2015-08-20 Ryuutama

Ryuutama is one of the unplayed games on my disk which I really need to take a longer look at. The first thing I like about it is the positive background. The art, the colors, the premise (traveling and exploring) – I want to know more.

Zak S. wrote an excellent post on his blog regarding the role of violence in role-playing games. Violence in games is important because violence is important outside of games. It’s all around us. There’s systemic violence, there’s physical violence, there’s psychological violence, there’s fear of violence. Role-playing games give us agency in the face of violence, and that’s important.

Natalie also wrote an excellent post about death. Not many things have value if you die, even if some people would like to tell you that there are in fact values worth laying down your life for. I’m not so sure and I sure as hell am happy that I’ve never been asked to do it.

Anyway, Zak Smith. Violence. Natalie. Death. Important things.

At the same time, the Burning Wheel family of games or the Apocalypse World family of games have us roll dice for things other than combat. A duel of wits, a play book with other moves, all of these things make me wonder whether we can make non-violent things interesting and tense moments at the table. So, Ryuutama: can travel and exploration be tense and interesting without dungeons and dragons?

Further reading:

And what prompted all of this:


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2015-08-15 Rules in Use

For a while now I’ve noticed a strange fact:

  • Shields Shall be Splintered! is not being used. People will quickly turn to our Death and Dismemberment table and forget about the shields. I like this change. One of the rules that should go.
  • I don’t think we’ve ever used my d30 list of random hirelings in the past. Recently, a player sent me an email and said he wanted to spend those 10gp in order to attract 1d6 potential hirelings. The way I’ve run this is that it works once per session, so every session, the party can hire 1d6 hirelings. Should I have allowed every player character to hire 1d6 hirelings? If so, why limit the number of hirelings in the first place, there might as well be infinitely many. I think I’m going to stick to this rule. I’ll have to check that table of d30 potential hirelings, though. This list needs to be adapted to the campaign!
  • The only special weapon rule I’ve used is the two-handed sword allowing you to counter-attack all enemies with a single die roll. If two troglodytes attacked you, you can roll your attack and if it hits, those two troglodytes will be hit. This seems to be the simplest implementation of “all within range” and faster (and more useful) than “keep attacking if your last attack killed a creature” (also known as cleave). I’m still amenable to using cleave instead.


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2015-08-11 Security Breach

OneBookShelf operates digital download marketplaces such as DriveThru RPG, RPG Now and D&D Classics. Today I got an email for the two sites I’ve been using in recent months:

I regret to inform you that one of our servers suffered a security breach which may have compromised your credit card information.

You are receiving this email because you made a purchase (or attempted to make a purchase) on our site using a credit card between July 6th, 2015 and the morning of August 6th, 2015. There is a 50% chance that hackers were able to collect your credit card information. We recommend that you contact your credit card issuing bank and ask them to replace any cards that you used for charges on our site, and also look over your most recent statements for any suspicious charges.

Ouch, that hurts.

More information at the Credit Card Data Breach Q&A.

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2015-07-14 Monsters

Recently, somebody asked the following on G+: “If you use monster books, or even monsters from blog posts, what does your workflow look like?”

So here’s how I did it for The Crown of Neptune. Some doodling and brainstorming yields the following. I see a shark, a lamprey or moray man, and an aboleth. And I see a first table of random encounters on the right. Spider crabs, squids, sharks, mermaids, dinosaurs, wales. This dungeon is going to be about sharks and dinosaurs, and as you go deeper it will turn into underwater horror. Or so I think.

This is what I ended up with:

How do I arrive at the table in the middle of this sheet?

I start at the beginning and think about the environment. My adventures are almost always locations on a greater hex map. That already gives me some monsters from the surrounding area. In this case, that would be the plesiosaurus. Looking for dinosaur stats leads me to the Rules Cyclopedia and aquatic dinosaurs. The entry is disappointing.

The dungeon is underwater. So I’m thinking of monstrous animals. Sharks, obviously. Sharks have a nice stat block in the Labyrinth Lord book. I feel better already.

Not sure about wales. They seem pretty boring. Perhaps a creature to talk to, or to charm? The Labyrinth Lord book has stats for killer whales and they’re in the range I like right now: 6 HD.

And I want simple, humanoid, intelligent monsters that players can interact with. Some sort of nixie, or merfolk? Nixies and sirens can charm people and I’m thinking that this is a more brutal environment. Let’s pick merfolk instead. I remember something about tritons but they’re not in the Labyrinth Lord book. Merfolk will do.

