Monday, April 29, 2019

AD&D Toys and Quest for the Heartstone

Maybe somebody out there can explain this to me. The toy line from the 80s was branded as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, yeah? (Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, no less!)

So why did the characters from the AD&D toy line only appear in a Basic Dungeons & Dragons module, XL-1: Quest for the Heartstone?

This is a completely unimportant question, but I've always wondered what happened there. 

I still have a few AD&D toys from my childhood; I've got an ogre, a roper, a carrion crawler, a Strongheart, and the bronze dragon. Oddly enough, I was able to buy a Warduke and a nightmare as a highschooler (about a decade after they first hit shelves) from a failing chain store that only seemed to stock toys that were discovered in the backs of warehouses ten years down the road. Thanks, Ames! (Sorry all your stores closed.)

Friday, April 26, 2019

Scene or Event-Based Game Sessions (And How I Prep Them)

Sometimes I run traditional location-based adventures that make use of a predefined, keyed map. Other times I run "scene" or "event"-based adventures. (Most adventures even manage to combine both.) To be honest, I don't find them to be all that different as modes of adventure in terms of preparation or execution.

There are a lot of strange assumptions that orbit the notion of "scene" and "event"-based play. I've seen accusations that these styles of adventure are "scripted," as in they provide a predetermined plot line into which the DM merely inserts the player characters. This assumption often implies that the players have little or no agency and must follow the DM's "story" as it was envisioned at its creation.

I don't find that assumption to be particularly accurate in terms of how I prepare for game sessions or how they play out at the table. Here's why:

When I prepare for a scene or event-based game session, I only prep a situation--something that happens that will draw-in the player characters, a problem to be solved (or not) by the players' actions, something that demands confrontation. 

Here's what I don't prep: the way the situation must be addressed. The situation is an open-ended problem; certainly, possible solutions probably suggest themselves to me, but I place no importance on one of those outcomes coming to pass. I'm open to the players approaching the situation from an angle I haven't considered; frankly, it's more fun for me if they come up with something I haven't accounted for or didn't expect.

Think of a situation as a question, but consider that posing a question doesn't presuppose a known answer. I think this is what people mean when they say "Play to find out what happens."

The shape of the adventure is a series of "scenes" or "events" that I have prepped ahead of time. In more concrete terms, this means I have prepared places they might visit, NPCs they might interact with, and fights they might get into.

However, it's important to emphasize that none of these events or scenes have to be played out necessarily for the game to progress. It's also worth noting that I don't plan how these scenes or events will resolve--that's in the hands of the players as they make decisions for their characters and sometimes determined by how the dice land if it comes to that.

Realistically, some outcomes are more likely than others. Based on initial descriptions, the players are likely to have a short list of places they might want to go to or people they might want to talk to. Those scenes suggest other places to go and other people to talk to through things like clues obtained during investigation, further knowledge provided in conversation with NPCs, and details discovered by exploring locations. 

In this way, an scene-based adventure does have a certain shape, but the shape is malleable and definitely not predetermined. In fact, the choices the players make inevitably change the shape of the adventure because the actions their characters take have consequences; the world reacts to the characters, the situation changes in response

If the players decide on a course of action I didn't see coming...I improvise. There is no urge to get them back on track; I'm happy to go where they lead. There is no plot to be followed and no story that needs to arrive at a foregone conclusion; rather, there is a web of connections to be navigated as the players choose.

Which, to my mind at least, is not all that different from location-based adventure design. Each room where something might happen in a location-based adventure is essentially a "scene"; it's part of the larger situation that can be addressed with exploration, stealth, roleplaying, violence or a combination thereof. When you key a map, you're keying scenes and events that might come to pass when and if the player characters arrive there and choose to engage. 

The web of connections is there in the corridors, intersections, a stairs; it too is to be navigated as the players choose. The web of connections is present in every hexcrawl; each border is defines the shape and scope, each numbered hex points to scenes to come or to be skirted at the players' decisions. Admittedly, my scene-based adventures tend to use a lot less graph paper than my location-based ones.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

There Are Two Competing Urges in the Heart of D&D

One one hand, D&D possesses an impulse toward taxonomy; the urge to classify, categorize, and label is built into the structure and assumptions of the game. This is perhaps a place where we see some tangent of the "colonial accusation" made apparent: even if we turn our eyes from the looting of the Other, we see that the style of play rewards learning about the capabilities, origins, and defining characteristics of the Monstrous. We know that demons are different from devils; all things are sorted to their place, and this is useful information for surviving an encounter with of the Lower Planar type. Murderhobos on one hand, taxonomists on the other, shaking hands forever. 

