Lateral thinking, followed by acid

January 10, 2014

Continuing my religious puzzle series, here’s another trap drawn from the Abbey of St. Andrew’s Cross dungeon I ran my friends through last Saturday.

The riddles of the Temple

This small room, about 10′ by 10′, is made from neatly cut stone blocks. In the centre is a square stone table on which are small stone statuettes (about 6″ tall) including a dove, a large coin, a man in an attitude of prayer, a man with arms outraised, a child, an old man, and a bull.

There is a recess in the West wall with an engraved image of the old temple at Jerusalem, with a hole in the wall  standing in for the temple doorway – just large enough to fit one of the stone figures into. On the North wall the phrase “Matthew 21:12” is inscribed.

The temple and the statues are distractions; the real clue is the biblical reference: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.” The characters can turn over the stone table, though it takes two people to lift it up. It is supported by a single, central leg, which fits into a recess into the floor. Once the table is lifted out of the recess and then overturned, a secret door in the West wall opens to reveal a small alcove.

The alcove has four levers in the wall, above each of which is an illustration: A priest, a bell, an angelic host, and a rooster.

On the underside of the stone table a riddle is engraved:

As is the holy trinity, three am I in one.
At dawn, at lauds, at the gateway to the Kingdom
I sing to your soul
And call in your body

Pulling the lever beneath the bell will open a secret compartment in the alcove, revealing a locked and wax-sealed metal chest filled with delightul loot. Pulling any other lever causes caustic acid to jet out of tiny holes in the alcove, spraying anyone present and inflicting d10 damage and inflicting 2 points of permanent CHA damage; save vs. breath weapon for half. Additionally, a character who fails her save vs. breath weapon inhales the acid and suffers 2d6 permanent CON damage as it liquidises her delicate lung tissue; save vs. poison for half.

If, as The Philosopher did, your players pull the right lever and the wrong lever at the same time, give them the treasure AND the acid. No-one can complain that you aren’t an even-handed and benevolent DM.

A wet, meaty “Pop!”

January 8, 2014

The Abbey of St Andrew’s Cross dungeon that I ran my friends through over the weekend was built by an Abbot with a loose grasp of magical principles and a healthy fear of King Henry VIII and what he was going to do to the monasteries. He constructed the dungeon as a place to store the wealth of his order against incursions from Royalist soldiers: a bit like one of those locking diaries teenage girls have, except that the lock is electrified and there are razor blades hidden between all the pages.

From a dungeon design perspective, all the “traps” are intended to protect specific pieces of loot, but not to retain it forever. There is a way to disarm the trap, provided you understand the clues it presents to you. The Abbot wants to get his money back some day (even if things don’t, in the end, work out quite as he expected). Each puzzle and trap combination in the dungeon is a mechanical system unlocked by information, not unlike entering your username and password for a web forum, except that if you get it wrong a gout of acid dissolves your intestines.

To fit with the dungeon theme and to provide a password clue that I reckoned a mad Abbot would alight on, the puzzle rooms are themed around Christian lore. I’m an aetheist and so are my players but between google and wikipedia, anyone has a good chance of working out these puzzles. Some of them just use the trappings of Christianity as a skin for the puzzles, such as this first one:

St. Andrew’s Cross

This small stone chamber is just large enough for two lightly encumbered people, or one person carrying any quantity of loot, to squeeze in.

The far wall is engraved with an image of St. Andrew’s Cross (an x-shaped cross, or saltire) over which is engraved in Latin “The Good Man Trusts the Righteousness of His Course”.

A skeleton in a ragged military uniform is scattered in pieces over the floor. Inspecting it reveals that the long bones in the arms, the shoulder and elbow joints, and the wrists, have all been cracked in multiple places.

In each side wall there is a small hole, just large enough to slip one’s hand in, at head height. The holes have a metal collar around the mouth. Inside each hole is a metal grip handle, like the brakes on a bicycle. If a character puts her hand into the hole she can grasp the handle which causes an audible “click” inside the wall. Grasping both causes the St. Andrew’s Cross to split up the middle, and a short corridor to open up beyond. The corridor is formed by two massive blocks of stone being drawn apart. If either handle is released the corridor walls slam shut, squishing anyone inside into red pesto.

In an alcove at the far end of the corridor is a small reliquary plated with gold and inlaid with silver, topaz and garnet, with illustrations depicting the crucifixion of St. Andrew. A glass plate in the front of the reliquary reveals whatever valuable contents are inside.

If a character “trusts in the righteousness of her path” and moves swiftly in she can retrieve the contents of the reliquary with no difficulty. Moving the reliquary is more tricky – it’s pretty much wedged in place, and would take a successful skill check and at least ten minutes to dislodge. Searching this corridor or the reliquary for traps will also take at least ten minutes.

Once the corridor has been open for ten minutes, the collars around the handles clamp shut, trapping anyone who happens to be holding them at the time. The handles and collars then retract into the wall, stretching out the character’s arms. A successful skill check from another character will release her. The character can attempt to break her own wrist and thumb and pull her hand out. This requires a successful save vs. paralysis, and whether successful or not causes d4 points of damage, and will require two weeks of rest or magical healing before the hand can be used again. Each round that the collars retract into the wall the character suffers one point of temporary CON loss as the bones, ligaments and muscles in her arm rip apart. When she hits zero CON her arms pop off at the shoulders in a spray of blood. She is at this point, of course, dead.

