Sunday, August 25, 2013

Taking FATE for a Drive

Not long ago, I finally got to check two boxes on my RPG to do list: I ran a game in the City of Markaz, and I ran FATE Core. It was awesome!

As far as running the setting - I have to say that I was hugely excited and a little nervous. After all, this is a world that has been living and evolving in my head for many years. The time has just never been right to run it. Pre-game jitters had me worrying about every sort of disaster, but in the end, everyone had a great time, and I feel like this creation of mine got the breath of life.

What worked:

1) I made it a point to try out as many different mechanics as possible. I planned a few different combat scenes to cover multiple unnamed NPCs, a single strong NPC, and a mix of named and unnamed NPCs. I worked in a couple challenges and a contest, too.

2) The players, as I had hoped, brought new dimensions to the setting. These are, after all, the most robust characters living there. It was really cool for me to see the different angles that they each brought to the world. That was the highlight for me.

What I muffed up:

1) I didn't really get the FATE point economy flowing. Yeah, this is a huge oversight, but I was so occupied with making sure all the mechanics were straight and spending the NPC's FATE points, that I only made a few compels throughout the game. The players didn't offer any either (only one of us had ever played FATE before), but in the end it falls to the GM to make that work.

2) As this was the first time playing the game, it was hard to size up my players for the challenges they faced. In two scenes, I realized that what I had planned was completely beyond their level, so I had to reign it in. Then, in the last scene, I pulled it in too much, and they decimated the baddies at the climax. Meh. It all worked in the end, but I felt like a student driver pounding on the gas and the brake.

3) This next thing I chalk up to Murphy's Law: Not only do I have reams of notes about NPCs and interesting places and factions for the players to interact with, but I have all kinds of pictures that I always planned to whip out in session. Unfortunately, the day I ran this game I also sat in Virginia traffic for six hours. I didn't mean to do that, and it kinda messed me up. In the ensuing chaos so I dashed out the door with only my game notes. All my background stuff stayed behind.

All you can do is laugh. In the heat of the game, I totally forgot the name of one of my major NPCs... so on the fly I named him after my Freshman year philosophy professor. But that's the beauty of gaming, right? Here he is: Master Kerlin.

Master Kerlin: it's not my fault Charles
Darwin looks like a wizard. (John Collier)

And here are a few other pictures, (besides those at the Markaz page) that I could have thrown out there.

On the way up the hill.

Looking out of town.

A typical room in a typical house.

It's a vertical city...

...very much so.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cool Map Site

This article leads to this site, which has some pretty awesome maps.

Clearly, there is plenty to explore here, but the pic Slate republished is the one that caught my eye. It reflects travel times in the United States at various points in history – one week from New York City to North Carolina in 1800, for example – and numerous routes of travel. I really dig the panel on navigable rivers.

"Rates of Travel, 1800-1930." Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, by Charles O. Paullin, ed. John K. Wright, published by the Carnegie Institution and the American Geographical Society, 1932.
David Rumsey Map Collection.

A quick look shows David Rumsey has a lot of potential for inspiration and game use. Here's another awesome illustration of the Black Hills.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Crayola Dragons

I had a terrible idea the other day while playing with my daughter and her crayon set. We all love those crazy and obscure colors of the Crayola box... so why haven't these provided more inspiration for chromatic dragons?

The answer to that question is probably because that's a terrible idea... but it's one you can't unthink. So here you go: six ridiculous Crayola chromatic dragons.

Burnt Sienna Dragon

Classic D&D has an ochre jelly and an umber hulk. Why not a Burnt Sienna Dragon? This was clearly an oversight, if not a misprint. Well, now the error is rectified. The Burnt Sienna Dragon is an earth-based creature that lives anywhere it can borrow. Its breath weapon is a cloud of dust that chokes and suffocates, and has the potential to incapacitate on a failed saving throw.

Rembrandt painted in ochre, umber, and burnt sienna... and slew dragons like a boss.

Sepia Dragon

The sepia dragon is semi-aquatic and its head looks a bit like a cuttlefish. It adamantly refutes any relation to the Sepia Snake Sigil. Its breath weapon is a thick and sticky, brownish ink that impairs movement. The ink is likely to suffocate victims or cause blindness or disorientation if gotten in the eyes.

Periwinkle Dragon

The Periwinkle Dragon is beautiful, but deceivingly deadly. Its friendly demeanor is enhanced by its magical aura that calms and pacifies all within range. Its breath weapon is a sweet-smelling vapor that puts its victims to sleep. The Periwinkle Dragon is rather passive aggressive, and doesn't like to eat food that fights back. It is fire-resistant and can regenerate.