On the other hand, there is an urge to accumulate and preserve the evolving folklore; it is the mania to track changes and deviations rather than set, unchanging categories. We know that Kord was in a god Greyhawk, and then a slightly different god in Nentir Vale, because we've collected the oral tradition--often in pdf form, ironically enough. Think of this as D&D's version of Deleuze & Guattari's arboreal model versus the rhizome. Or, if you want to be all Appendix N about it, it's the internal battle of law versus chaos as guiding principle. Taxonomists & mythopoets, glaring at each other across the Maginot Line of the Blood War.

One of my favorite things about D&D's hypothetical ur-text is when those two impulses come into conflict. Tiamat, for example, is the queen of the evil dragons. Or maybe she's the god of evil dragons. But when you check her most recent stats, you see she's actually a fiend. But not a devil (even though she lives in the Nine Hells) because she's chaotic evil. But she's probably not a demon either because she doesn't speak the language (1)

That's the accretion of Tiamat's story working at cross purposes with her place in the taxonomy. Neither is wrong. Neither is right.

We can use this as grist for the mill. This is potential. No need to tweet at Crawford for clarification, and then at Mearls when Crawford doesn't say what you were hoping to hear. The confusion or undecidability at that nexus means that she could empower your cleric (she's a god!) and also make a pact with your warlock (she's a fiend!). Ultimately, Tiamat unites us all and we'll never know who would win in a fight: the Lady of Pain or the Raven Queen.

* * *

(1) - My favored take is that whatever she was (god or dragon), Tiamat has been changed by her time in Hell--the nature of a fiend is acquired, rather than natural fact.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Stranger Things D&D Starter Set Review

I have a pet peeve: I hate seeing squandered opportunities.

The idea of a Stranger Things-themed D&D starter set has a lot of potential. Although the product is arriving a little late in the Stranger Things hype cycle as the show heads into its third season, it at least makes sense as a tie-in; the kids on the show play D&D, so linking the two brands doesn't immediately feel like a cash-grab.

The Starter Set contains the following bits and pieces:

  • The box itself is solid and not flimsy like the 4e-era box sets. However, the box is conspicuously empty when you consider the how slim the booklets inside are--most of the space seems to allow for the two included minis to be safely tucked into the packaging.
  • The Starter Set Rulebook is a nice presentation of 5e D&D's basic rules lightly decorated with still images from Stranger Things. (The pairing of images with the rules is slightly comical; I guess a kid with a walkie-talkie fits the Adventuring section well enough,but it's impossible to escape the feeling that the premise is being stretched here.) The Rulebook itself is fine, but I wonder if this is where the set works against the potential buyer's expectations: if you thought you were going to get a Stranger Things rpg powered by 5e's engine, you're going to be disappointed.
  • The Hunt for the Thessalhydra is an introductory adventure written as if it were penned by one of the child characters from the show. It's not an interesting adventure. Lost Mines of Phandelver, the introductory adventure in the earlier Starter Set, was criticized in some quarters for being a vanilla fantasy adventure about goblins in caves, but I think that's a silly criticism; that starter adventure at least gives a good feel for the basic D&D experience for new players. The Hunt for the Thessalhydra feels far less inspired (it's vanilla, all right, but not good vanilla), features a dopey riddle, has a questionable random dungeon generator, is presented in a "handwritten script" font that loses its charm quickly, possesses too much empty space that could have been filled with usable content, and ultimately feels unfinished (saying "there is 200 gp worth of treasure in this room" is way less helpful than breaking down each item and its value--players will ask, trust me).
  • The game includes sheets for pre-generated characters, each presented as the character played by one of the Stranger Things kids in their ongoing D&D game. I didn't check them for errors, but I will at least say that I like that the characters aren't all optimal--they're good examples of how an unusual race and class combination is fun even if it doesn't squeeze every last synergy out of the system.
  • You also get a set of dice. They're fairly standard, but don't feel cheap. It's a shame they didn't include two ten-siders for d100 rolls or two d20s for rolls with advantage or disadvantage.
  • The box comes with two "demogorgon" miniatures, one painted and one unpainted. They're nice sculpts, but since there is so little color on the painted version it seems a little pointless to have an unpainted one in the box as well. Placed side-by-side, they just don't look that different.
Overall, this is a squandered opportunity and I'm not sure what audience it's really aimed at. Stranger Things fans aren't going to find a lot of content directly related to the show. Anyone hoping to play in the Stranger Things universe is going to walk away empty-handed. Hardcore D&D fans aren't getting much new in this box. New or prospective D&D players are far better served by the original 5e Starter Set.