OK, further down. Let’s start bringing that horror feeling. My campaign features neogi. Eel headed spider slavers. This reminds me of morays. Morayfolk! Or Lampreyfolk. Once they hit, they keep drawing blood without needing to attack. A classic special ability and easy to add. Think giant weasels or stirges. I’m not sure where I get that HD 2+1 from.

Spiders. Crabs. Spidercrabs. They look a lot like the giant crab monster from the Labyrinth Lord book. AC 3 instead of AC 2, 1d10 instead of 2d6. Trivial changes.

The kraken is a giant squid from the Labyrinth Lord book. My players know I love the kraken. In my mind, this kraken was huge. 50m long arms! It should have had a gazillion HD. But seven attacks is good enough, I though. Let the monster look tougher than it is. Labyrinth Lord, giant squid. Works for me! HD 6. Ideal.

Not sure where I got the giant clams from. Since they can’t move, that looks more like an obstacle to me.

And now for some unterwater undead. Kraken made me think of ink, and that made me think of dark clouds. Wraiths? And some more variations on the crab and on the lamprey themes. Simple variations in numbers. Things get tougher as you go down.

An astral spider is an intelligent planar spider from the Rules Cyclopedia, I guess. Or a variant on the aforementioned neogi and giant spiders. Giant jellyfish is a variant on the kraken theme but with paralysis instead of multiple attacks. I imagine them being soft targets which is why they don’t get eight attacks or more.

The giant anglerfish was supposed to be a building that can bite. I don’t know where I got the 36 HD from. It was basically a huge trap.

Further down! A gibbering mouther? An elf encased in an evil mech? I must have been thinking of the Goons in the Caverns of Slime:

3d6 Goons (HD 5; AC 3; Atk 1 slam +3 (1d6+3); MV 6; in combat the poor creature locked inside will be begging for forgiveness and cry for help even as it fights) are alerted to the party’s presence by imperceptible sensors embedded into the walls and ceilings of the building.

More kraken. And my version of an aboleth, since I couldn’t find one in the Labyrinth Lord book.

Basically the whole adventure is nothing but a map, random monsters, some of them with an obvious lair, and if a lair exists, then with treasure, and some traps or curious things to investigate – such as the dead diver I added because I had listened to the story of how David Shaw died.

Back to the initial question, though. How do I use monster books?

  1. leaf through the book, looking for inspiration – pictures help me describe monsters, a description of two or three sentences help me add variety to my monsters
  2. copy stats – and these stats help me add similar monsters
  3. roll for treasure – remember, I think they help me suspend disbelief
  4. suggest similar monsters nearby


Comments on 2015-07-14 Monsters

I like your spider crab illustration :)

Now, was it modeled after real spider crabs, or in true D&D fashion, was it a spider/crab mash-up?

– Adrian 2015-07-16 16:52 UTC

Alex Schroeder
As I’m still a biologist at heart, I was of course thinking of the Japanese spider crab, macrocheira kaempferi. Except, with D&D flavor sprinkled all over it. I barely avoided giving it psionic powers. :)

Looking at the illustration, it looks as if I started with a sahuagin head, added lamprey teeth, thought I needed more spiders, and now that I read the scribbles I see that it says “spider woman”. Well, it was enough to make me think of spider crabs when I was thinking of more monsters to add to the list.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-07-16 19:18 UTC

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2015-07-01 Mass Effect RPG

Recently, Kirin Robinson started a discussion on G+ about the disqualification of the Mass Effect RPG from the ENnies. In another thread, I wrote some words about it…

Yesterday I learned that Trademark Law Does Not Require Companies To Tirelessly Censor the Internet. I didn’t know that. Bioware does have a choice. And in this case, as far as I remember it, Bioware still hasn’t contacted anybody, so it’s all happening between EN World, the Ennies, and the Don Mappin, the author.

Also, the PDF has a disclaimer at the very beginning:

What This Book Is Not

To be clear, this is not a licensed Mass Effect property. Mass Effect is the property of Bioware, a division of Electronic Arts. This is a work of fiction and done without their permission or involvement. No attempt to challenge their legal authority is intended in the publication of this material. Instead, it is our hope to expand the outreach of the Mass Effect property to another segment of games—role-players—who have long coveted a way to bring the events of Commander Shepard to life at their gaming tables. This product comes with one very important and unconditional stipulation:


As the sole property of Bioware/Electronic Arts, only they have the rights to benefit from the Mass Effect Universe. As such, this work is the result of countless unpaid hours and volunteer work to make it possible to bring to you. Why? Because we’re gamers too and we love Mass Effect just as much as you do!