A friendly dragon for the Bronies. (ShopiStar)

Chartreuse Dragon

The Chartreuse Dragon lives in wooded mountains. It largely avoids humans, finding them distasteful both to the palette and in their demeanor. The Chartreuse Dragon's breath weapon is a line-shaped sonic blast.


The skin of the Mahogany Dragon very closely resembles the bark of trees allowing it to conceal itself flawlessly in its natural habitat. Here it can wait patiently for a meal to meander by before striking. Its breath weapon is cone of venom that has the consistency of pine sap and can cause paralysis and blindness.

Fuchsia Dragon

Of all the fabulous creatures, the Fuchsia Dragon is the most fabulous. Its lairs are pristinely laid out with the most stylish contemporary treasure available. Its breath weapon is a rainbow-colored cone that has the effect of color spray (immature dragons) or prismatic spray (mature dragons).

Don't act surprised.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

In the Big House

Not long ago, this fascinating piece aired on NPR. It's about a prison in Venezuela that is run by the prisoners themselves. Yes, there are guards - but they only guard the outside to make sure no one unauthorized gets in or out. On the inside is an entire system of politics, economics, and hierarchy controlled completely by the inmates.

I was going to do a post, speculating about the different setting in which this could work, but then my regular gaming group started a discussion about our next game setting. So, this is what came out (with some minor edits).

CU-5028 is one of the Galactic Empire's remote penal colonies. It is a destination for all sorts of criminals from all ends of the galaxy. All sorts end up here, from cold-blooded killers to political opposition to lousy poets to tenant farmers who can't pay their debts. 
Several things make CU-5028 an ideal location for a penal colony. It supports a breathable atmosphere that can support standard forms of life and agriculture to sustain them. It also has a wealth of minerals that benefit both the local populace and the Empire at large. Most importantly, its highly charged ionosphere makes it impossible to get on or off except via the space elevator that connects to a single space port. 
While there is a contingent of government officials, the planet is run by the prisoners. A small garrison is present to protect the space port, and the number of prisoners on planet at any given time is tightly regulated. 
Touchstones: Firefly, Star Wars, any dystopian future, Australia's criminal history, Venezuelan prisons. (I was tempted to toss in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but I feel that our group would naturally take it there anyway.)

I'm dying to add more detail, but as a group we agreed to limit world-building until we decide on a setting and can do it collaboratively. I would love to hear what anyone else thinks about this, though.

Monday, June 24, 2013

An Amazing Moment

It is also not often that a campaign lasts for a decade. It's not often that a campaign reaches its conclusion. Yet, this past weekend we had a final session of Slaying Solomon, a game which had run with the same core players for over ten years.

Slaying Solomon was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG campaign that took place in Solomon, Massachusetts in the years immediately preceding Buffy Summers becoming the Slayer. Thus, at the outset there was a time limit. But for six game years to be played out over ten real years is remarkable.

Now, I have to note that I am a newcomer to this campaign. I joined up with this group a mere three years ago. BTVS follows the convention of dividing the story into episodes and seasons. My first session in Slaying Solomon was four episodes into the final season (Episode 6.4), which pretty much makes my character the Cousin Oliver of this Buffy prequel.

Still, three years is long enough to form a bond with the group, even if my character had not been around for very long. And I think that is what made the moment so special. When the campaign came to its climax, I and another newbie had a few rolls to make, but the drama belonged to the core players. We were able to sit back and watch 10 years of drama unfold among a group that was uniquely attuned to one another. This was plain in the way that the end came about in a way that no one had foreseen, but that everyone worked with seamlessly.

I must say that it was an evening that I will probably never witness the likes of again, but I am honored to have been a part of.

R.I.P. Sam Kessler. She saved the world. A lot. First.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Kreekou

I recently stumbled across another cool source for bestiary art: the speculative evolution community. Here scientists and artists team up to imagine what future species might be like or what species could have evolved in an alternative evolutionary history. It's cool stuff. The first pic that caught my attention was the moora, which is imagined as an arctic-dwelling bird.  So, I gave it some D6 stats and a story. Thus, I give you... 