Points of Experience

January 6, 2014

The experience points system in Lamentations of the Flame Princess is elegant. The silver-piece value of loot that characters retrieve from dungeons, ruins, troves and over the edge is converted directly into experience points. If they can get the treasure back to civilization, they level up. If they don’t find the treasure, or if they lose it on the way back home, they don’t. And if they can see the treasure, but they can’t quite get to it, they will gnaw their own feet off at the ankles.

It’s a gamey mechanic that makes the characters’ motivations totally transparent. Do I risk the dark passage? Well, there could be some loot. Do I follow the dubious treasure map handed to me by the reeking old man with the missing teeth and conspicuous scars? Half-odds that there might be at least a modicum of treasure somewhere in the vicinity of the map location. That grinding death trap, with the clacking metal jaws, dozens of limbs, and a glint of silver inside the maw? Definitely treasure in there. Maybe if I just cram my hand in there…

There’s a score-keeping element, too. The players know if they did well or poorly in an adventure; the “fail” condition is objectively measurable. Anything that threatens the treasure pile is a threat against the players’ control of the world. Which is, given the circumstances of dungeon-delving, pretty limited.

As an experiment in how to harness this lovely design feature for nefarious ends, here’s a cursed artefact:

The Orb of Love

This stone sphere is 12″ in diameter. One hemisphere is carved to resemble the smiling face of a child, while the other resembles the frowning face of an old man. It weighs approximately 40lb and is very cumbersome.

A character who touches the Orb must save vs. magic device – if she passes but keeps hold of it, she must save again every ten minutes. Failure indicates she has fallen under its spell. The character is infatuated with the orb, and cannot rest easy unless she is certain that her ownership of it is not under threat.

While a character is intoxicated she does not gain experience unless she is secure in the knowledge that she has sole control of the orb. If the character owns a secure property and can store the orb there in a secret chamber to which only she has access, she can count herself secure (though any home invasion or betrayal by a retainer will shake this belief.) Otherwise the character must carry the Orb with her at all times and actively defend it if challenged.

Either voluntarily or involuntarily relinquishing the orb and going “cold turkey” for a period at least twice as long as the character has possessed it, and at least a month, will reverse the effect. If the character actively attempts to reclaim the Orb during this time she loses progress.

A character who has shaken her addiction to the orb must avoid all contact with it, as any contact will automatically reinstate her obsession without a saving throw.

Uses for the Orb

Just throwing this cursed item at your players should be fun. If a single character touches it she will have to lug around a pointless rock for the foreseeable future while gibbering about her “Precious!” If two or more characters touching it it will lead to inevitable backstabbing. Vicious wars could spring up over possession of this quintessential MaGuffin, an item that is intrinsically valueless but desired by all. It would also make a particularly obnoxious poisoned chalice with which to crown a dungeon adventure. Owners of the Orb will build vast and deadly sanctuaries if they believe that will secure their ownership of it, and the foolhardy adventurers who finally penetrate this sanctum and claim the Orb will learn that just because something is worth protecting, does not mean it is worth taking.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

January 5, 2014

Yesterday I ran Teacake, The Philosopher, Broodmate, HouseCat, and The Lunge through a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It was my first time running a dungeon crawl since some fumbling attempts when I was fourteen (much like my sexual technique at the time it was clumsy, badly misinformed by the media, not very satisfactory for any party involved, and fundamentally limited by the fact I only had the other boys at my single-sex school to compare notes with.) Our group tends to play occult investigation games set in the present day or occasionally super-heroes so this was a departure for us all.

HouseCat and Broodmate are both relative newbies to the roleplaying field, and Lamentations was a bit of a gamble. It’s a very rational version of Basic D&D that uses ascending armour class, a streamlined skill system and quick character generation. I’d forgotten how much fun random-stat generation is; Broodmate rolled a natural 18 for her Magic-User’s INT, but was forced to dump a pitiful 7 into her strength; Teacake realised that if she used her one permitted number-swap to give herself 16 DEX she could be a nimble, scout-like bow-wielding fighter. Random stats made chargen very swift and simple, and the knowledge that Level 1 characters were meat-puppets likely to die meant any worries about balance was entirely and obviously beside the point.

Choosing the tools and gear to enter the dungeon with was another concern; it’s a long, not exactly riveting task for the players. The Lunge took over stocking the group’s adventuring supplies once each character had purchased her personal gear. It was an interesting example of player specialisation: The Lunge became a group quartermaster, something that wouldn’t happen in a game without logistical concerns. I made sure that when the players received their adventure hook from a patron, he put Teacake’s character in charge of the team, as I know Teacake can get a little drowned out in conversations: this reminded me to look to her for the official decision on any group actions the party took. Broodmate landed the role of group cartographer and had a fantastic time mapping the dungeon: as she was playing an extremely squishy wizard that fit pretty well with her role in combat (hiding in the back).

With character gen on Friday night, we ran from 11am to midnight on Saturday (with plenty of breaks for beverages, food and un-boggling our brains.) I reminded the players what a successful adventure in Lamentations looked like:

 "A Successful Adventure" by Jason Rainville for the LotFP Referee hardcover.

“A Successful Adventure” by Jason Rainville for the LotFP Referee hardcover.