I generally think that critiques of WotC being "too corporate" are unfounded. (Just look at how small their actual team is, realize that they're always recruiting freelancers from across the hobby, etc.) But the Stranger Things Starter Set feels like the result of a crass marketing decision: brands are leveraged, but the actually offering is pretty hollow and slapdash.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty

Jack and Kate make a return trip into the realms of best selling author Anne Rice under the literary guise of A. N. Roquelaure. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty is Rice's pseudonymous experiment to create a book that packed so many "hot scenes" into its pages that readers wouldn't need to bookmark the naughty bits. Loosely inspired by the fairy tale, the book finds our heroine swept away by a domineering prince and taken to a kingdom notorious for using elaborate sexual rituals to train nobles in the ways of good governance.
Just how steamy does this book get? Does the sex circus live up to its promise? Are there any Anne Rice Cinematic Universe crossover opportunities? What does Cardi B have to do with all of this? Find out the answers to all these questions and more in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
BBfBP theme song by True Creature 
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Monday, April 8, 2019

Wet Degenerates

(continuing the adventure that started here.)

Setting & System: Cinderheim, 5e D&D

Characters: Warleader Kro (human barbarian), Sylvester Tremaine (human mystic), Blatherskite (kenku fighter), Lilai (human cleric)


Warleader Cro came down from his rage to find himself surrounded by the remains of ten crawling claws, two mysterious corpses face-down in from of a giant misty mirror, the corpse of his compatriot Aeran, and the unconscious body of Sylvester. Cro entered the mirror to investigate the mollusk-like shape that could be seen beyond the dark glass. Sylvester regained consciousness and turned over the mysterious corpses--which turned out to be the bodies of mind flayers.

The mollusk-shape turned out to be a strange vessel held within a smooth, featureless chamber. Inside, Cro found six storage tubes--two of which contained humanoids in suspended animation. Palming the orange hemisphere on the wall next to the tubes released the two captives, thereby adding Blatherskite and Lilai to the party. 

Further exploration revealed that the mollusk vessel's head was a kind of cockpit. When Cro affixed the oddly shaped helmet he had acquired preciously to a disquieting umbilical cord-like cable the vessel addressed him as "the Voidnaut." When he asked the ship to take him somewhere "bad-ass" it replied that it required INTOXICANTS to continue its journey. A maw-like compartment on the vessel's console was fed the last of Aeran's stash, but it wasn't enough to sate its ravenous needs.

And so the party set off to explore more of the tower in hopes of finding INTOXICANTS. A dormitory with beds arranged barracks-style was found and the beds therein were duly despoiled. The wardrobes in this room only contained dance costumes. Cro kicked in a door, sending it ricocheting off a coffin in the next room. This windowless chamber contained six coffins standing on wrought iron biers. Suspecting vampires, the party decided to experiment. Lilai and Cro dragged one coffin into the dormitory, broke one of the room's window to let in more light, and then wrenched the coffin lid open so that the sunlight would fall on whatever was inside. The coffin contained only a thing layer of soil at its bottom.

After this, each coffin was dragged into the dormitory to be forcibly ejected through the window onto the ground below. All six coffins were tossed out, resulting in a pile of broken dark wood and soil three stories down at the foot of the tower.