The Kreekou

The kreekou: Because your campaign needs a vicious bird to roam the tundra. (Osmatar)

The kreekou is an extraordinarily large, flightless bird that inhabits the tundra and permafrost. It is uniquely adapted to the frozen lands. Its greasy and matted feathers keep it warm, while the fatty hump on its back allows it to survive for weeks at a time between feedings. The kreekou prowls the tundra, feeding on whatever it can find: animal or vegetable, living or dead. While it is primarily a scavenger, it can also be a ferocious hunter, especially when hungry.

I had been without food for three nights before the blizzard finally abated. The morning sun brought hope and relative warmth. But when I suddenly heard that hungry call – kaaarrreeekooo! – I knew one of us would eat that day.

        – From Tales of The Frozen Wastes

The kreekou itself is not a particularly bold creature. Under normal circumstances, it would just as well avoid a fight in favor of a meal that won’t fight back. Yet it can be persistent when sufficiently hungry. When forced to fight, it will close as quickly as possible, using its massive body to its benefit. Its bony, claw-like wings are normally used to prod frozen carrion, but they are equally good at pinning prey to the ice while its sharp break snaps away large chunks of living flesh.

Agility: 2D: dodge 3D, fighting 6D
Coordination: 1D
Physique: 6D, stamina 5D
Acumen: 4D: search 5D, tracking 5D
Charisma: 1D: intimidation 6D, mettle 1D+2, persistence 5D

Strength Damage 2D

Hit points: 30

Slam – 1D a successful attack has a chance of knocking the target to the ground
Stab – 1D+2 the kreekou will attempt to stab any prone target and pin it to the ground. Any attack that does X damage to a prone target
Bite – 2D while it will first try to eat anything it has pinned down, the bite can be directed at any target

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wild Spaces in Civilization

Several nights ago, we were driving home through the Park when we were forced to detour. A half dozen police cars with lights blazing had converged, closing the road and diverting all traffic through another neighborhood. It was obviously not a fender-bender or a kitten stuck in a tree; something serious had gone down. All of this happened just a few hundred meters from our home, which got me thinking about the juxtaposition of Civilization and Wild Spaces.

This is about as Jungian as an archetype can be: Civilization is the safe place and Wild Spaces are where bad things live. This has been done a million ways, and there are a million new and interesting ways to do it. Hill Cantons, for example, has a dramatic and interesting take on it.

What the detour got me thinking about is how close these worlds can be while being completely distinct. There are borders between these realms, and the Wild can live right there in the middle of Civilization. It could be a matter of leaving the city walls, or passing the last light in the park. Crossing those borders means one world bleeds into the other. And when the words collide, adventure happens.

So here are some Wild Spaces to inject into your Civilization without the need for players to travel for days to some remote Lost World crater.


A beautiful park, where no one can hear you scream. (Beteabondieu)


Even in the day, it's still filled with dead things. (Trey Ratcliff)


Sometimes, the wild comes for you. (Sunpig)

Abandoned building

Trespassers welcome! We're hungry! (Jan Bommes)

Other side of the tracks

Sometimes you just end up pretty far from your turf.

Under the bridge

Under the bridge downtown, that's where I drew some blood. (BriYYZ)


Yeah. Don't go there. (lordlucan)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Random Encounter Montage

Here's a mechanic for determining random encounters.

I've always hated giving the DM sole responsibility for accidentally running into a wandering monster. And when I ran lots of dungeon crawls, I'd always forget to roll. On the other end of the spectrum is one DM I played with who would dramatically roll a d12 for each hour of travel. His encounters were terrible, too. They typically involved an epic battle that completely distracted the party from the main story.

Anyhow, this method puts the chance of encounter in the hands of the PCs. It's a spin off of the 4e Skill Challenge mechanic, and will work well if you want to give your travel a montage feel. For every significant leg of the journey, each player must make a skill check. The DM should determine an appropriate DC/target roll that is consistent for the whole party. The player can choose the skill she wants to employ, as long as she describes how that skill is helping the party along. This is her moment in the montage to detail however she wants. Depending on the size of the group and the pace of the evening, going around the table once or twice should be enough.

Success means the party makes unimpeded progress. Failure means the player gets to play the lead role in a random encounter. Perhaps she is attacked first. Maybe she sets off the trip wire. Maybe she finds the mysterious ring of invisibility.

Alternately, if multiple players fail their checks, the DM could wait until the end of the montage sequence and present an encounter that encompasses the collective failure. That is, Sven's failure means the party will encounter a patrol of goblins, but since Maude also failed, the goblins will have a troll.