As we were running a one-shot, there was no time for adventure hooks – I went for an adventure harpoon. The characters were offered a 10,000sp bounty if they could recover the lost bell of a ruined Abbey on behalf of a bishop. They were the security detail for a German craftsman and half-a-dozen laborers who would be excavating the site – with the incentive that any bounty would be docked 500sp per laborer who didn’t return. From there they ricocheted across the countryside out to the isolated Lincolnshire coast where, a brief stop in a local hamlet to pick up rumors notwithstanding, they happened upon the ruins of the abbey – and the elderly crofter who lived there with his granddaughter.

Naturally the old man was in league with the Dwellers Below, but the PCs just weren’t that suspicious. Some fortuitous rolls and smart thinking discovered two of the three possible entries to the network of caves below, and they began their investigations.

What followed was a series of incursions into the tunnels, occasionally scuffling with the Crew of the Dannebrog, a cult of stranded sailors who worshipped an entity known as “The Fisher of Men.” Eventually they reached an entente with the Crew who gave them information about the parts of the caverns they did not claim as their domain.

I won’t blow-for-blow the whole adventure, so here are the highlights:

  • The Philosopher was playing as a Necromancer (based off the AD&D class I found in an ancient copy of White Dwarf) with the LOTFP Summon spell. I’m sure he chose that just to delight me; any first level spell that can potentially end the world if you roll badly enough is basically the whole point of D&D. He let the spell loose in the first combat that looked like it could potentially murder all he players, opening up the gates of hell to call forth an Exploding Excrement Demon with Frozen Claws and Adhesive Flowers. He achieved a Great margin of control over it, binding it into service for the entire adventure. The party’s new pet was dubbed Dirty Harry, and survived longer than some of the characters.
  • HouseCat’s Cleric proved to be a remarkably proficient murderer, clobbering people with her “Celtic hittin’ stick.” In a particularly obnoxious puzzle room she was shocked to discover it had mutated into a ghastly little statue of a fat naked man with cocks hanging out of his mouth. Classy.
  • Broodmate managed to play a ditsy wizard admirably, insisting that she remain to study the puzzle rooms for ten minutes after the rest of the party left. That was all the time it took to get abducted by the Crew of the Dannebrog, naturally, which taught her that most valuable of lessons: “Never Split the Party.” Unless you want to be magically tattooed, subjected to a vast alien sentience, and inducted into an demon-worshipping cult.
  • The Lunge and the Philosopher encountered a sacrificial goat frozen in time, and almost killed themselves hurling stones and crossbow bolts into it, giggling as they exploded and were transmogrified into helium gas, oxygen or gold dust – but sadly for my random-results table, neither Selenium nor Plutonium.
  • Teacake really showed her leadership chops towards the end when she declared “I’ve had it. Let’s murder all of these guys.” She okayed the Necromancer’s plan to sacrifice a captive and smash up a laboratory for its summoning-circle potential. This did not end well. The ensuing parade of rampant demons reduced the Necromancer to a collection of gibbets. Fortunately he was on the far side of a locked door from the other players, and had forewarned them “If you hear me screaming ‘Aaarghglelglghee!’ then don’t come in.” It was an effective safe-word. Having levelled the dungeon up from Cult Temple to Hell-Gate, the survivors rode off into the sunset with a not inconsiderable quantity of loot.

Three survivors from a party of five was pretty good going. I opened the doors to a death trap and the players willingly walked in – at some points they hurled themselves at it. We have all agreed that as soon we can we need to meet up and do it again.

Rogue-like Roundup

December 30, 2013

Rogue is this game; a random, procedurally generated dungeon adventure in which you have one chance to go as deep as you can before your inevitable demise. Success is unlikely but death has no huge sting, since the next adventure awaiting you will be entirely different from your last. Rogue-likes follow on in that tradition, but adapt the theme in very different directions.

Rogue Legacy

More rogue-lite than rogue-like, Legacy has eaten up my time like a chronovore. You play generation after generation of idiotic heroes doomed to fall to one of a number of fiendish traps and cartoonish monsters in your forebear’s cursed castle. Procedurally generated platforming levels of astonishing difficulty combine with an RPG-lite levelling system that allows you to gradually accrue stat buffs and additional abilities that will allow you to overcome the castle. Each time you die you pick an heir to continue as who has a random selection of genetic traits, ranging from the ridiculous (irritable bowel syndrome) to the absurd (fear of chickens). Almost all of these have a mechanical effect on your adventurer’s abilities, so no two expeditions play out the same.


I have only just picked up the posterchild for modern Roguelikes (in its 2012 HD edition), and how I regret the wasted years. Spelunky is enormously charasmatic, from the character design to the fiendish level arrangements. Its a platformer that recalls the fiendish path-picking and ladder-grappling of Spectrum methusela “Chuckie Egg”, decked out in modern chrome, with a vast array of hilarious deathtraps awaiting your plucky, Indiana-Jones-like adventurer as he delves deeper and deeper into a pulp temple. Every time my little man plummets into a spike trap, is propelled by an arrow-launcher, or crushed to smithereens by a falling boulder, I bark out a short, delighted laugh. I haven’t scratched the surface but Spelunky promises a huge depth of mysterious and hilarious secrets.