I guess I'm mostly interested in outcomes. I really like the US constitution in this respect: “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. I want more useful stuff as fast as possible. Having the Mass Effect RPG out now, fan made, is great. It’s better for the gaming public.

What about the artists? The way I read the artist attribution page in the Mass Effect RPG, all those images were available on the Internet, on blogs of concept artists, on Deviant Art. So, without considering copyright law and just considering outcomes, these artists made things available for free, and now what they made is more available, for free. The author of the Mass Effect RPG doesn’t charge money for it. Presumably he’d share his gains with the artists in some way, if he were to make any money. But he isn’t, so he doesn’t. So, it’s still better for the gaming public, and it’s better for the artists, too. Yes, they had no voice, there was no negotiation, this doesn’t consider copyright. All I’m looking at is outcomes.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m with Don Mappin, here. I wish that copyright law was different. I wish that the fair use exception to copyright were clearer. As it is, it’s incredibly hard to tell whether something falls under the exception or not. That’s not good.

I'm not a lawyer, and I’m looking at the points one ought to consider:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Reading through the Wikipedia page and following along, as a layman might be expected to, I guess:

The use was not really educational – or can a game be educational? Maybe? It teaches you how to run a Mass Effect RPG using Fate rules? Does it help “fulfill the intention of copyright law to stimulate creativity for the enrichment of the general public”? It sure looks like it to me. To me, the process of turning the video game into a set of rules for Fate is transformative, not merely derivative.

Nothing in the nature of the game seems to warrant more or less protection than usual. It doesn’t rightfully belong to the public domain. All the artwork the author used had already been published, even if not intended for use in the game, so we don’t need to consider “the aspect of whether the copied work has been previously published”.

As for the amount, I think that the material taken from the game itself is definitely not major. We’re talking some of the background material, the description of things in the game. But the games are about so much more. Characters, plots, levels, graphics. The material taken from artists is major, however. Basically the entire picture was used. I started making a little survey by searching for the first ten items on the artists credits page of the Mass Effect RPG:

  1. Huen, Benjamin. The Team. 2012. I don’t like wet socks. Cover. → available from !BioWare store, official, copyright by !BioWare, I assume
  2. ZingerNax. Mass Effect: Earth. 2013. deviantART. p. 1-2. → copyright by the author, inspired by but not an obvious derived work, it would seem to me
  3. 04NIloren. MASS EFFECT - SPECTRE WALLPAPER. 2012. Desktop Wallpapers 4 Me. p. 13. → looks like fan art to me
  4. Olejniczak, Patryk. Mass Effect 3 - Miranda, Mass Effect 3 - Jack, Mass Effect 3 - Zaeed Massani, Mass Effect 3 - Mordin Solus, Mass Effect 3 - Grunt, Mass Effect 3 Teaser Wallpaper, Mass Effect 3 Thane Krios, Mass Effect 3 - Kasumi Goto, Mass Effect 3 - Legion, Mass Effect 3 - Garrus. 2011. deviantART. p. 14-15, 28. → here’s a gallery, self-declared fan art (10 pieces!)
  5. devtardi. Thessia - Mass Effect 3. 2012. deviantART. p. 30. → I’m guessing fan art based on comments elsewhere (“All characters (c) by !BioWare and Electronic Arts.”)
  6. rome123. Drell Assassin Infiltrator. 2012. deviantART. p. 39. → looks like official stuff because it says “model for me3 multiplayer”? But the copyright apparently does not belong to !BioWare but to rome123 (or is that a limitation of deviantART?
  7. johntesh. Thane Krios 09. 2012. deviantART. p. 40. rome123. Krogan (Default). 2012. deviantART. p. 44. → self-declared as in-game screen capture
  8. DP-films. Urndot Wrex the Krogan Warlord. 2012. deviantART. p. 48. → self declared as fan art
  9. Hallucinogenmushroom. Geth Prime. 2012. deviantART. p. 53. → self declared as fan art
  10. Euderion. Fight for Rannoch. 2013. deviantART. p. 57. → self declared fan art

Looking at the numbers. Fan art: 15. !BioWare: 3. Others: 1. Continuing the analysis of “amount”, I’d say that the amount of art-work taken from the Mass Effect series out of the copyrighted material by !BioWare isn’t so big: 3 pieces out of a huge work. As for fan art: If they are not violating !BioWare’s copyright because of the fair use exception, then another piece of fan art reusing them should not be violating !BioWare’s copyright, either.