They Have a Cave Troll by Otis Frampton
The trick is in finding the balance. You don't want to have too many random encounters turning your evening into a suckfest, like aforementioned bad DM did. On the other hand, the risk of failure is what makes it fun, and putting that risk in the hands of the players makes it all the better.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Encounter Lanscape Chart

So, the dice have been rolled, and it's time to fight a wandering monster! Quick, bust out the big dry erase map or chart paper and sketch out the battle field... wait, where are we?

Here's a chart I came up with for random encounters in Kimatarthi. Since it's a pretty arid and hilly land, I wanted elevation and terrain to play a role in each encounter. It makes it easy to give a little extra flavor to each random encounter, and can also be used to give penalties and bonuses to movement, missile attacks, etc.

To use this chart, assume that the map is oriented so that the party is at the center, traveling from right to left - cardinal directions don't matter at the tactical level.

Then roll a d12 to determine the kind of landscape and its position relative to the party (e.g. they could be traveling along the top of a ridge or the bottom of it) and a d8 to determine the position of the enemy (1 is the top of the map, 2 the upper right corner, etc.)

Borrowing a page from +Zak S., roll the dice on the map to determine the position of any obstacles. Throw a few more unique dice if you want a busier tactical map. Draw these in as shrubs, rocks, ancient pillars, whatever you like.

Encounter Landscape Chart
Party is traveling…

Along the top
Along the bottom
Gradual Draw
Gradual Draw
Steep draw
Steep draw
Along the top

Thus, if the dice are cast and bring up a 2 (d12) and 4 (d8), then the party is traveling along the top a ridge, and the monsters appear ahead of them and below the ridge (unless it's a flying enemy...). On a roll of 10 (d12) and 3 (d8), the party is heading down a steep draw and the enemy appears directly ahead.

Win, lose, or gradual draw. (Doronenko)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Real Overland Movement

A friend of mine has been working on a series or articles on the role of beasts of burden in war. First up the camel, and now the mule. They are short and fascinating pieces, not least of all because of the game ideas they can churn up. Take, for example, this excellent chart that has been reproduced from a 19th century British military handbook.

Animal Speed (Miles per Hour)
Pack Load (Pounds)
Draught Load (Pounds)
Work Day (Distance in Miles)
50-100 by sleigh

The original source for these figures is The Soldier's Pocket-Book for Field Service by Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley (a Modern Major General with an amazing bio of his own).

One thing that strikes me about this table is how different the numbers are from those given for overland movement in gaming. Take the d20 SRD for example. The mule numbers match up pretty well, but the gaming horses are way faster than the real horses, covering 40 or 48 miles in a day. Of course, Wolseley's numbers have to consider the movement of these animals as part of a large force, but I do wonder how various gaming systems came up with their overland movement rates. There's much more to be explored in this regard.

In general, gaming needs more rules for reindeer. (New York Public Library)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How's the Weather?

Any ongoing campaign inevitably has to deal with the weather. From day to day rain or shine decisions to the changing of seasons, the GM has to put some thought into a reliable system.

One basic trick is to base the weather on a particular location in the real world. Our Slaying Solomon campaign does this by referencing the historical weather in Massachusetts on the dates that the episode takes place. But what to do if your campaign isn't actually set in a real place? Recently, I came across some cool science that can help out: the Koppen climate classification. (Sorry, I can't get Blogger to do the umlaut.)

Courtesy of the University of Melbourne via Wikipedia.

As you can see on the chart, the system has 29 categories of climate, broken into various groups, based on annual temperature and precipitation averages. What's cool about it is that it groups regions from around the world into the same category, so you can see that Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Addis Ababa, for example, are all in the same category.

So let's take Markaz, the city at the center of my world. Roughly, I imagine the climate to be like Amman, Jordan. By consulting the Koppen system, I can see that Amman falls into the same category as Denver, Boise, Kabul, and Samarkand. Holy crap. Now I have not just one city to model my weather on, but an entire host of them. Maybe it would be easier to borrow Denver's weather than Amman's for a campaign.

Drawing parallels across different regions of the world can also help in developing descriptions and characteristics of locations. Maybe I'll find inspiration for something in the Samarkand countryside. I surely wouldn't have looked there before.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

DC Gameday XII

Even though I keep missing it, DC Gameday is this weekend. I was lucky enough to learn about it four or five years ago, and it was a starting point for getting me back into gaming after a many-year hiatus.

It has gotten much bigger (it's so big, the day is a whole weekend!), and I'd love to go, but we've still got too much on our plates to be able to take a day off. Hell, if I can't find an hour to blog, I sure can't cut out for even half a day. I'm aiming for the fall.