FTL: Faster Than Light

Space, the final front-aaargh! Vicious mantids are eating my liver! Eaargh! Applying the principle that everything is better with Star-Trek non-copyright-infringing space adventure, FTL gives you control of a space vessel desperately hurtling from planet to planet in the vain hope of stopping a rebel uprising. Along the way you have spacy encounters, some of them simple text-based decisions, others full-fledged ship-to-ship combat that will see your life support explode and the weapon crew catch on fire. When last I played it FTL was a delightfully tense experience, every light-jump potentially your last, but it suffered from a paucity of content: there just weren’t enough things to encounter out there in the void once you had played the game two hundred times or more. I have a mere 16 hours on record playing this game; make of that what you will.

Sword of the Stars: The Pit

The Pit is a spin off from a 4x space strategy game (eXplore, eXpan, eXploit, eXterminate) that I know nothing about. It’s probably the most traditional roguelike in this list; characters explore an underground sci-fi installation by moving a puppet around an orthogonal grid, encountering aliens, accruing new weapons and expanding an enormous skill-list. It has a characterful art style and a very compulsive core loop, but I wouldn’t call it enjoyable: although I made incrementally greater progress with each excursion into the Pit, it wasn’t enough to disguise the skinner box the game is based around. Play only if you like making numbers go up, then watching them abruptly reset to nil.

The Occult Chronicles

When I learnt that indie designer Cryptic Comet had made a Roguelike based on the Cthulhu mythos I thought Christmas had come early. Makers of niche strategy titles, I trust CC’s design chops implicitly; the masterpiece “Apocalypse Empires” easily stole fifty hours of my life and five points from my degree final grade. Occult Chronicles is a mixed success. It attempts to add the elements of a Lovecraftian investigation (creeping dread, vile rituals, a narrative of slowly unfolding horror and a countdown to ultimate doom) to the Roguelike by adding in timer-based events that unfold implacably while you explore the haunted house of each adventure. These events depend on the story you are experiencing, and might be the gradual awakening of a vampire brood, or the preparations of nefarious cultists attempting to unleash a Great Old One. In order to avert these events you must uncover the location of the dastardly deed, and level up enough on minor encounters to beat them. However, those minor encounters are distinctly limited. Each one is a well-drawn occult encounter, such as a plaintive ghost or a mysterious tree spirit, but within five hours of playing I recognised nine out of ten set-pieces when it came up. The system for resolving encounters is based on cards and while certainly interesting it is both baroque and in places non-functional: there is too large a play-space in which encounters result in victories or defeats so insignificant that there is neither boon nor bane for the player. While the lack of content may well be solved (the game is in Beta, and Comet has a history of delivering bounteous expansions for free to players), I don’t know whether the hokiness of the encounter resolution will ever be resolved.

Old School Ramblings

December 15, 2013

I came to D&D in the late 90’s with Wizards of the Coast’s third edition, but it never really struck gold as a game system with me; I was far too young to take the complex of rules and requirements (and, as I was the only one of my friends with the inclination, the responsibilities of game mastering) and turn them into an entertaining experience. I didn’t really get into roleplaying until university when The Philosopher introduced me to Vampire the Masquerade, and D&D only really featured in my gaming rotation after graduation.

It was during my stint as an ecologist’s owl-plucker (yes, really) that I had a daytime job that left me with a lot of time on my hands – data entry being a surprisingly important part of the owl-plucker’s role. I soon learnt that Radio 4’s daytime programming is extremely patchy (Woman’s hour is brilliant except when it disappears into a bizarrely anti-feminist tangent, the news bears listening to once but repeats all day, the afternoon play is often tripe) and the most advanced internet music technology I knew of at the time was Last.Fm, Pandora having been exiled from the UK. So I went hunting and discovered the many pleasures of podcasts.

That’s a rabbit hole I still have not excavated myself from. I listen to dozens of the things, all of them about gaming (with one beautiful exception). Pertinent to this story is the Atomic Array podcast, a ‘cast dedicated to RPGs, frequently of the D&D variety. Though it has practically ceased production, over its episodes the lovely Ed Healey and Rone Barton interviewed dozens of RPG creators, and it was the place I learnt about some truly fantastic games. Among those I discovered was Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Lamentations is an Old School Renaissance game: that is, it’s part of the family of games that used the Open Gaming License issued by Wizards of the Coast on their 3rd edition of D&D, to replicate the mechanics and feel of the very first editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Because of the terms of that license they’re never allowed to explicitly name the game that they ape; they are all “compatible with the earliest edition of the world’s first roleplaying game,” a linguistic contortion that suggests that something awful will happen if you speak the phrase “compatible with Basic Dungeons and Dragons” aloud.

What’s the appeal of the first edition? Simplicity, first and foremost. In Basic D&D you rapidly roll up your character. There’s no attempt to “balance” between the characters in a party – everything’s randomised, so the only “equal” thing about the different characters in a party is the natural curve of numbers when rolling 3d6. Not only that but in Basic D&D a party of first-level characters are so nerfed the only thing that will keep them alive is the wits of their players, not the stats on the page. The game has a clear focus: go adventuring, get treasure, probably die along the way. There’s a purity to it.

The spin that Lamentations provided on Basic D&D was the hook I needed. Lamentations makes a few mechanical changes that tidy things up (there’s no THACO, thank God), and there’s one that is simply inspired. The experience points that characters gain is directly correlated to the monetary value of treasure they retrieve from ruins, hordes, or sites of supernatural weirdness, and successfully fence on their return to civilization. Perfection. It’s an unequivocal statement about the type of game Lamentations is: a game of mercenary, grubby-handed tomb looting.