Moving on, a room full of weapons was discovered. Cro looted a blunt greatsword and a cestus, Sylvester took a barbed whip, and somebody else took a chakram. They also found the first black chamber, which featured a four-poster bed, a wardrobe, and a vanity with a smashed mirror. Lilai looted several bags of coin from the wardrobe and noted that it contained both dance costumes and black dresses. In an adjoining chamber they group found a hot kettle full of tea waiting for them, along with four bone china cups. A lantern hung above the small table in this room, sending rays of multicolored light throughout the chamber. Previous experience with the crystal peacock statue had alerted them to the fact that the colorful light had some sort of magical property; however, when Warleader Cro attempted to wrap the lantern in a blanket to stifle its effects it caused his body to be suddenly covered with a thick pelt of fur.

Returning to the bedroom, they were met by a damp, dark-haired woman wearing a robe who was unperturbed by their presence in her rooms. She introduced herself as Navara. While sealing her despoiled bed back together with magic, she explained that the Cro and Sylvester's approach of the tower (and the parties exploration throughout) had been monitored. When questioned about their dead compatriot at the tower's entrance, she said that he had refused the offer of employment that had been made to him...and that it was expected that since they had taken the money in her wardrobe she assumed the group was prepared to take up the task. What she wanted the party to do was travel to a nearby village and take note of how many children lived that the Academy's would have an idea of how many potential "recruits" might be living there.

The group neither agreed nor refused her offer, but she nonchalantly told them to explore the tower further, if they desired, and to find her again when they had an answer.

And so they explored further. Opening the door decorated with a danse macabre plaque unveiled a dance studio, its walls and ceilings covered with mirrors and its perimeter ablaze with lit candles. Music suddenly flooded from the room; robed skeletal figures played a harp and kettle drums to provide music for the woman in a red costume who practiced the unnerving, brutal, rhythmical movements movements of an occult dance. As she danced, the woman made eye contact with the group--seemingly pleased to have an audience.

Lilai, however, was not pleased. Unwilling to speak further with the maniac inhabitants of the tower, she cast sacred flame on the dancer. The divine radiance hit the dancer but did not break her stride; she summoned a bladed chain that she swung while she continued her dance. The skeletons ceased their music--although arch-mimic Blatherskite picked up the tune--and joined the fray. 

The dancer proved hard to pin-down; she easily avoided the first few attacks sent her way and wheeled away from her foes without exposing herself to injury. A strike with her bladed chain nearly took out Lilai in one swipe. The skeletons also endangered Blatherskite as they raked at him with their claws, but he stayed focused on sending arrows at the dancer. Cro's newly acquired cestus smashed through the skeletons' brittle bodies. A well-placed arrow from Blatherskite caused the dancer to stumble out of rhythm, and Sylvester finished her off with a mental assault. The skeletons were dealt with by Blatherskite's rapier and Cro's encased fist.

As Cro beheaded the dancer's corpse, applause could be heard coming from a blonde man standing in a doorway. Like Navara, he was noticeably damp. He introduced himself as Petros and explained that he was happy that they had slain his rival--she was a better dancer, he said, and with her out of the way maybe he would be accepted at the Academy.

Is Petros destined to help or hinder the party? We'll find out as the adventure continues.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Notes on Jason X

I watched Jason X. Yeah, the Friday the 13th sequel that takes place in space. Mistakes were made.

Running commentary as the film rolls.

Hey wow, it's got David Cronenberg as...a creepy doctor! I appreciate that this is basically the only role he plays. Unfortunately, there isn't enough of him in this movie.

Also, ever notice how many secret research labs in these movies often look like badly lit parking garages?

Okay, now we're in the future. All the girls in the future are wearing crop tops. One girl has two sweaters on but neither covers her stomach. That's just how you roll in space.

When Jason is discovered in cryo-suspension he is knocked over and the machete he's holding cuts a dude's arm off. He's basically a really dangerous statue. 

The outfit the student puts on to seduce her Space Professor is oddly less fetishistic than what she wears when she's just walking around the spaceship. But her professor is wearing lady's lingerie and they are using some forceps as part of their umm scenario. There are a few sex scenes in this movie, but none of them really look like people having sex.

The lady android is sad that she doesn't have nipples like a "real girl." This is a weird riff on Pinocchio.

Jason reviving from suspended animation is juxtaposed with two Space Teens getting it on. Jason bolts upright suddenly: "I hear fuckin', time to kill!"

They gave the woman who was frozen along with Jason back in the past a crop top to replace the shirt Jason previously stabbed up.