So, what is fan art? FAQ #572 has some information: “Original fan art are those works in which the submitting artist has done 100% of the work but the work itself depicts characters, scenes or other themes which were properly created by another creative person. […] Fan art may be copyright infringement and you may be forced to remove it by the copyright owner who may also choose to initiate other legal action.” I’m not sure that !BioWare is interested in going after fan art in this respect. Therefore, my understanding of fair use and fan art leads me to suggest that we’re in the clear, here.

That leads us to the last point in the fair use examination, the effect upon the work’s value. Does !BioWare and it’s Mass Effect based revenue suffer? Not at all, because they’re not selling a role-playing game. Now, if they were, perhaps they’d be justified under the law to go after the existing game. Now you have to argue that a company wanting to make money making a licensed game is being deterred from entering the market because the existing free fan-made game is so good, taking it down will produce a lot of bad blood. But from a customer’s perspective, that’s OK. We have copyright in order to promote the useful arts. If the useful arts are being promoted without copyright, then that’s even better. This is not an outcome to dislike, at all.

I’m still with Don Mappin.

I think we need to be careful, here. The copyright lobby is so strong, it keeps extending the copyright protection time window, it keeps bombarding us with annoying messages as we play a DVD or go to the movies. This is a war being waged about our hearts and minds. And they have all the money to run their campaigns and we have nothing except our will to share everything because we’re nice and willing to help our neighbors. That is why I don’t like people saying: “I hope that Don rebuilds and reposts the files, this time only including his work.” If we have a fair use exception to copyright, then this exception is our right. It’s a mess to figure out and and it’s hard to be sure, but if we assume that everything Don made falls under fair use, then he should not have to repost the files, and he should be free to include the works of others. That’s how we build on each others’ work. That’s how progress is made. We don’t create ex nihilo. Fair use is our right.

What about the ENies? I understand their decision. The entire thing was a hot potato. They had to make a decision, fast. And I’m guessing they don’t have legal defense funds and lawyers at their disposition. That’s how the scare tactic works. We’re afraid to exercise our right, the associations we build are afraid to exercise our right. How will we learn to claim what is ours except by pushing the boundaries and arguing for our rights?

Recommended reading: Free Culture (PDF).

Comments here or on Google+.


Comments on 2015-07-01 Mass Effect RPG

Alex Schroeder
I’m copying some of my comments from that Google+ thread to this page.

Internationally: Since I live in Switzerland, I am very well aware of the different copyright exceptions in different jurisdictions. I wrote the blog post using US Fair Use because that seemed to me to be the most relevant: the Mass Effect RPG author is based in the US. Sure, !BioWare is based in Canada, but it belongs to EA, which is based in the USA, so an international case would be harder to look into.

Fan Art is illegal. I am not so sure. Yes, 17 U.S.C. § 107 says “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” But then it continues: “In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include: …” and then it goes into the four points I discussed in the blog post. In these four points, no reference is made regarding the purpose of the derived work. My reading is that these are clear cut examples of transformative use. But when I look at some of the websites talking about it (googling for fair use purpose and clicking on the top links [1][2][3]), I see that this is an area of dispute. My conclusion is that this Fair Use is murky waters. But I don’t see the purpose of a murky piece of legislation if that means we’re never going to touch it. Thus, where as I understand the decision of th ENnies, I think copyright reform is important and talking about cases, and expressing how we would have liked to see them go are an important first step in this process.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-07-02 09:36 UTC

I believe you are making some incorrect assumptions. The Fan Art itself is also copyright - even though it might also at the same time violate someone elses copyright. All creative works are copyright by default unless the author has published them explicitly without copyright or with a limited copyright. Fair use in dealing with art rarely allows you to use someone elses image. The fact that the author is not making money from the publication isnt a defence. It can be part of a defence but it is not a defence in and of itself. You also say - we don’t need to consider “the aspect of whether the copied work has been previously published” - and then move on as though that statement is sufficient to remove it as having any bearing on the matter.