But if anyone in the DC area comes across this, I encourage you to go register and enjoy. It's a great group of folks.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

No-Man's Land

Here's another cool idea for an RPG setting.

I was reading this month's Strategy & Tactics article about the Reconquista. It recounts that as the Christian kingdoms collapsed and re-consolidated after the 8th century Muslim invasion, the city of Leon created a buffer zone between itself and the Muslim-controlled lands. I have always thought the idea of no-man's land was intriguing, but this provides interesting details with strategic context. This got me thinking about plot elements that could be drawn up from this scenario.

  1. Before it was made into a no-man's land, the location had to be depopulated. Numerous stories can unfold as the local ruler forces people out of their villages and farms in order to relocate them. Some people may not be happy to leave their ancestral village. Some may be grateful to be evacuated, while others who wanted to be liberated now see that opportunity slipping away as they are forced into the service of a hostile lord.
  2. This buffer zone was well over 100km from city (north) to frontier (south), and it stretched for several hundred klicks from east to west. That is a lot of wilderness replete with ruins of all types. That is also a lot of area to get lost in, and any remaining maps will be severely outdated.
  3. Not only can there be plenty of wilderness encounters, but there are sure to be scouting parties from both great powers, coming from the north and the south. Should the PC's be trying to find them or avoid them? There will also be loners--individuals, families, tribes--that have taken to living on their own in a largely desolate space. These people probably make it a custom to be avoided.
  4. What happens when the strategic utility of the no-man's land is at an end? Large armies will cross the territory. Roads will be rebuilt, trade reestablished. New populations will be relocated to the area. Will the descendants of those that were displaced press their claims or will it be forgotten? What about those loners?

It was an interesting piece that captured my imagination. The game associated with the article also seems like it would be fun. Although the more I thought about it, the more it seems like George R. R. Martin has already covered this territory pretty thoroughly. While I'm not so worried about being derivative (The horrors! A derivative RPG!), it does earn him yet another "Well played, sir."

Well played, sir.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Uncanny Navigation

There is far too much life going on this month and keeping me from blogging or doing much else in the way of relaxation. I finally was able to score a free minute to flip through this month's National Geographic. Fortunately, in my second paragraph of leisure reading this month, I came across this gem in a piece about exploration and human nature:
[Captain James] Cook granted [a Polynesian priest named] Tupaia a berth on the Endeavor in Tahiti. Soon after that, the Polynesian wowed the crew by navigating to an island unknown to Cook, some 300 miles south, without ever consulting compass, chart, clock, or sextant. In the weeks that followed, as he helped guide the Endeavor from one archipelago to another, Tupaia amazed the sailors by pointing on request, at any time, day or night, cloudy or clear, precisely toward Tahiti.
This blew my mind. I read a while back about a people who have a similar ability. The language of this people (I think it was an Amazon tribe) has no words for relative direction, such as left or right. Instead, everything is described in cardinal directions - Dan is sitting to the east of Steve, for example. Even inside buildings, they could always point north instantly.

It struck me that such an amazing human ability must be codified into gaming somehow. I always fond it exciting when I come across real world evidence that such a trait could actually exist. No doubt some games have such a thing, but I'm not about to go do any research. The closest thing that comes to mind is the Dungeoneering skill, but that falls short of this. So here's how I would describe it:

Uncanny Navigation
Because of the character's cultural familiarity with the terrain type, she simply cannot get lost. No matter where she travels, she will always be able to identify the direction to a known location. Drugs, magic or other unnatural inhibitors may temporarily disrupt it, however. The character must be from a culture that is defined by the terrain she can navigate. For example, an island people may choose the open ocean, Bedouins the desert, Dwarves underground, etc.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Inkwell Ideas Kickstarter

Not that I expect my army of bored readers to run out and support this project, but every little bit helps.

Inkwell Ideas, the folks behind Hexographer, Dungeonmorph Dice, and other goodness, have a bitchin' Kickstarter that deserves to be funded. Check it out here.

Frankly, it's an idea that should have been done years ago. I know we all get good at flipping through the monster books to find the stats of our favorite beasties, but wouldn't it be easier just to have a handy deck of cards. Not only can you carry them in your pocket (you know, to impress chicks on the subway), but you can easily cue them up ahead of your gaming session for quick reference.

Also, the fact that all the art this project sponsors will become stock art is a great boon to indie game publishers everywhere.