Friday, June 30, 2017

Killstring's Con Survival Guide

Here in the heart of Con season, as I get ready to head out next week for my trip to CONvergence in the Twin Cities, my thoughts drift to conventions, festivals and tours I've been on in years past. Specifically, how I've been a blithering idiot who doesn't take care of their own body, leading to unplanned "lamentation days1" in the midst of what should be an otherwise enjoyable sojourn; or worse, a work trip where I'm supposed to get onstage and entertain people, but I'm too busy lamenting to really hold up my end of the bargain.

Don't have a day of lamentation2. Be prepared for your advenutres.

The 3-2-1 Rule

I didn't come up with this one, and I'd recommend being a bit stricter, but this is a classic expeditionary guideline. The premise is simple; while on your adventure, every day you'll get a bare minimum of:




No exceptions.

Let's work our way up that list. 1 shower/day isn't a lot to ask; and it's not just about mitigating your powerful Con Musk. Hygine plays a big part in health, and when you're traveling and meeting lots of people, you can't afford to cut corners. Just take a look at this list from the CDC - that's a big 'ol pile of nope right there. 

If you're thinking "but Killstring, this clearly doesn't apply to me," then you are heading for lamentation my friend, and probably stinky to boot. Even if you don't get sick, you're contributing to the general Con Misasma, and ain't nobody needs that. Be the hero we need, not the one we deserve.

As far as food goes; your body needs fuel. Running on sugar, caffeine,  and enthusiasm - all of which are likely in ample supply - will only get you so far; eventually, you're gonna crash. As you get older, you're likely to crash sooner, but nobody's immune to this stuff. Gettin' protein is key - especially for vegetarians like myself - so now's the time to actually look at the nutritional information of your food, and make sure you're hitting your protein goals for the day. And if you don't have protein goals, 50 ain't the worst number to aim for.

Remember to sleep! Personally, I recommend no fewer than six hours of sleep - eight if you can manage - but I'm a bit biased from being the primary driver on tour; one of the many benefits of being "the straight-edge one." If you're not drunk, sometimes that means you get to drive at 4 AM several nights in a row. Good times!3 So yeah, I recommend more, but if you're looking for an absolute minimum baseline, this'll do. 

Be smart. You're already asking a lot of your body, don't be a jerk to it on top of everything else.

"But It's Cool If I Just Do Cocaine Instead, Right?"

If you are actually asking this - hi buddy! It's been a while. You owe me thousands of dollars, and I think the DA wants to talk to you. 

For the rest of you; I've seen people push themselves through difficult patches with various stimulants, ranging from over-the-counter, to hilariously illegal - and this is a poor decision roughly 100% of the time. This isn't me judging you4, this is purely from the perspective of a grumpy former tour manager; your high will string you out, abandon you at the worst possible moments, and not only will you regret it, but so will everybody else around you. Keep your recreational stuff recreational; don't use it to substitute for your body's actual needs

I hope that's all that needs to be said on the topic.

Hydrate Yourself.

Water is your friend. You are almost certainly not drinking enough for your upcoming adventure. If this is still unclear, see the next point.

Beer (or Soda) Doesn't Count

Man was a legend in many ways.
I don't drink, but plenty of people do. And when there's cause for celebration, people partake of libations. This is good, and fine, and lovely - but for the sake of all that is good and pure, take care of yourself out there. One of the most common mistakes that I've seen a lot of young bands make is assuming that Feeling Good Tonight equals Definitely Gonna Feel Good Tomorrow, and that's absolutely not how it works. Not everybody can be Dimebag Darrel - and even he had some tricks up his sleeve:

On the same note: When you wake up and you’ve got a gig to play but you’re still half drunk and hurtin’ big-time, you’re gonna be dehydrated. The best thing to re-hydrate yourself isn’t Gatorade — it’s Pedialyte, the stuff they give to kids when they’re shitting in their britches! So, get yourself some Pedialyte, get yourself some water and then go for the cheap Mexican food. That’s a survival trick that’ll get you back on the right track. 
~ Dimebag Darrel, Guitar World, 2000

While I don't recommend you actually try Dime's method here - my observation indicates that results can vary wildly - the key is to quickly remedy any problems, and try not let yourself get that bad in the first place. Personally, I prefer the Killstring Sports Drink Test, which is a simple barometer.

The Killstring Dehydration Test

Step One: Acquire a sports drink. Gatorade is the classic, I prefer Powerade Zero, but anything that looks like antifreeze and promises nebulous athletic superiority will do the trick.

Step Two: Drink that drink.

Step Three: How did it taste?
  • Okay - You're probably not dehydrated
  • Pretty good - You're headed for trouble
  • SERIOUSLY AMAZING - You are dehydrated
Figure it out from there. 

