeder 2012-02-03 09:46 UTC

Ian Burns wondered Character advancement in RPGs, how important is it to you? I said:

I think character advancement is illusionary if your monsters just keep growing in power. I was thinking of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I think that’s what D&D does right: As you advance in levels, gameplay changes. AC doesn’t grow as fast as attack bonus. New spells. Save or Die gains in significance if you have more hit-points. That is why I like D&D character advancement: changing gameplay over time.

Another advancement style I like is the FATE style where “advancement” is actually just slow changes in your character: swap skills, swap aspects, that’s it. It’s much less effective than the D&D style, because the gameplay stays essentially the same.

Another advancement style I like is the Traveller style where characters stay the same but one way of playing the game involves earning a lot of money and buying better equipment. In a way, D&D has this as well in that magic items start to replace leveling up as your method of advancement.

(The statement is basically my takeaway from the main post where I said I should give Traveller another try and emphasize changes to the equipment over changes to the setting.)

AlexSchroeder 2012-11-16 13:51 UTC

Recently, I’ve seen some related posts online:

– Alex Schroeder 2015-05-15 16:37 UTC

# 2012-01-25 Player Contribution

Based on some comments to a Google+ post [1] I started writing a reply on how I like player contributions in my Labyrinth Lord campaign.

If somebody at the table says wouldn’t it be cool if… and I think that yes, it would be cool if… Why not? As a referee I reserve the right veto stuff that is already fixed in my world, and stuff that breaks the mood of the setting, but other than that, I’m fine with player inspiration. This doesn’t happen too often, though, because a large part of the game is about exploration. It only works if there is something in the referee’s head and notes that is there to explore. If players get to make up what they will find, then it isn’t exploration. I like exploration, thus player contribution is mostly limited to “I’m sure there’s a tavern in this town…” and “I’ll go looking for some beggars…” I often improvise details for particular locations, so if these ideas are plausible and entertaining, I run with them.

I realize that here I’m saying that the setting is fixed and ready to be explored and in my Swiss Referee Style Manual I say I prefer starting with a “a small hex map.” The point is that I try to avoid overpreparing. No more than necessary!

Some players like to introduce characters from their backstory. Since I don’t like to read long backstories, and I don’t like to integrate complicated backstories into the game, I prefer there to be a very small number of characters introduced by players, say two or three. A teacher, a contact, a foe, that kind of thing.

The reason I don’t like long backstories is that I think most of them are boring to read, integrating them into the plot is a lot of work, it makes plots depend on the survival of player characters and on the presence of players themselves and finally I prefer to integrate what happens at the table to integrating what people write at home. I want as much as possible to happen at the table because that is what entertains me the most.

Again, during play somebody might say woudln’t it be cool if I met… and just as I said above, I’m not opposed to inspiration and improvisation. What I want to avoid is the baggage that comes with backstories. Players should feel free to write one and keep it to themselves – to help them role-play, to help them improvise, to help them be a better player at the table. All I care about is being entertained at the table. If a backstory helps, please write one. I just don’t want to read it. Show, don’t tell.

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wow you sound like a lazy self interested ref. Hope you have fun cuz it sounds like you could care less about your players. What fun is it if the ref is entertained and the players ideas get thrown in the trash. Let them have the beggers? You are sooo giving as a person. Sorry about your “boring” players, Hope they don"t catch on that you don"t find them interesting enough for you.

– kurt pearson 2012-01-25 22:31 UTC

Yeah, I signed up to play at the table, not to read essays at home. Happy gaming!

AlexSchroeder 2012-01-25 22:55 UTC

– Harald 2012-01-26 00:41 UTC

# 2012-01-26 Was für ein Spielleiter bist du

Was für ein Spielleiter bist du?

Meine Antwort (in Anlehnung an How I Roll): Ich präferiere wenig Hintergrundgeschichte für Charaktere: mich interessiert vor allem für Ereignisse am Spieltisch und wie sich die Charaktere im Laufe der Abenteuer entwickeln, weil dann alle daran teilnehmen können; ich bevorzuge es, wenn Charaktere Eigenschaften haben, die für alle am Tisch unterhaltsam sind; ich will keine Probleme der Mitspieler aufarbeiten; Schauspielern und Würfeln ist beides in Ordnung; ich mag keine Konflikte am Spieltisch; ich mag keine Kampftaktiken; meine Welt wächst mit den Spielern laufend mit: wo sich Spieler interessieren, gibt es (ab der nächsten Sitzung) mehr zu entdecken; ich bereite mich nicht gerne stundenlang vor und improvisiere den Rest; im Zweifelsfall will ich die Regeln gerne nicht ausdiskutieren (wenn es darauf ankommt, habe ich selber oft Mühe, rechtzeitig die eigene Regelfuchserei abzubrechen).