Damian 2015-07-02 12:34 UTC

I’ll definitely have to think about it some more. There are also a ton more counter arguments to my post on the G+ thread. What I need to understand is why fan art collecting other fan art should be considered different from the fan art it collects. I want to figure out what the exact arguments are both from a legal standpoint and from a moral standpoint. The first stumbling block as far as I am concerned is that an entire category called Fan Art exists on Deviant Art. Why is this allowed? If it is allowed, why isn’t Mass Effect RPG allowed? If it isn’t allowed, I still feel that it should be allowed. The current copyright situation doesn’t satisfy me. (Many of the counter arguments on G+ also deal with what is legal and what is not and I feel like I’m the only one talking about the kind of change I want to see.

AlexSchroeder 2015-07-02 13:15 UTC

Alex Schroeder
I’m copying some more of my comments from that Google+ thread to this page.

Fair Use: 17 U.S.C. § 107 says “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” But then it continues: “In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include: …” and then it goes into the four points I discussed in the blog post. In these four points, no reference is made regarding the purpose of the derived work. My reading is that these are clear cut examples of transformative use. But when I look at some of the websites talking about it (googling for fair use purpose and clicking on the top links), I see that this is an area of dispute.

The EFF page mentioned above points out that time-shifting and search-engines also ended up benefiting from Fair Use. That’s why I think we’re not limited to the purposes listed in the opening of §107.

My conclusion is that this Fair Use is murky waters. But I don’t see the purpose of a murky piece of legislation if that means we’re never going to benefit from it. Thus, where as I understand the decision of the ENnies, I think copyright reform is important and talking about cases, and expressing how we would have liked to see them go are an important first step in this process.

I guess I’m arguing two different things. The first thing I’m arguing is that I don’t mind using someone else’s art without permission because I like the outcome, even if our current copyright doesn’t allow for it. The second thing I’m trying to argue is that the Fair Use exemption offers us an incremental way out: we can fight for a broader application of Fair Use until we’re getting the outcomes we want. This part is important: I know I’m not happy with copyright law as it stands. Where do we start the political process of change? We need to talk about what makes us unhappy, say what we would like to see instead. I have to start somewhere. So that is why I’m starting with the copyright limits.

Not the only solution: One counter argument I heard was that the laws are there “for a reason”. I argued that this doesn’t mean that the current solution is giving society the best outcome. The Mass Effect RPG explicitly said: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MAY THIS PRODUCT BE CHARGED FOR OR RENUMERATION EXCHANGE HANDS. IT MUST REMAIN FREE OF CHARGE. That doesn’t sound so bad. So yes, selling at cost via print on demand services is starting to blur the line, but I can imagine an alternative where the fan made free alternative is available to us. Maybe even free games could be available to us. Hopefully games that cost money would also be available to us, and hopefully for the authors of those paid for games and products and printed books and games would be much better than the free stuff. Just one possible alternative. And if not, well, then a free fan made product is still a better outcome than the current situation. And yes, perhaps a different solution could be made to work, with contracts to sign, and risks to take, but if the outcome is the same product but it costs a lot, then perhaps that’s a loss all around.

Valuing artists: In the comments of that G+ discussion, I was accused of believing “that artists/creatives are a lower class citizen”. Ugh! The discussion had been quite interesting until it took this nose dive. What had led up to this accusation? I was basically arguing that the state has no obligation to protect any particular business model. The other side was aguing that licensing revenues made up a significant section of their income. And then: “Of course, your coding job, like most, probably affords you a very lucrative 130-175% level of income greater than mine because technology always trumps production/art for salaries and standard of living. So you get to go on making stuff you love without any expense while I have to pick up some other trade to make ends meet all because you think everything creative should be free.” But here’s the thing. I work a 60% job because I don’t care too much about the code I write for money. I care about customers, about their problems, about solving those problems using new processes and using our software, of course. But it’s not an excitement I experience on a visceral level. It’s my job. All the stuff I write for love is Free Software.