Combat Swampy Nether Regions With Superior Alchemy

For real, though. For cons, festivals, and summer concerts - on both sides of the stage - you're going to be around a lot of other humans. Sweat is going to occur. 


Get yourself some powder, and after your shower (see the 3-2-1 rule), apply said powder to the places most likely to accumulate sweat and funk. Then marvel in amazement as they don't really do that, instead feeling like crisp mountain air, a soft summer breeze, or a gentle ballad, sung by the worlds only genuinely helpful Sirens - but in your nether zones.

A word of caution: I'mma just come out and say it; applying the super-medicated stuff to your most sensitive bits is not actually a good idea, my friends. A little bit of your standard product is good - recommended, even - but heavy doses of the seriously medicated stuff will instead provide a special kind of torture to what should be your happy place.

Don't make it a sad place. Be reasonable.

I like Gold Bond5 myself, but any kind of athletic/baby powder will work. Just make sure that if you're getting the advanced stuff (Gold Bond's green bottle, anything that's used to treat nasty rashes) you know what you're getting into.

CONquer Your Summer With Bad Puns!

Whether you're gearing up for conventions, festivals, or your summer tour schedule, you want to make it through to the end in one piece. And ideally, you want to make a good impression on people. In my travels, I haven't always managed both. Occasionally, I've managed neither. But you can do better; avoiding lamentation, swampy nether bits, and horrible infectious diseases. 

Do better than I have done. Be the Con Superstar you were destined to become. Barring that, maybe just don't get sick.

Happy Adventuring!


* * *

1 - Deydration sickness, migraine-like symptoms, nasty indigestion, or just flat-out exhaustion; you name it, it's happened. Lamentation comes in many different forms, and they all suck.

2 - Seriously, don't.

3 - Actually, yeah. Yeah they were. Miss you drunk jerks.

4 - That part comes later!

5 - Yep, that is absolutely an Amazon Affiliate link, because the thought of this blog as a shilling site for NETHER POWDERS is entirely too amusing to me. I hope it trends, and screws up all of my metrics.

NETHER. POWDERS. Gods, I'm like, five years old over here.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Festival of Sunderthread

Every year, the same routine. We get within a month or so of my birthday, and I become an increasingly ridiculous font of hyperbolic braggadocio, that it's a wonder I have any remaining friends.

That's right; it's time for the Festival of Killstring.

They really went all-out for this year's announcements.

Okay, I'll bite. What the heck is "The Festival of Killstring?"

The short answer is that it's a stupid, goofy way to remind myself and others of the date. People had been asking me for reminders as my birthday crept close, and it felt super-egotistical to be all "hey, you should remember this date & maybe buy me stuff," so I opted to steer into the siliness, hard.

It quickly spiraled out of my control.

Soon, it became a platform for making ludicrous claims:
  • The sun comes closer to the Earth in summer in order to attend the Festival
  • Americans light up the sky with fireworks in commemoration
  • The Steam Summer Sale was invented to make gift-giving easier during the festival season
  • Convention season is an ongoing celebration of Killstring's hobbies during the festival
  • ... and so on
This quickly escalated into a running joke, where anything remotely pleasant, celebratory, or monumental was attributed to the Festival, granting me what I really wanted - indulgence from those around me as I spew forth patently false, hyperbolic, nonsensical claims1.

You're a goofball, great. Why do I care?

Two reasons:

  1. First, if the blog's been erratic, now you know why - it's festival season
  2. Because this is a stellar idea to plunder for your own stories
Seriously. Fictional holidays are one of my favorite things across media. They tell us a ton about people, their everyday life, local traditions, culture, history, etc. When there's a holiday, someone thought "this is a big enough deal to institutionalize," and then did so. Festivals tell us a lot about a setting.

So what does this balderdash tell us about the setting? Let's look at this foolishness through a couple different lenses.

God-King Sunderthread2; Legend in His Own Time

Sunderthread is a living legend. Across centuries of rulership, he's defeated enemies, expanded trade, and built infrastructure. Plenty of kingdoms have immortal rulers, but Calestren is particularly fond of theirs. So fond, in fact, that the God-King's tendency to go on a bender around the anniversary of the kingdom's founding has become an institutionalized tradition, with parades, feasts, festivals, you name it. 

The festivities last for a full three months; a season-long carnival that floods the capital with tourists, merchants, and opportunities. Security is ramped up, as the influx of new faces makes stopping petty crime a Sisyphean ordeal, and halting major attacks a top priority.

After all, it's the god-king's vacation. Let's not make him work.

The Legend of Sunderthread

Sunderthread is a local legend. According to local lore, he slew monsters, built the old castle with his bare hands, and parlayed with the other god-critters to keep the locals safe. Whether or not there ever was a historical "Sunderthread" is a topic of much debate; but from the stained-glass windows in classical architecture, to kitschy souvenirs, his likeness isn't hard to find across Calestren.