Then there’s the ethos on the Weird. The author James Raggi cites some influences that make me woop for joy, not least the profane Thomas Ligotti and the arch-weirdists Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and that shines through in the adventures he’s penned to go with the game: tales of incomprehensible events unfolding on unsuspecting humanity with vile, fleshy consequences. The first-level Summon spell is capable of ending the world if players make the mistake of using it; if casting it goes even slightly wrong it could swap the brains of everyone within 120′, or summon The collective subconscious desire for suicide. If you don’t want that in your campaign, I’m not sure we can be friends any more.

Despite purchasing a boxed set of the game back in 2012 I hadn’t done anything with it until, perversely enough, a kickstarter I backed came to fruition. I am tinkering in a pre-release edition of Realmworks, a lovely piece of campaign planning kit. It has tools to handle plot driven campaigns or location driven ones, stories built on secret webs of relationships or tales built on intricately carved dungeons. I’ll go into it in more detail another time: for now, I’m busy writing a vicious little dungeon for a group of players to experience. Once they’ve gone through it I’ll post up a few of the entries that I’m most proud of from the dungeon.

That’s the other thing about Lamentations and the OSR: because there’s no emphasis on “balance”, I don’t feel self conscious about inventing my own crunch. I’ve come up with some truly charming challenges for the characters that are making me grin like a Beholder just to think about; not necessarily difficult, but certainly potentially lethal. Somehow that feels just right.

At the mountains

October 2, 2013

Reading At The Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft I am struck by how interesting this story would be if it were written with psychological realism.

This is not to call At The Mountain of Madness a dull text. It is not. Lovecraft’s science fictional vision, of an arctic expedition which uncovers in the course of its explorations a pre-terrestrial civilization, is interesting in the way that all Lovecraft’s stories are – in its obscure verb usage, it’s profound commitment to plot twists that do not twist, its confirmed terror at subjects which the modern audience does not find terrifying. It shows a previous civilization’s idea of terror – a terror that resides in a the non-primacy of humankind as the supreme master of planet earth. Perhaps I am jaded by 80 years of history, but I fear such Gods as The Bomb and The Economy and Global Warming, non-human agents that will render all mankind void in the course of their ordinary actions. Squamous and rugose beings from beyond known space-time hold little comparative terror. What worse can they steal but our flesh and minds?

Nevertheless the story is solid and provocative in the ways that Lovecraft does not suggest. Repeatedly in its course he remarks that his narrator must force himself to “tell, not hint” at the horrors he experienced. Yet only someone anaesthetised to normal narrative sense can miss the inevitable plot twists in Lovecraft’s story. It is unavoidable that the first catastrophe leads on to the last, that each improbable revelation results in the next. What is not told, is in fact barely signalled, is the psychic fabric of the stories’ protagonist.

The unspoken psychic wound that the Weird movement, characterised by Lovecraft, embodies, is the Great War. Crudely, this war was the death of reason. The promises of ordered, technological progress and structured societal administration were blasted apart in the trenches of Wipers and Ypres, the killing grounds of the Somme. It is best represented in William Hope Hodges’ “The Night Land” – but this text was, fittingly for a story about the occult and weird, written prior to the events it so well embodies.

The narrator, and supporting cast such that they are, of “At The Mountains of Madness” are academics and students funded to mount an arctic expedition in the early 1930s. These men would have experienced, whether directly or by contact with survivors, the bizarre and nightmarish landscape of European trench warfare, a hellscape of near-certain death and cruel, part-divine bureaucracy. No mention at all enters into Lovecraft’s tale. It’s not his concern. He is writing a monomyth of cosmic terror. He is also writing within the pulp tradition.

What if he was writing elsewise? What story would be told? The narrator constantly hints at nameless terrors – but what does he withhold from us? What is he protecting us from? What is deeper, and worse, than the knowledge that mankind is not the first inheritor of earth, and that our tenancy is a shaky one? What remains untold?

Powered by the Apocalypse

July 13, 2012

I was introduced to a neat concept by a former tutor recently: lyrical realism. A mode of writing that you will probably have come across, without hearing the term. It’s common in contemporary literary fiction, but it’s probably as old as the psychological novel. It’s simply the uncomplicated use of beautiful language in all situations and for all topics, rendering all things beautifully, even if the subject matter is anything but; it qualifies as a kind of kitsch I suppose. Why should descriptions of banality or trauma be made beautiful in the telling? And can we not find aesthetic forms that are other than simply beautiful?

I don’t know where Cormac McCarthy’s The Road fits, whether it’s inside the lyrical realist pen or out. It is an incredibly compelling book, terrifying, heartbreaking, ache-making. It’s not conventional. McCarthy welds together sentence fragments, half-concepts, queries, eschatological shouts into scrap bucket paragraphs. They suit the tale. The story is simple enough: a man and his boy walk the length of America at the end of days. The world of life is over. There is little light, no food, no heat, no human comfort. Every tree in the world is dead. Every animal as well. No crops grow. The last remnants of the cannibal gangs hunt down the final few refugees to starve their way across the blighted landscape. It is the bleakest slice of apocalyptica I have ever encountered and astonishingly good. I recommend it on the sole warning that if you have children and are prone to depression beware that the book may set off an episode. The movie, directed by John Hillcoat, is similarly superb and fractionally less bleak. It shares the uneasy beauty of the book: ash-dead valleys shouldn’t appeal to any part of us. Nevertheless.