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# 2012-01-28 ratposoni

I use xfce on my old iBook. Yesterday I wanted to switch back to ratpoison. No problem, I still have [RatpoisonSetup my configuration of 2003]. After half an hour I went back to xfce. Why?

The most serious problem was wifi. I work in my living room with a very weak wifi signal. The iBook receiver is very weak. I often loose the signal. When I’m using xfce, something takes care of this. With ratpoison, when the signal goes, it goes. And when it comes back, I can sudo ifdown and ifup and pray and sudo start networking and then it still won’t work. As I said, after half an hour I went back to xfce. Do I have to install this nm-applet I keep hearing about?

Had I spent more time with ratpoison, I would have investigated a solution to have Shift Tab switch windows. It’s hardwired into my motor patterns.

Update: Actually, I tried the solution using nm-applet and it appears to work! I went back to my [RatpoisonSetup ratpoison setup] page and updated it. I’m using ratpoison right now.

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Offtopic, but: My next PC will be named “Posoni”.

– Harald 2012-01-28 16:16 UTC

D

AlexSchroeder 2012-01-29 00:27 UTC

# 2012-01-31 Iz

I was listening to Canon Puncture the other day and they talked about the new segments they want to do and started thinking back to the player characters in my games, the ones I remember best. Let me tell you about Iz the goblin assassin, played by Florian. This was at the very start of my Alder King game; I was still using D&D 3.5.

Iz started as a goblin rogue with a short bow. He was diving into cover and shooting enemies like crazy. Eventually he discovered that the kobold oracle living in the skull of a black dragon was in fact a master assassin and he gained access to the assassin prestige class. He also tamed a griffin living in an abandoned elven tower, painted it black (I figured it was better not to ask how he had done it) and rode on it. At one point the party found a ring of wishes with one remaining wish and he somehow ended up carrying it to the chagrin of the other player characters.

At one point, a random encounter with a bunch of kuo-toa came up. I was fond of using the monster variants from the various monster manuals thus there were harpoonists with sticky shields, there were soldiers, there were crazy monk wizards, it was a great fight. I don’t remember what happened exactly. Somehow most of the party ended up surrendering and being taken away to the kuo-toa village. Iz’s griffon lay there, slain. The stench of blood and burning flesh was hanging in the air.

Iz kneels by his dead griffon, cries and curses. And then he remembers the ring. He crushes the last stone and cries I wish this never happened!

The wish worked: The griffon came back to life, and the power of the wish tried to undo some of the events as well: it rearranged people and pulled Iz and the griffon back into the company of his fellow party members, into the stronghold of the kuo-toa, into the temple of Blubidbloopdoop or whatever the weird kuo-toa god is called, and eventually everything was resolved.

That’s one of the reasons I liked Iz so much.

(Session writeups: loosing the battle and the undoing of it all; character page: Iz.)

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One thing I really liked about playing him back then was that some players were in earnest worried that Iz would snap under the preassure of being ordered around all the time (Dreading that he would one day kill some party members in their sleep for revenge) and the RP that caused all this. :D

– Florian 2012-02-03 07:32 UTC

# 2012-01 Book Club

What: Black Box by Amos Oz

When: 18 January, 19:30 – RSVP on Meetup (optional ;))

Where: Aquarium

This book is very funny and clever. A woman is fighting with the two men she loves: her current husband and the father of her son (former husband). The son fights with all three.

The story unfolds as each one of those four characters tells piece after piece of her view of this conflict. All pieces are in fact letters. The whole book consists of letters, some are just a couple of lines long, others longer, some are very emotional, others calmly relating.

The conflict is not only about their relationship to each other, but also about pride, religion, the value of culture, death, life, Israel, Israelis of different geographical origin, money, devotion… In this book Amos Oz shows his virtuosity in building up a complex plot and rich characters, just by letting those characters write to each other, in a round robin of intense love and hate.

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