Of particular interest to the locals are those myths portraying the God-King's tendency to go on month-long benders; this practice is still commemorated today, with the Festival of Sunderthread. Starting a full month before the anniversary of the city's founding, and lasting a full month afterwards, the Festical is a season-long carnival that floods the capital with tourists, merchants, and opportunities. Security is ramped up, as the influx of new faces makes stopping petty crime a Sisyphean ordeal, and halting major attacks a top priority.

Half the local economy is based on this festival; officials aren't cheap about outsourcing.

Immortal Wizard Sunderthread: Best of the Mad Kings

Every major city has an immortal wizard representing it on the Grand Council. And many of those wizards - in a trend entirely too common for such powerful creatures - are irrevocably mad. And Sunderthread may be the worst of the bunch.

Or the best, depending on your perspective.

On one hand, he makes impossible claims; especially as regards the "auspicious" day of his birth. On the other hand, he very rarely sets the city on fire, and seems to generally mean well. If all wizards are mad - and it seems they must be - better delusional than megalomaniacal.

So to that end, the festival of Sunderthread is the city's way of giving back.

Originally started as a way to pacify the creature, eventually it turned into an odd sort of tribute. Local traditions include attributing literally anything positive, pleasant, or noteworthy to the wizard, who often expresses confusion at being credited for things even he knows he couldn't have done. Yet, it's being attributed to him, so it must be true. If so, he should be gracious.

Thus did the festival of Sunderthread sprawl into the colossal undertaking it is today;  a game of one-upsmanship between the wizard and his citizens.

In conclusion

There's a couple different ways that one could take this; I hope it spawns some ideas. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some tribute to receive ;)

* * *

1 - No lie, it can get pretty bad.

2 - Seemed like a nice play on words. Obviously, use whatever you like.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Somewhat-orthodox inspiration: risk in game design

It's no secret; I play a lot of video games. Something about the medium clicks for me in way that watching tv or movies never really has1. I also adore taking inspiration from digital games, and putting them in analog ones; whether that be in published writing, or in adapting an existing game's story or themes as a GM, it's one of my favorite go-to techniques.

So yeah. Games.

In trying to figure out my preferences, I came across an interesting realization; namely, a strong preference for risky games. Now, I don't mean risque, or niche necessarily, but rather games that try something new, different, innovative. More often than not, I'm happier with a game that tries a lot of interesting things, fails at a bunch of them, and ships buggy as hell, than I am with a competently - even excellently - executed version of something rote, or routine.

I like risks. Unsurprisingly, I really like Obsidian.

They make video games! Not out of actual obsidian, as far as I can tell; that'd be dangerous. Completely rad, though.

Big Risks, Big Bugs, Big Deal

I want to focus on three of Obsidian's games; KOTOR II, Fallout: New Vegas, and Tyranny. 

I love these games. They're both clearly follow-ups to, yet remarkably different than their predecessors (KOTOR, Fallout 3 - or Fallouts 1 & 2, if you prefer - and Pillars of Eternity, respectively), and I find that I love them for different reasons. 

KOTOR II was, by most accounts, a disappointment when compared to the first. Honestly, that's no failing; as a sequel to what's become an all-time classic video game RPG, clearing that bar was always going to be an uphill battle, but doing so on a rushed timeline was a recipe for disaster.

But what a beautiful, messy disaster it was. 
Darth Spooky

A Star Wars game written by a dude2  who admittedly hated The Force - or at least, the concept of destiny, of predestination baked in - wrote a thoughtful narrative about destiny, and what it means to embrace or reject it. It actively, and unabashedly challenged the notions that Jedi are, in fact, good people. Early in the game, there's a scene where the main character uses a Jedi Mind Trick3 on an NPC, and your companion, Kreia, illustrates how that could have unforeseen consequences down the line. It's a compelling challenge, not only to the assumptions of the Star Wars universe, but how players behave in RPGs, digital or otherwise. There tends to be an assumption that protagonists are good, so what they do is good - especially if their intentions are likewise good.

And while we might like that to be the case, it really isn't.

Mind-Control is, admittedly, one of the most terrifying powers I can think of; having it applied to me would not only make me do something I might not want to, but entirely dismisses my existence as a person - stripped of personal agency, I become a thing, to be manipulated as someone else sees fit.

Objectively speaking, the Influence power is the most evil thing a Jedi can do - at least you could use Force Lighting to spot-weld.

The first KOTOR was a brilliant game that made me fall in love with Star Wars all over again, But KOTOR II made me genuinely examine the actions of my heroes - both those I watched on the screen, and those I wrote or portrayed - and genuinely question their actions and morality.

I'll take a lot of bugs, if that's what it gets me.