I find apocalyptica curiously terrifying. Perhaps because it represents a future we can’t honestly rule out; the definition of a good apocalypse is that there’s nothing you can do about it. There have been some near-apocalypses in human history, too, at least in miniature. The Black Death. The Rwandan genocide. The plague that killed the inhabitants of north America before it was settled by Europeans.

I must be taking an exposure therapy approach to armageddon, then, because last night I roped up a group of friends from around the country and played an RPG called Apocalypse World with them over the internet. The characters are all survivors living in some nightmare future 50 years after something put an end to central heating and traffic wardens and Borris bikes. The team includes a clammy psychic named Jones, a single-minded driver called Frankie, a morally flexible medic called Kim and Mr. Hades, the boss of a ruined chemical plant called Hadestown. I can see a lot of fun coming from the characters not-quite-compatible aims and objectives. Mr. Hades’ enforcers are getting itchy for a fight, and the proles are starting to get the Red Lung now that the main filtration units have copped out on the habitation blocks. Someone’s gotta drive the boys out on a hunting mission to try and find (or steal) another unit. Of course the best driver in the hardhold, Frankie, is laid out on the medic’s slab until Kim can fix up an electromagnet to pull the bits of shotgun shell out of her face. That’s gonna cost a lot of jingle… and in the meantime Hades could just get someone else to do the job, like Frankie’s closest rival, Barnaby. And what about Jones? The toughs are after his hide after that stunt he pulled in the marketplace… but is he more of a risk to them than they are to him? And what did Kim’s careless driving disturb in Cripple Valley?

And so on. Although it’s set in the apocalpyse, I suspect the real treat in this game will be unintended consequences running madly out of control. Without a real law in the world (except for “might makes right”) the temptation to shoot all your problems away must be overwhelming. I aim to encourage as much creative destruction as possible.

We played over Google Hangouts, a pretty effective video-messaging service that can handle multiple video feeds at the same time. I’d recommend giving it a shot if playing RPGs over the internet is your thing. It’s also pretty well tooled out for distance meetings. Although there are apps that allow for live collaboration, I don’t think the platform handles the load very well.

My big mouth

June 10, 2012

The other day while procrastinating taking a well earned break to catch up on my twitter feeds, I happened upon a comment from the good people at RPG Orbit. It caught my fancy, and I rattled off my own witty jibe. Here’s the brief conversation:

Can D&D Next make RPGs mainstream?…

— Craig & Associates (@RPGOrbit) June 5, 2012

So now, smug git that I am, I’m stuck writing just such a post.

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the grandpappy of roleplaying games. An entire species springs from this one root stock, albeit interbred with some close genetic relatives. Like a coelocanth D&D has outlived many of its descendents. Something about this particular game is extremely tenacious; though we should bear in mind that the RPG medium is very young, dating back to just 1974. RPGs are two years younger than Pong.

It’s unusual that you can trace the history of a medium to a single example: much less one which is still in production (in one form or another) today. Also interesting is how clustered the hobby has remained around that starting point. The roleplaying game, as a play experience and as an artform, is a group exercise in story-telling with ludic (game) elements such as  intra-narrative goals and randomised outcomes; so why are the market leaders all games about heroic fantasy adventure? Even products with popular licenses don’t match the ubiquity of D&D; or ape it in style and substance. I suspect that there may be good reasons for that, beyond simple market forces and which have to do with the distinct aesthetic nature of Roleplaying as an artform, but my thoughts on those (formulated under the guidance of the Philosopher) can be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say, not only is D&D the forerunner of RPGs, it is also the benchmark.

Dungeons and Dragons, next

That is not to say that the church of D&D is a happy place. It has seen its share of schisms too, in the shift between each edition of the rules. If the goal of the D&D rules set (and the products that bring those rules sets to us) is to enable us to participate in shared narratives of heroic fantasy adventure, different editions represent different paths to that goal, different attempts to bring to light a certain desired play experience. Each transition: from Original Dungeons and Dragons to Advanced, then to second edition, third edition and on to fourth (and fourth and a bit) has created debate within the congregation. Some edition changes drew in converts – 3rd edition D&D created a gold standard for roleplaying that brought many into the hobby; while others have sent disciples into fits of rage, decrying the publisher Wizards of the Coast as apostates, and their sect the one true gospel. The goal with each upgrade is to make the game better – whether that means more fun to play, easier to get started with, or better at expressing the ineffable essence of D&D – and to refresh the flow of money into the publisher Wizards of the Coast’s coffers. Yet it often has the negative effect of offending long term players who were quite happy with their edition thank you very much.

When Wizards of the Coast abandoned the beloved 3.5 edition rules set, Paizo publishing adapted the rules into Pathfinder: and stole half the D&D market from under Wizards nose.

The shift to 4th edition was a particularly troubled change, bringing in alterations to the game that have been discussed at length elsewhere and which were not universally well received. Many felt that they betrayed the “spirit” of the game and duly jumped ship to competitor Paizo, who were making a product extremely similar to the popular 3.5 edition. Wizards aim had been to lure in the juicy MMORPG market, and remove some of the complexity barriers that prevented new players joining in, but instead they splintered their share of the market and married themselves to a product that has lurched on along with middling profitability. After a rocky few years, they find themselves in the difficult position of releasing a new edition that must: regain market share lost to Paizo; keep the peace with players who invested in 4th edition and are about to see their expensive book collections and webzine subscriptions made obsolete; and somehow draw in new players, perhaps from a related market, perhaps from somewhere else entirely.