I don’t think these anecdotes should matter when we’re talking about politics. Looking after our own best interest is understandable, but as a society we need to look at the larger picture. We need to keep negotiating our laws – and copyright is one of those areas where there is tension between authors and consumers. The pain of artists needs to be weighed against the pain of consumers. All the things that are wrong with copyright: DRM, loss of freedom, legal hassle whenever you want to do something derived on other works, whether it be remixes, quotes, improvements, fan art, some allowed by the fair use exception, some not, who can tell? The hassle of finding and negotiating with right holders, movies languishing without anybody restoring them, take down notices, DMCA style burden of proof for innocents, all of this! All of this we need to compare to artists and their shitty financial situation. The current system is like a lottery. If you are in the top ten, you win the lottery. Everybody else is living off scraps. Do we need to accept all the crap copyright gives us in order to uphold an unfair system? Is there really no other world possible? That is why I refuse to be swayed my the plight of artists. Our current copyright is a law fit for paper publishers in a mass media world, top down, controlled by the few. In a digital age, where anybody can produce, where copyright affects us all, what we have is not good enough. It doesn’t produce the outcomes I want. An where as I understand the plight of artists, copyright as we currently have it, is the wrong tool. I don’t feel the obligation to protect this job. I don’t feel the state is obligated to protect this job. Yes, it would be cool if there was a different solution. A way to make money doing the things we love. Writing free software. Being an artist. Current copyright is not the way I feel like supporting.

So, do I think artists are lower class citizens? Of course not! I am so much in favor of finding ways of people making a decent living no matter what they do, doing the things they love, I don’t know how anybody can conclude that I think of artists as lower class citizens. That is so wrong I don’t even know where to start.

I think capitalism treats the making of art as something other than the production of things to sell or the sale of services – and the net effect is that almost all artists are vastly underpaid. I just don’t think that copyright is the right tool to fix that problem. There are many people producing art for free, prices go down. Sometimes this leads to a situation where making art is no longer sustainable as a job.

My wife used to dance. There was very little money in gigs. There was regular money in giving classes. There was no money in all the choreographies she wrote. There was no copyright to help her. No revenue based on licenses. She gave it up when she got an interesting full-time well paying job. It would have been great if somebody like her could have made a decent living doing the stuff she loved to do. But we live in a capitalist society. Too much supply, not enough demand.

Barring an unconditional basic income solution, or a more limited support for artists by the state, I don’t see it happening. And so most of the musicians and dancers I know do it in their free time. Just as I write the code I love in my free time.

Reform is necessary: A summary of the current situation and its problems can be found in a recent Ars Technica article, The battle to reform 300-year-old copyright law for the digital age. This what I am talking about:

As is evident, the only “solution” that the Commission could imagine was one based around licensing. The idea that non-commercial user-generated content might not need a licence at all—that it could be covered by an exception as it is in the US under the “fair use” approach—never seemed to be an option. – Glyn Moody, Ars Technica

Too many of us cannot see beyond the current system. We need to imagine a different future and work towards it. We don’t need to strengthen copyright. Artists must be able to make a living and we need to find a way to allow that without DRM and the criminalization of all the little things we want to do. We need to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” using different means.

– Alex Schroeder

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2015-06-25 The Long Campaign

Stargazer recently said, “I suck at running campaigns.” I was reminded of how I try and run a persisten campaign setting.

If you want to run longer campaigns, this is what I’m doing: My campaign world is infinite. Planes, other continents, from dinosaurs to lasers, it’s all there. And even if I want to combine two settings, I’ll use Planescape ideas to connect them, bend a little here and there, no problem. Then, players have an effect on the setting, change it. This is cool. It can be a short campaign of six sessions (that’s not what I do, though). The next campaign will be somewhat related. It takes place nearby. A few years in the future. In an alternate plane that involved the old campaign somehow. And that’s how the campaign transcends characters and rules. Use D&D 3.5 for a bunch of characters. Then use Solar System for a bunch of characters. Then use Labyrinth Lord for a bunch of characters. Then move to the Astral Sea. Then play some first level characters doing jobs for the high level characters. Then switch to the high level characters again. And if that gets boring, let’s see about marriage and children. Let’s play the kids!

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2015-06-12 An Expression of my Convictions as a Game Master

I just read an interesting blog post called Thoughts on Philosophical GameMastering by Vb Wyrde. He says: “I would argue, […] that whether they know it consciously or or not, every World is an expression of the innermost convictions of it’s !GameMaster.” He illustrates the point by referring to a friend who felt “that the Universe is really just a gigantic eating machine”. And the campaign he ran illustrated the point.

Now I’m wondering which of my personal convictions players will find in my Five Winds campaign.