Welcome to New Vegas! It's buggy as hell, but you (hopefully) won't mind.
In a similar vein, Fallout: New Vegas stood on the shoulders of a buggy game (Fallout 3), and went farther. And while, yeah, sometimes a mutant rat-thing would get stuck inside the terrain, but in addition to gameplay improvements, and a myriad of interesting quests, the thing that really stood out to me, was the degree of reactivity. There are several factions in the game - two big ones (three if you count Mr. House), and a smattering of minor players - and they genuinely feel like groups that could exist, that people would actually be a part of.

More importantly4, these factions all feel like they exist when the character's off-screen. Too many entities in fiction feel like they're defined in terms of the protagonist. And while there's nothing wrong with that, too often it leaves a cardboard cut-out feel to the world. Not so in New Vegas, where every settlement has a visible water supply that could feasibly sustain the population. Sure, everybody wants you to do stuff - you're still the protagonist, and that means results - but very little feels like it couldn't exist without you.

If that means I occasionally crash my system, I can live with that.

In Tyranny, there are two primary risks being taken (at least to my eyes):

  1. The setting. When you have a tagline like "Sometimes, Evil Wins5," you're setting expectations. The protagonist is in the employ of a conquering overlord, and brutal subjugation seems to be the order of the day. Not your typical RPG fare.
  2. Reactivity. The game gives multiple options for who to ally with or betray, and it plays out rather differently based on those choices. I missed out on an entire section in my first playthrough, and that's par for the course, as far as I can tell. It's not so much one plot, as four or five
So. Challenges! Did they pay off? Ultimately, I'd have to say yes; though the game has its challenges, I found it a rewarding experience. Ironically, I'd say that its two biggest risks didn't quite pay off - after an amazing prologue where you conquer a province during character creation, the game felt a little too much like other isometric RPGs for my tastes; the setting whetted my appetite for something truly different, but it ultimately felt too similar to its peers to me. In addition, the reactivity - attempting to model the dynamic nature of a good tabletop RPG - felt like it came at the cost of depth. I could be in the minority here, but I kind of wish they'd spent more time on polishing what was there, rather than creating different paths.

Having said that, I really like the game. The setting does a great job of priming the player for difficult choices with no good answer. Once those expectations are set, it does a lovely job of delivering on that particular promise.


But this isn't a review blog; we're here for hot RPG & fiction tips, and pictures of chinchillas. Let's get one out of the way right now.
Hello, friend!

On the story-crafting side, there are some strong takeaways too.

KOTOR II inspires me to examine the actions my protagonists take, and to consider their effect on the larger world. Also, to consider the effect that charismatic, magnetic individuals have on those around them, and to really challenge the Calvinistic notions of destiny prominent in so much fantasy literature.

FO:NV inspires me to consider what the world looks like when my heroes aren't interacting with it. Do my antagonists exist except as foils for the protagonists? What if the heroes never crossed their path - what would they be doing? Also, to consider how my cities are getting enough to eat and drink - this stuff matters, and ignoring it can be a huge blow to immersion.

Tyranny inspires me to consider the context in which a character's actions and decisions occur. Expectation violation is a huge letdown for an audience, so properly calibrating for any tough choices ahead is probably wise. Also, admittedly, remembering to focus on what is occurring, rather than what could be.

The media we consume shapes what we create. I sometimes find it useful to examine why I enjoy the things I do, and see what I can learn from them. With any luck, you've found it (at least a little) useful too!

Be excellent to each other.

* * *

1 - There's a longer discussion to be had on this topic; contrasting passive entertainment - defined as something that requires no participation from the user, such as a film; and active entertainment - something that requires some degree of participation from the user, whether that be envisioning the text when reading a book, providing input and control when playing a video game, or contributing in whole to the end result, as in playing an RPG. 

I prefer active, and consider RPGs to be the most active form of entertainment that's readily available to most people. The required investment is higher, but when it's working well, there really isn't anything that can compare.

2 - Chris Avellone, who is someone I shall say little about, lest I reveal myself as a swooning fanboy. Let's just say that he is very good at his job, and someone I am routinely inspired by.

3 - I could be misremembering this - it's been a long time since I played The Sith Lords, so it's possible I'm conflating two events into one. Either way, the concept holds. Also, if you're a huge nerd like me, you correctly identified that the power is called Influence. Hi, fellow nerd! Did we just become great friends?

4 - To me, anyway.

5 - This game came out in November of 2016. I passed on it at the time, as it was a little too on-the-nose for me, given American politics at the time. Which is a shame; it's a flawed, but lovely, gem. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Adventure Hooks: Powered by the Apocalypse

So, in the process of discussing Adventure Mapping (Parts One and Two), Google Plus user Kristofer Petterson raised an incredibly salient point; lovingly crafted sandbox adventures are all fine and good, but what do you do if the players don't take initiative?