At this point in the article, I could say that the salient question about D&D Next is not whether it can send RPGs mainstream, but whether it can provide a coherent product that does not divide Wizards’ weakened market share still further. But! There’s no points for that. So here is why I believe that D&D Next is extremely unlikely to push roleplaying games into the mainstream.


One product does not a mainstream make.

The Wii is the undisputed poster child for video-gaming as a family entertainment, and is associated with the arrival of videogames as a key part of the domestic living room. But it exists as part of a rich ecosystem of games for all tastes, with offerings from Zynga, Popcap, Blizzard and Rovio. The Wii would not have made the substantial market gains it did without Sony’s extensive efforts in the 90s to make the Playstation into something cool and desirable; and that would not have worked without an iconic blue hedgehog and an obese plumber; Sonic showed up in 1991, and Mario made his debut in 1981. The Windows operating system has been bundled with videogames for over a decade.

The point is that there is something for everyone; and I mean everyone, from the harassed lawyer sneaking in five minutes of Mafia Cities during her lunchbreak, to the Japanese salaryman training his brain on the tube train to work; to the two year old vaguely waving her limbs in the direction of a fluffy Kinect distraction; and drunken office rivals taking turns to outdance one another.

For a medium to be “mainstream”, it needs to have offers for everyone. D&D can’t provide that on its onesie; there is no way to slice “heroic fantasy adventure” and make it come out any way except niche, niche, niche. (Though sometimes it is a very large niche).

There are some extremely interesting and varied RPGs out there, which could cater to a huge spectrum of interests. But even within the RPG scene these have little exposure; t the mainstream they are one step below invisible.


How do you buy an RPG? From a specialist hobby or comic book store, from a mainstream bookseller, or online. The first aren’t found in every town, are going out of business, and don’t market themselves to the mainstream anyway; the second are ALSO going out of business and carry few if any RPG books; the third has an incredible selection of RPGs available, but is much like Plato’s theory of learning, in that you can only find what you already knew you were looking for.

The RPG market has little penetration into mainstream sales channels; many of the most interesting RPGs are only available at specialist conventions. Unlike videogames, boardgames, movies, music and books, you cannot find RPG products in food stores. Importantly, videogames, boardgames, movies, music and books all gain eye and brain time whenever you go for a walk in a town centre: RPGs do not. Videogames make constant appeals to us from the advertising bars in our social media profiles: RPGs do not. How do you know that you might want to play an RPG when you don’t know that they exist?

Wizards of the Coast have put in considered efforts before now to try and grow market share and draw in consumers from neighbouring markets. But Wizards of the Coast are not going to bring the industry with them. As far as many people are concerned, RPGs begin and end with D&D, and Wizards of the Coast care not one jot if you continue in that delusion. Wizards have no charitable agenda to put other people’s products into bookstores or our minds. Which brings us back to the rocks of our previous point: D&D does not represent an offer that can draw in everyone. And while RPGs are not widely seen, they will not be widely thought of.

If you're going to spend all day in your basement pretending to be an Elf, you should at least have some friends around to do it

A Wizards of the Coast advert aimed at the lucrative Massively Multiplayer Online RPG market.


Here is a sad fact: RPGs are the least profitable medium in the hobby game world. D&D is the sales juggernaut of the niche and it’s still tiny, with profits sufficiently low that Wizards of the Coast (or perhaps their shadowy overlords, Hasbro) have been steadily slewing D&D staff for years. D&D is a small part of Hasbro’s enormous toy and game business. Close beside it in the market are Pathfinder (which is essentially Dungeons and Dragons with some interesting kinks in the licensing), World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu; that last one is itself a spin off from the 1920s pulp horror of HP Lovecraft. Yes, yes, grognards out there, there are other major titles I could go on listing; GURPs, perhaps, or Traveller, or Hero/RuneQuest. But how many of those are seriously big titles? Multi-million dollar titles? Few. Perhaps, none.

In the boardgame market there are oodles of multi-million dollar money spinners; Monopoly; Cluedo; Trivial Pursuit; Guess Who?; Scrabble; Cranium; Mouse Trap; Dominion; Carcassone; Settlers of Catan. The videogame world produces more multi-million dollar properties than that every Christmas.

It might be an exciting time to make and play RPGs, and some franchises are thriving; but their product exists in a dangerous equilibrium. Experimentation may be the only way to grow the market; at the same time publishers are selling niche items to a small base of fickle consumers, and each and every failure could sink them. Wizards of the Coast has the bank balance of Hasbro with which to experiment – but Hasbro has a low tolerance for failure.

RPG publishers do not have the money to spend on things like advertising, or product placement, outside of safe markets where their core demographic already congregate; they don’t have the cash to pull a Nintendo and radically reinvent how we perceive and access games. And even with their low profitability, RPGs products are not cheap. A standard rulebook costs you as much as two months of Sky TV; which option represents better entertainment value depends entirely on how you enjoy spending your time. And time is one factor that cripples RPGs as an accessible artform.