  • The world is ludicrous and deadly. I often illustrate this by talking about murder clowns. Basically, everything is deadly, we will all die, and yet, we can create meaning in this absurdity, we can find joy in the freedom this limited existence grants us. Albert Camus rocks.
  • I strive for a an equal representation of the old and the young, men and women. I find that I have a natural tendency to have all the leaders both good and bad be middle age men. So now I try to roll a d6. 1–2 is young, 5–6 is old, even is a woman and odd is a man. This has led to many a general and high priest being a woman instead of a man and I like it.
  • All the good non-player characters are honest and all the evil non-player characters are bad liars. I role-play their lying and make it obvious enough for my players to recognize it. Keeping things in the dark and tricking them at the table for multiple sessions doesn’t happen. Thus, where as many people are liars, all the lies are easy to spot.
  • I try to make sure that evil and cruel decisions are easy to make. Sometimes situations arise where no easy solutions are possible. Stay with your fallen retainer and fight to the death or abandon your fallen retainer and run? I like to highlight the choice made with a sentence or two. The retainer will cry out, maybe begging not to be left behind, or begging to be killed swiftly, or heroically offering to buy more time for the party. I guess I just like a little heart break at the table. It’s easy to invoke fear of death, hate of cruel enemies, or greed for riches. Heart break is hard, and romance is even harder.

I need to think about this some more!

To be sure, I don’t really care that much about in in-game philosophies. I like Planescape and therefore there are factions in my campaign following doctrines inspired by schools of philosophy. What I care about is reflections of my own opinions and prejudices in my game world.

Discussion on Google+, if you want.

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2015-05-11 Pages Lost

Looks like I lost the pages Player Character and Monsters on the Links to Wisdom wiki. The pages appear to be gone, without a trace. WTF!

I’ll have to look at some off line backups at home. Apparently the pages were still around three days ago (2015-05-08).

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2015-05-07 Domain Game Procedures

OK, so we talked about setting up a game of Hexcrawling and how the game will eventually reach its limit if the known region keeps growing and more and more factions are being introduced, more lairs, more assets, more domain turns; the game starts to collapse under its own weight. We also talked about my Domain Game Goals. The things I like. The things my players like. We have come to the point where we need to talk about the kind of procedures that will offer us an interesting domain game without growing as the domain expands.

I think this is key: The procedure must always take the same amount of time. Think about random encounters. No matter how big your party, you always roll once for random encounters. The monsters might be stronger. The trek might be longer. But the number of rolls is constant. But think also about its failure modes. If the party travels for eight weeks, do you roll for over 100 random encounters? I don’t. That’s why random encounters only work at a certain scale. Our domain game procedure will also work at a certain scale. We’ll postpone thinking about attaining immortality and godhood, for now.

The simplest solution would be a random domain roll. The results on the table are all either adventure hooks or role-playing opportunities where we get to see what kind of people the player characters are.