How can we create, and maintain, investment?

It's a damn fine question, and not just in the context of the Harrowvale adventure. Player involvement is a tricky beast to manage. Facilitating engagement with something the player's have no attachment to is tricky - the old question of "why don't these characters just leave" demands an answer. Now, if the players are having difficulty engaging with the game as a whole, that's another can of worms entirely, but for now, we'll assume that the players are down for this; they like the idea of the game, they like their characters, they're here to go. It's this adventure thing they don't have an attachment to; getting them invested is the question.

Fortunately for us, there's an answer - blatant thievery. And it doesn't even require a proper heist!

It's all right, lads. Creative Commons. We're good.

We Already Have The Tools

Character creation in Fate Core has a wonderful component where players intertwine their characters' pasts, "guest starring" in various adventures and capers. Pathfinder's Adventure Paths, whatever you may think of them1, often have optional traits that the characters can take, tying them into the story. PbtA2 games combine these traits, and take them a step further, with specific prompts during character creation; things like:
  • Which one of you once left me bleeding, and did nothing for me?3
  • You fought together when the tide of monsters seemed unstoppable. Ask them how it went.4
  • When our team first came together... we didn't trust each other at first, but that changed. How? Why?5
And so on. They vary from game-to-game, but the idea is consistent: providing links between the player characters, giving them built-in reasons to interact with one another from the word go. PbtA games are all highly specialized to evoke a particular genre, feel, or story - they're not meant to be versatile - so these hooks get right to the heart of the desired experience.

They're great. And we're gonna steal 'em.

Thievery Incorporated

The plan is simple. We're going to take these ideas, and use them as prompts for one-off adventures. It can be tough to get players invested in an adventure that's disconnected from anything else they've been doing, so let's weave in some connections.

Using our sample adventure-in-progress (Harrowvale), let's cook up some hooks for our players. Things like:

  • Your order's spies and diviners have been worried about this place - Harrowvale - for some time. The belief is that there's more going on than meets the eye, but the details are murky. What worst-case scenario are you expecting? And what did you do right (or wrong) to get this assignment?
  • When you were younger, an adventurer named "Henrietta Crimson" took point in a fight against bandit raiders, using your village as a staging ground. Was she a savior, or did she do more harm than good? And now that she's put that life behind her - he's Big Henry these days - where does that leave you?
  • A few years back, you trained alongside Sister Analise for a time. Were you friends? Rivals? Something more? When she left for Harrowvale - largely to look after her wayward sister - how did that make you feel? And what did you leave unsaid?
  • While on the road, you had increasingly vivid nightmares; horrid amalgamations of putrescent shadow, and unnatural hunger - you haven't quite been the same since. You can't quite explain it, but you feel a connection to this place... your answers lie within. Take the (aspect/temporary trait/something equivalent) Harrowed and Haunted6 until the situation is resolved.
  •  Your sources were led to believe that Harrowvale was about to experience an economic boom period - a great place to find lucrative work. In what ways is the city worse than you expected? 
  • Credit to @kalyke on Twitter, this is rad
  • You and Drelik the Grim ran with the same crew a few years back; how did he betray you, and what did you promise yourself you'd do if you ever saw him again?
...and so on. The idea is to give the players an opportunity to invest in the location, giving them a reason to care about the people, the place, and what's happening there.

I think there's a lot of potential for these little hooks - I plan on trying them out in some playtesting scenarios, and seeing how players respond. I'd be curious to hear how different players respond to this kind of thing; feel free to sound off in the comments if you've got relevant experience.

Anyway, just wanted to elucidate this thought - hope it proves useful!


* * *

1 - They're not my cup of tea, personally.
2 - Powered by the Apocalypse, meaning games that run on Vincent Baker's excellent Apocalypse World engine. It's narrative and different and daring, and I both love it and hate it in equal measure. 
3 - The Gunlugger, from the aforementioned Apocalypse Word, 2nd Edition.
4 - The Initiate, from the excellent Monster of the Week, which I found to be pretty lovely.
5 - The Outsider, from Brendan Conway's super-rad Masks: A New Generation, which is basically Young Justice: The RPG. So, awesome.
6 - Why yes, I am  a fan of The Decemberists! Feel free to play "The Harrowed And The Haunted" as your "end credits" song for Harrowvale, when people are packing up their dice post-session. Ending credits songs are muh favorite.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Adventure Mapping Part II – Welcome to the BRAIN STORM

Last time here on the Blog of Doom, we talked about Adventure Mapping – creating zones for different elements of your adventure. Today, let’s go into a bit more depth on the topic, by building a little adventure from the ground up, and walking through the process step-by-step.


get it it is a brain storm and this is a visual pun and I AM SO SORRY, MY FRIENDS

So first, we need an idea. My brain is full of bizarre and strange things, but for an example, I kind of want to stick to something mot gamers are familiar with – so we’ll go with a D&D-style fantasy setting. You know the type – roaming heroes1 going from location-to-location, solving problems, kicking ass, getting paid, and so on.