Time to play

Let’s assume that rational choice theory is anything other than risible, and that each person picks how they spend their leisure time based on the amount of enjoyment they expect an activity to yield, and how efficiently (in terms of time and money) it produces that enjoyment. Important in this calculation will be how pleasurable the activity is, how easy it is to fit it into one’s schedule, how expensive each hour of entertainment is, and what else you could be doing with the same resources. How enjoyable RPG playing is will differ from person to person, so we’ll hang that one out as a judgment call. As for cash, RPGs can beextremely cost effective, as with only one (or, for some reason quite often three) book(s) and some funny-shaped dice, you can potentially generate limitless adventure: though with the rise of “free” computer games, there is competition in that Bonkers Cheap market. But oh, time, time, time, look what you do to me.

A typical RPG session runs from three to six hours. Already we’ve gone past movies, overshot opera, and are in the territory of TV mini series or dinner parties for time consumption. An RPG plot will take a ballpark figure of eight sessions to resolve. And at each session there will be at minimum three, more likely six people playing. So to run your game to completion you need to organise (or attend) something like eight consecutive dinner parties with the same group of people. That’s assuming you aren’t the poor sod running the game! In that case you need to prepare eight dinner parties worth of plot hooks and twists, as well as wrestling with the game mechanics to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Here’s a fact about the mainstream: the mainstream has children, or works two jobs to cover the rent. The mainstream gives up on plenty of things it likes to do because it does not have time; things like golf, match-stick modelling, going to the theatre or having sex. Many of its pleasures are passive ones, like television, Farmville and pop music. Everything else is a treasured indulgence. Roleplaying is an extremely active artform: the commitment it asks for is similar to choral singing or amateur dramatics. Arguably that makes it a more valuable and rewarding leisure activity; but the mainstream does not have the time to do many valuable and rewarding things. There is no way you could change D&D that would stop it being a huge, huge time commitment, so the challenge to popularise RPGs is to prove that they are worth the effort.

Barriers to Entry

For RPGs to go mainstream, there need to be products for every palate, easily available and in the public eye, at a price that is appealing enough for people to take a punt; and then they need to immediately sell themselves as so good that people will rearrange their schedules, call up their friends and put in all the time and effort to get a game off the ground.

Traditionally, RPGs have followed an epidemiological growth pattern, spreading from a carrier (an old player) to hosts (unsuspecting n00bs.) This is effective: playing an RPG with someone who knows what they are doing and in the presence of a nice gaming group is about the best introduction to the hobby that is available. But as a means of growing the hobby it is slow, and it in almost forty years it has shown no signs of going epidemic. The continuation of RPGs has relied for years on Brandvangelists, because its products don’t sell themselves.

Wizards of the Coast can make some easy concrete gains here, because the core product offer of Dungeons and Dragons is so obscenely horrible. A budding player who wants to learn to play D&D (from first principles, here – no joining a pre-existing group allowed) must choose between: 1) a set of three, 256 page hardback rulebooks, for the “full” experience: or 2) a nostalgic children’s starter set with extremely limited content that then gives way to an indeterminate grab-bag of boxed products. The children’s starter is the better of the two, but smacks of a strange mindset that sees “introductory” and “complete” as mutually incompatible.

At least the game’s lead design team seams to have recognised this and has made rectifying it a key objective. And history is on Dungeons and Dragons side here. The earliest D&D products didn’t just draw people into the playerbase, they called it into being, like an ancient God crafting men out of clay. Every person who picked up Original D&D (or the more famous “Red Box”) figured out how to make the game work in isolation, a world before helpful Wikis or factionalised forums, and from those awestruck progenitors grew the entire hobby.

A long, long road

Can Wizards send Dungeons and Dragons mainstream? With the brand identity, I’m surprised that they haven’t already. They have made forays into the worlds of comics, cartoons, videogames, and regrettably, movies. D&D novels, generally from the pen of one RA Salvatore, often assault the best-seller lists. Yet the actual RPG part of D&D, the very wellspring of the property, is often wildly misconstrued – or simply not known at all.

It’s not impossible that RPGs could become a national pastime – whichever nation you happen to be in. They are a social, creative activity, alternately thrilling and mentally stimulating. That’s not the worst mix for a hobby. But to look at the market as it stands today and suggest that with just one new product, even a product from the most highly capitalised studio in the field, the medium could soar into mainstream acceptance, seems like a fantasy. Wizards of the Coast were in a stronger position just prior to the release of 4th edition, sitting on a huge market share, with huge investment in digital technology and a targeted strategy to draw in the MMORPG market – and they failed.

Dungeons and Dragons has done mind blowing things, and Wizards of the Coast have done even more incredible ones. They are doing some very smart things with this flagship property at the moment. But RPGs in the mainstream?

Frankly, the mainstream can go spin. As long as companies occupy a profitable niche we will continue to see new RPG products, and with digital distribution removing barriers to entry and strong web communities providing support for budding game designers the opportunities for innovation within the hobby are greater than ever. I would love to see my non-gaming friends and neighbours join me in geekdom; it would make explaining how I spend my time that much easier. But let’s be frank. The mainstream isn’t coming to us.

We’ve got a long way to go.

Crazy Prizes!!1!!!1one

June 5, 2012

So! This blog, Frontline Gamer is celebrating its birthday, and it’s doing it in style – by hurling out handfuls of prizes left and right. Some of them have vanished already but others are still very much up for grabs. I discovered the blog through this birthday competition, so I have no idea whether the author is a charming, erudite, modest gamer (such as myself) or some kind of mutant, eel-sucking man-virus. HOWEVER. I’m going to assume that anyone who celebrates a Hobbit birthday is a thoroughly decent sort.

Check the blog out and maybe you’ll win a prize or two!