One of these kids is named "Azrael." Were his parents Space Goths? You won't feel bad when this kid gets killed.

The nipple-less lady android just got made-over as Trinity from the Matrix and now she can do kicks, flips, gun shoots, and dumb quips.

The ship's computer malfunctions (or something) and rebuilds Jason as...CYBER JASON. It even makes him a steel hockey mask, which feels strangely considerate.

The big solution is to trap Jason in an Oculus Rift game. A sexy Oculus Rift game.

The triumphant, Star Trek-style music is an odd fit throughout, but our self-sacrificing hero rides Jason into planetary re-entry.

Note: I also watched Jason Goes to Hell, which wasn't really worth talking about, but I will tell you the premise: Jason loses his body and possesses other people to do his Jason-y things. He moves from body to body by having his current form French kiss the new body with a tongue that looks like a big dry dog turd.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

In Praise of Vanilla Fantasy

In some circles, "vanilla fantasy" gets a bad rap. It gets labeled boring, generic, and lazy. I've even been told that the problem with mainstream D&D is that it's "not weird enough."

Now, I'm a fan of specific, stylized flavors in fantasy rpgs. I've published a Gothic fantasy setting, a New Weird-inspired city setting, and a demonic apocalyptic desert setting. It's probably safe to say that I favor the high concept, bespoke, and special snowflake over the expected fantasy conventions and the well-trod ground of the high fantasy/sword & sorcery nexus. Even so, I want to tell you why vanilla fantasy is actually a good thing to have at the forefront of the hobby.

Vanilla Fantasy is the Lingua Franca of Fantasy RPGs
If you want to explain what D&D is like to someone who has never had the pleasure of playing before, it helps to have some established tropes and recognizable cultural references to fall back on. "It's like Lord of the Rings" goes a lot further than "Well, it's like ancient Tibet but everyone is a crab person and magic comes from stitching patches of demon skin to your body." The latter may be more evocative to the jaded palette, but the former is far more legible to a larger audience.

Vanilla is Translatable
Even if you aren't running a vanilla game, vanilla products still possess utility. Here's why: it's easier to add weird elements to a vanilla product than it is to strip away weirdness that doesn't fit the kind of game you want to play. "Weird" game products are often so heavily slanted toward a certain auteur-like conception of strangeness that they aren't even cross-compatible with other "weird" products. Vanilla products, on the other hand, can be more easily bent toward a variety of purposes and intents because they are made to inhabit the middle-ground.

When Everything is Weird, Nothing Is Weird
Rejecting everything that smacks of vanilla probably makes your game feel fresh and vital...for about three sessions, tops. Once the novelty wears off, all those weird elements will feel as rote and expected as elements derived from traditional fantasy. It's worth keeping in mind how vanilla works in the world of cooking: even when added in small amounts, it is an ingredient that helps bring out the punch of your other flavors. In most settings, the presence of vanilla setting elements makes the truly weird stuff stand out. Vanilla doesn't compete; it enhances the stronger flavors.

Vanilla Might Just Be What People Actually Want
Although you, in your rarefied DIY or indie circles, may deride vanilla fantasy, the larger rpg buying public might not share your views. In fact, sales figures seem to bear out the notion that vanilla sells better than more specialized kinds of fantasy. The reason the Forgotten Realms and Golarion are more popular than your favorite esoteric setting isn't because they have been foisted on rubes--it's because people find those settings comfortable and desirable when they're thinking about how they want to spend their hobby time. Not everyone wants to fight shit golems. Think of it this way: the more people who come into the hobby because they want to make a Drizzt clone means more people who will stick around long enough to delve into the wilder niches. Come for the Krynn, stay for the Krevborna.

They Make Vanilla So That We Don't Have To
I consider it a god-damn service that WotC and Paizo make vanilla fantasy because it means that I don't have to. They've got that arena covered, so I can make my own odder forms of fantasy. Vanilla and weird aren't in binary opposition; they're an aesthetic dialectic. One doesn't exist without the other. And since the other is covered, you have the freedom to go hard at the more idiosyncratic, personal end of the spectrum. But hey, if you want to try your hand at making a vanilla fantasy setting, more power to you. Frankly, going Full Vanilla might be the only truly radical and unexpected move left.