Hell, we might even have them meet in a tavern – but if we do, our tavern should be rad as hell.

Our PCs will be solving a mystery – likely with violence, because D&D-style fantasy. So, we want a couple fights, but also some exploration, and a few character-focused scenes conductive to roleplaying. Ultimately, we want it to culminate in the PCs finding the villain and confronting them. Probably – but not necessarily – with violence. Because D&D-style fantasy.

Anyway, let’s brainstorm some elements2:
·         A town where it takes place – let’s call it Harrowvale, that sounds appropriately Forgotten Realms-ish3
o   From the name, Harrowvale is probably haunted by spooky boogums
o   Townspeople are wary and paranoid – and they’re right to be
·         A mystery to solve – gaunt, spooked townsfolk, disappearances, stuff like that
o   Someone in the town is secretly doing Bad Things In SecretTM
§  They’re a vampire, or fused with a devilish parasite – something that requires them to do Bad Things In SecretTM in order to survive
§  Thus far they’ve hung the blame on external forces – this is Harrowvale; people are harrowed – but the PCs are the first real investigators to show up
·         And that’s a problem
·         A tavern, because tavern reasons
o   I used to work at a rad place called The Winking Lizard Tavern4 in Cleveland – so how about The Winking Basilisk?
§  The thought of a Basilisk winking is both reassuring and terrifying to me – “I could kill you with a glance, but instead, I’mma be saucy.” I like it – this place has panache
§  Their drinks? Awesome. Their Food? Delicious. The staff? Bright-eyed, and happy. I want this place to not only contradict the crappy D&D Tavern archetype (it’s dark, and dirty, they serve a lukewarm gruel, and a watered-down ale), but also to stand in contrast to the rest of the town
·         Maybe the villain doesn’t prey on the tavern? Friendship, or a more practical motivation, like they need travelers to have some place to stay?
·         Some fights!
o   Spooky wraith-fight somewhere creepy, like a graveyard, catacombs, etc.
o   Zombies, cultists, or something else suitably distressing? Might want to save that for the last battle
o   Nearby goblinoid critters, who are not the problem per se, but are definitely going to take advantage of it
§  Make sure that the first two fights have clues as rewards – otherwise they’re kind of pointless
·         Some exploration!
o   Well, we’ve got some inferred locations from the above, like:
§  Spooky Catacombs!
§  Spooky Mountain!
§  The city itself, and its inhabitants – here’s where we’ll get most of our mystery investigation done
·         Some character-focused scenes
o   We can do some of this at the Tavern, since it’s going to be our hub, I think.
§  Big Henry the bartender, former adventurer, knows stuff and is a pleasant guy.
·         He takes no guff, but he’s not really got anything to prove. He’s familiar with the PC’s vocation – having done it himself – so he’s got useful tips
o   If the PC’s want his story, he made his fame as Henrietta Crimson5, until he had enough money to pay the Wizard’s College to permanently polymorph him into his current body. Having achieved his goal, he opened the Basilisk with the remainder of his treasure
o   A shady-looking dude in a corner, handing out jobs to attack the goblinoids
§  Depending on our tone, he can lampshade to greater or lesser degrees. We could go a couple ways with this guy
§  Also, he’ll make a good suspect for the villain – we need a couple
o   A cleric, priestess, some kind of religious figure of Good And Stuff
§  Earnest and exhausted
§  Here’s a chance to really explore the condition in the city – this poor healer’s been trying to stem the tide pretty much by herself, and it’s clearly taking a toll
§  She’s not an expert on magical maladies or strange beasts – she’s a healer
§  Having Said That, she’s probably the source for our “haunted wraith” fight, because CLERIC REASONS (I like clerics)
o   And of course, our villain themselves
§  Who I should probably flesh out beyond “reluctant monster” at some point
§  What if it’s our cleric’s sibling? Cliché, perhaps, but that’s only a problem if it’s cloying or clumsy. More to the point, it makes the cleric’s story more vital and interesting, and adds a human element

Killstring, That Was So Many Bullet Points

Sorry disembodied voice, that’s how my brainstorming works

But Could You Maybe Use Less?

We’ll give it a shot in the next section; please be patient, disembodied voice.

Okay, Cool. Can We Get Back On Topic?


Looking at the above list, let’s try and suss out our elements.