  1. Invasion! A tribe of humanoids show up. Will you allow them to settle? Will you go to war? Will you investigate who pushed them out of their homeland? This needs a short list of likely humanoid tribes. Pick races, name their tribes. Give their leaders names. Determine the cause of their migration.
  2. Disaster! An earthquake or flood destroyed several buildings in one of your towns. Will you help rebuild it using your own funds? Determine the location randomly. In a village, a temple and a few houses need to be rebilt, costing 10,000 gold pieces. In a town, the keep itself and several large temples need to be rebuilt, costing 100,000 gold pieces. In a town, even more money is required to rebuild the city walls, the cathedral, the harbor, the granaries… 500,000 gold are needed. Make a list of buildings and have a price list ready in case your players will only partially fund the restauration. Make a note of up to five powerful locals and the grudges they’ll bear if the player characters did not pay for it all.
  3. Unrest! The peasants are revolting because one of your vassals is being inept or corrupt. How will you find out? How will you deal with your vassal? Will the vassal be written in to the dead book? Or join the rebellion? This needs a list of named vassals. The traitor had a reason. Write it down.
  4. Rebellion! All your former vassals and their greedy allies have decided to come and take what they feel is rightfully theirs. This requires a list of former vassals and henchmen. Make it personal. Make sure you remember some sour deals they had to suffer.
  5. Madness! A charismatic leader has started a religious movement. Their numbers are growing every day. They are instituting land reform. Killing the reach and distributing their wealth. They are calling on their brothers and sisters everywhere to come and join them. How will you deal with this sect? This needs a list of two or three leaders and a handful of other influental people that have fallen under their influence. Name them.
  6. A cult has taken hold! One of the towns in your domain has fallen prey to a cult. Its institutions are no longer trustworth. Your vassal in charge either blind or enthralled by the cult. How will root out the problem without a massacre? This needs a cult location, a monstrosity sent by a demon lord to aid the cult, a few charmed officials, the inner ring of cultist. Name them.
  7. Enormous monster incoming! A dragon or some other giant lizard has destroyed one of the border towns. It is wreaking a path of destruction. The peasants are fleeing. Mercenaries will no longer take the job. Will you defend the realm?
  8. Disease! Nobody knows whether it was due to widespread substance abuse, a punishment sent by the gods, or some other cause but now your people are reeling under the hammer blow of an epidemic. People don’t leave their houses. The sick are burnt in their houses. The dead are piling up and still no cure has been found. Have the name of a great rival cleric available that is trying to turn the tide. If the party does not succeed in stemming the tide, this rival will and the settlement will be ready to secede from the domain when he is done.
  9. Dispute! Your merchants seem to have fallen on hard times. Your trade income is decreasing. Who will you send as ambassadors to your neighbors? You need some disputes ready. Taxes. Territory. Fishing rights. Lumber rights. Mining rights. You’ll need the names of powerful people at your neighbor’s court. Determine what will sway them: bribes, threats, the use of force, sweet talking, back room deals.
  10. War! One of your neigbors has decided to follow up on that trade war. If there is no previous history, assume a demonic cult or some other madness has taken over. This is an opportunity for a little war game. Find allies. Make plans.

Several things are still missing. In order to track the “mood” of the current campaign arc, you could run with Chris Kutalik’s idea of a chaos index as explained in his blog post The Weird is Rising, Thanks World Engine.

I think I’d like more of a multi-dimensional framework that takes the gods into account. You could use something like the fronts on the MC sheet for Sagas of the Icelanders. Have a list of gods or other influences, list some keywords (“Hel: breathe disease, consume, hoard with greed”) that will color current events. This forces you to vary the description of the results depending on what front is in ascendancy. Use the result of the random domain roll to build a little four step countdown. If the party does not engage, step one happens. If they leave it to fester, step two happens. If they are busy elsewhere, step three happens. If they don’t take care of it now, step four happens. As time keeps passing and more rolls are made, issues are piling up. This is good.

If your players have “traits” that influence the domain game such as Sticky Fingers which I mentioned in previous post on the same topic, some of the results on the domain roll table should reflect that. In a Dispute situation, for example, Sticky Fingers might allow you to ignore the first two steps of the countdown as your thieves infiltrate your neighbor’s domain. You will have to handle the issue eventually or just move to War.

The important thing is this: I’m looking for a solution that limits the number of dice rolls and that doesn’t require any sort of computation before rolling. I don’t want to roll for every unconquered monster lair. I don’t want to add a bunch of numbers on the wiki for every roll I make. I don’t even want to look at what the last roll four sessions ago was before making a roll.


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2015-05-05 Sagas of the Icelanders

We had another one-shot. Playbooks used: grandmother, shield maid, seiđkona, and child. I looked at fronts and decided to have the influence of Hel color the session. A grey winter day, visions of blood seeping up from the ground, dead friends calling you from beyond the fence, ghosts trying to lure people out into the snow storm… Sadly, the session wasn’t very good.

The player of the child felt he had ended up with a playbook unsuited to the situation. What use was there to hiding and sneaking? I guess it might have played like Newt in Aliens: Bonding, and spending those bonds to grant benefits to those braving the storm.

Also, the tension between violence being always available to solve problems but being basically the wrong tool because people will get hurt and die – the tension between men and women, where women goad men into action, where men are mute and violent – all of that was missing because of our all-female cast.

My takeaway:

  1. Don’t play a ghost story where you can’t use violence to solve a problem.
  2. Don’t have all player characters play the same gender.
  3. When presenting a problem such as a ghost story, have at least two or three “secrets” to “solve” the problem because that’s how it often goes at my table:
    1. People try to ask the ghost what they should do (something I didn’t know the answer to myself).
    2. People were looking for suitable exorcism moves and did not find them in their playbooks (something I had not considered when introducing the malign influence of spirits and curses).
    3. Be ready to introduce others people such as priests, neighbors, wanderers (to talk to, to have violent encounters with).


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