  1. Harrowvale itself. We probably don’t need it on the map, as everything takes place here, but it might be useful to describe certain areas, like Slums, or The Chapel
  2. The Mystery. This is going to come out in other elements, but we should be keeping it in mind.
  3. The Winking Basilisk. This is gonna be our hub, and provide a source of unobtrusive roleplaying opportunities – if players want to do more RP, this is a good launching point. If they’re more interested in procedural elements, they can use it as a base of operations, and a springboard
  4. Three fight scenes, one of which is our climax
    1. Haunted Location w/wraiths & such
    2. Goblinoid stronghold
    3. Final confrontation w/zombies or cultists, and our villain
  5. Exploration and investigation. It’s really more of a theme, but we should have three locations to explore, leading up to the above action sequences, as well as the city itself and its inhabitants
  6. Character-focused scenes. This should be more of a factor of our characters – if PCs want to interact with them, we’ll get these. And if PCs want to interact with each other, we’ll give them the option. With that in mind, here’s our dramatis personae
    1. Big Henry – knowledgeable, practical, and a foil for PCs grappling w/identity
    2. Dreilk the Grim, “shady corner guy” – morally ambiguous, choice/consequence point
    3. Sister Analise – compassionate, but this close to a crisis of faith
    4. Corianna, Analise’s sister, and our reluctant villain

That’s a concise list. We’ll certainly flesh it out further, but I like our pieces.  

Bringing It Together

Now that we’ve got our elements, we can start mapping out the adventure. We have our elements in-place, and we loosely know how they tie together. Past that, it’s a simple matter of playing connect-the-dots:

Ok! Now we've got a concise little map to follow. Sure, there might be other connections, and there's plenty of other things to explore in Harrowvale, but I think this hits our key points nicely.

And that's how you do it!

I kind of like this little adventure - I might flesh it out further, make a cute little module. If you're interested in such things - or have a suggestion, comment, or system you'd like to see it in - watch this space!

And thanks for coming to Harrowvale with me.

* * *

1 – Possibly in the Mythic Greek sense, as opposed to the modern usage.

2 – If you ever wanted to see ideas off the top of my head, here’s what it looks like.

3 – Personally, I don’t like the Forgotten Realms as a setting – it’s about as milquetoast fantasy as you can get. But! So many great writers have nailed the execution – Ed Greenwood, Chris Avellone, and R.A. Salvatore come to mind, though they’re hardly the only ones – that it doesn’t matter if the setting doesn’t interest me; I keep enjoying stuff set in it. So on one hand, I don’t like it. On the other hand, I often adore stuff set in it, and I get why it’s popular.

Also, I occasionally face-check against the setting; I originally went with “harrowdale,” but some quick googling showed that no, I wasn’t clever, that was just an existing city in Forgotten Realms. Because of course it was. Harrow-vale, on the other hand, also exists in a now-defunct MMO called Shadowbane, and AGGH I GIVE UP EVERYTHING HAS ALREADY BEEN EVERY NAME, AND THE SIMPSONS DID IT FIRST. Don’t care. It’s Harrowvale. /rant

4 – They had a big-old Iguana in a habitat; sometimes I got to go in and spray him down, scratch the back of his skull – me and that Iguana? We were bros.

5 – It always struck me as odd that in fantasy settings with transformative magic, that you wouldn’t see more transgender folk. Gender dysphoria is hardly a modern phenomenon – Ovid’s Metamorphasis is more than 2,000 years old – but we do have better tools to address it now. A magical society has those tools on-tap, so it’s reasonable to assume that some people would use them.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Adventure Mapping

Adventures, modules, scenarios, outlines – whatever you want to call them, curated story structures are as old as RPGs themselves. Recently, I’ve had the privilege to keep busy writing adventures1 for a couple different companies, while simultaneously watching some friends of mine working through published adventures as players and GMs.

This got me thinking.

Thinking about the ways that we create adventures, and the ways that we use them. Thinking about how I, as a writer and designer, can give my audience the best tools possible for what their games. Because let’s be clear on one thing: writing RPG adventures is different than writing video game quests, dialog for stage/screen, or writing fiction - as an adventure writer, I’m not telling a story. I’m giving someone else tools, in the hopes that they’ll be able to collaboratively tell a story with the rest of their group.

But it’s their story, and it’s always going to be their story.

Structures vs. Tools

So with that in mind, why are so many adventures structured like a novel? This isn’t a specific criticism; just an observation, and a question. Published adventures do it, and plenty of GM’s private notes do as well.

Just to be clear, I’m not innocent in this regard – my brainstorming sessions tend to look more like storyboards for teaser trailers, as I think about all the cool, dramatic scenes that are going to happen. Invariably, they go very differently than my plans; thus is the nature of improvisational storytelling. This isn’t a problem – my GMing style is highly dynamic, mostly reactive –I also make detailed plans, but usually throw them out the second my cast and crew take the stage.

I also have what, two decades2 as a performer under my belt at this time? That changes the way I approach things. We all have different experiences, and we use them differently – mine happen to make me prefer improvisation, yours might be different. But regardless of our approaches, when we use a published adventure, we’re looking for something from it. In my experience, that’s usually at least one of these three elements:
  •  Ideas – something to spark the GM’s creativity
  •  Overall Structure – a narrative scaffold to hang a game’s events on
  •  Procedural Elements – ready-made mechanical elements like NPCs and combat encounters

People want different things. One GM might just want to use the combat stats and loot tables, whereas another is just looking for plot hooks to mine, and another wants as much of the “heavy lifting” of running a game done for them, so they can focus on guiding the PCs through a curated experience, and focus on bringing it to life, and making it compelling. There’s no wrong way to do it – GMs will take what they need, and this is right and just.

But as a writer, it causes me to think about the way I present my scenarios. Am I giving my audience – that’s GMs – what they need to do their jobs? How can I do it better?

And that got me thinking about tools.

Adventure Zone Maps

An abstracted method for describing locations, “Zones” show up in a couple different RPGs, but really entered the RPG zeitgeist through Fate, working its way into different systems over time, officially or otherwise. Love’m or hate’m, Zones have shown up as a way of talking about spaces. And like many of Fate’s components, they’re useful in a lot of ways.

One of the cool things we3 do in Infinity is Social Network Mapping. For anyone unfamiliar with the field of Social Network Analysis, it’s essentially the science of how people form, use, and adapt connections with others. It’s great stuff, and forms a basis for how that game’s Psywar (social combat, if you prefer) rules function; think six degrees of separation, and you’re practically there. Anyway, when mapping out a Psywar encounter, you wouldn’t really do a traditional D&D-style grid map, but a list doesn’t work as well either – so we use social network maps. I won’t go into it too much here, other than to say I think it’s super rad, and a great way of thinking about social encounters.

But while putting some of these together, it struck me that there’s a lot of potential as a technique for planning – as well as running – adventures.

The basic idea is simple:
  1.  Create a list of important people, places, events, etc., and put’m in boxes
  2.  Figure out how they connect to each other
  3.  Connect those boxes, adding more bits when necessary
  4.  Congratulations, there is no step 4 – you already have a zone map

Rough Example

So, real quick, let’s walk through this. We’ve got a pretty basic adventure with three set-pieces, a primary villain, and some sandboxy exploration bits in-between. That gives us the following elements:

  • A Hub location, such as a city
  • Two important NPCs, each with information leading to a set-piece fight
  • Two set-piece fights, either of which can lead to the villain
  • Said villain
  • Our third and final set-piece - the final confrontation with our villain
So our zone map might look something like this:

Looks more or less like a flowchart, right? That’s the idea – one piece leads to another. Each of these can be a scene in its own right, or a piece of a larger puzzle - and that’s where the Zone Map comes into its own.

By treating each element as a zone, you can easily work through the adventure in different ways, zooming in and playing the scene as normal, or “moving through the zones” in a more abstracted fashion. Maybe you want to handle NPC 1 with a simple social roll to get to Fight 1, which you handle in detail. Maybe you then have a long, tense, dramatic scene with NPC2, which is awesome, but takes a while – so you decide to handle Fight 2 as a series of abstracted rolls.  

Making some notes, your updated map might look something like this:

Basically, each zone can either be a scene that you play in full resolution, or a challenge that can be bypassed with abstract description and a mechanical check, allowing you to tailor the experience to your style as a GM, the player’s preferences, and outside concerns (like schedules).

Get in the Zone

So that’s the basic idea – by drawing out your adventure as a zone map, you not only make sure that the PCs can get from point A to point B (and can figure out how adapt when (not if) PCs throw your plans or a loop, but you can zoom in and out to scenes as suits what you’re doing – and you can change it up on the fly

Anyway, that’s the idea – feel free to use it when mapping out your own adventures, or converting existing adventures. Next time, we’ll go through an example adventure, from ideas to map!

Be excellent to each other.

 * * *

1 – I’m just going to use the word “Adventure” to describe these, but feel free to substitute your terminology of choice in this space. J
2 – It has been brought to my attention that at some point, I got what a young Killstring would consider “old.” This is never not fascinating to me, as I’d never considered it a possibility. But here we are!
3 – To be clear, I wasn’t involved in designing these. I’ll crow endlessly about my accomplishments—real or imagined—elsewhere. I do like them, though!

Hi! I'm not dead

Hey everybody. Thanks for those who read this blog, and apologies there's been nothing there for a while.

Long story short, a combination of lots of freelance work (good thing), and dealing with clinical depression and anxiety (less good) knocked me out of the game for a while. But I'm back in the proverbial saddle, and ready to ride.

Thanks for your patience.