Blogs on Tape Update

I wasn’t sure if Blogs on Tape was going to resonate with people. Turns out, you all really like it! We’ve had a ton of vocal support from all over the OSR community. As a result, we will absolutely move forward with making new episodes.

The most common request I heard was that people wanted an RSS feed for the project. So, I’ve set up a site just for Blogs on Tape, which has its own RSS feed for your blog-listening convenience. The site itself is a little bare bones, but I hope to make it into a valuable resource over time. You may also notice there are two new episodes already available. I hope you enjoy them!

I’ve also managed to get Blogs on Tape set up on iTunes, which was a surprisingly nightmarish process. Hopefully it’s stable now, but if you encounter any issues let me know.

If you’re interested in contributing to the project, there are two things we need:

  1. Blogs that we have official permission to read from. If you have a blog, and you’re okay with us reading posts from it, please let us know.
  2. People who can do the readings and make the recordings. If you’ve got a halfway decent microphone, a quiet environment to use it in, and the ability to speak clearly, I’d love to have your help in getting these recordings made.

Future updates for this project will be mostly show up on the Blogs on Tape website, so I recommend everyone follow that if they’re interested.

Thanks for listening!

 

The Cozy Catacombs: A Demonstration of Flux Space

Paris CatacombsA few weeks back, I wrote up an idea that I called Flux Space, which is basically a method for randomizing segments of a dungeon. It helps dungeons to feel more like vast environments, and makes it a little easier to organize your notes.

In the thread about Flux Space on google+, Aaron Griffin asked me if I would post an example. So that’s what I’m doing. The Cozy Catacombs are a small example–just 3 locations and 3 fluxes arranged in a triangle. It’s pretty much the bare minimum size for something like this, but I think it gets across the idea pretty well, and there’s enough here for at least one or two game sessions if you want to try it out.

The Cozy Catacombs

Flux Space DiagramThe city of Sarip is old. Its been inhabited since pre-history, and through the millennia has always lent authority to whomever lived there. Empires, religions, and societies may pass, but Sarip remains. The Immortal City.

Beneath Sarip is a sprawling network of catacombs. Countless generations of bones are stacked along the walls so thick the stonework isn’t visible between them. The catacombs themselves have been out of use for hundreds of years now, at least officially. They’re a popular retreat for anyone not welcome in the city above, with plenty of space to live and work rent free, so long as you don’t get lost.

Area 1: Entrance

Flux Space One1. At the bottom of the stairs is a bronze plaque mounted on a plinth. It’s a recent addition, put up by city officials, warning people to stay out of the catacombs, lest they become lost.

The floor is littered with empty booze bottles and scraps of trash.

2. A small group of homeless folks have set up a camp here, around an old fountain they use as a urinal. One of them has scurvy, and will soon die from it.

3. A group of fresh corpses. They’ve been flayed, and their bones taken. From the scattered equipment, it looks like they weren’t homeless. Probably here hoping to plunder some treasure. Bloody, boney footprints trail off to the south, towards Flux B.

4. A larger group of homeless folks, cooking a stolen chicken on a spit. There are some children running around and playing loudly. Among the group is a well dressed young man, about 20 years of age. He seems to be having fun, slumming it down here, seeing how the other half live.

5. A group of 7 teenage girls. They’ve all got dirty faces, and kitchen knives. They’re arguing about how they should divide the 6 silver coins they found.

Area 2: Necrotic Praxeum

Flux Space Two1. Long benches are arranged next to one another in this room, with rows of zombies standing on either side, polishing old bones to a pristine white sheen. Other zombies with carts move up and down between the tables, handing out dirty bones, and taking the clean ones.

2. A few shelves, and a collection of tomes detailing the history and practice of necromancy. The librarian is a wizened old man named Bu’zaldu. It’s not clear whether he’s undead, or just very very old. He teases the students here with cryptic hints, and there’s a rumor that if you can prove which one he is, he’ll teach you a spell even the headmistress doesn’t know.

3. 12 beds, stacked 3 high, where students are allowed to rest between lessons. There’s very little downtime here, and even less privacy.

4. A well stocked alchemical laboratory, with jars all along the walls containing a variety of exotic items. In the middle of the room is a student who has fallen asleep in their chair, next to a solution that is slowly dribbling into a vial. It’s just about full now. If thrown, this concoction will explode, dealing 3d6 damage, and instantly transforming anyone killed by it into a zombie under the command of the thrower.

5. Most of the students are congregated here. There are piles of polished bones in front of each student, while the school’s headmistress walks around the room, describing the proper method of raising a skeleton from the dead. Students work in pairs to raise each one, which the Headmistress then comes over to inspect. If she approves of it, she’ll congratulate the students, give them some pointers on refining their technique, and give the skeleton some task to perform. If she does not approve, she’ll berate the students, and send their skeleton walking down the path of shame (into Flux C.

She only approves of roughly 1 in every 5 skeletons.

6. The office and living space of the head mistress. Skulls and gargoyles are everywhere you look. There’s a bed, a desk, and a rack for punishing students who perform poorly. On the desk is a stack of wax-sealed letters, tied with a ribbon, waiting to be delivered. If opened, they all contain a list of students who are doing poorly, as well as a brief description of each one’s qualities. The letters are addressed to various peoples: inquisitors, slavers, and a cyclops named “Gorkk Manmuncher.” The implication of each letter is clear: I don’t really want these kids anymore, so I’ll happily part with them for a good price.

Area 3: Skeleton Vanguard

Flux Space Three1. An old chapel, with a statue of St Stephen. The pews have been stacked into a circle, which serves as an impromptu fence for a group of skeletons. The skeletons wander around without any apparent purpose, bumping in to one another, falling down, and losing body parts. Whoever raised these obviously did a terrible job of it.

2. Havord, the leader of the skeleton vanguard, is conferring with five of his most intelligent comrades. They’re looking over crude maps they’ve been able to make of the dungeon, and arguing about where they should expand to.The two Flux spaces would be difficult to defend. But Area 1 would expose them to detection from the outside world, and Area 2 would cut off their supply of incoming skeletons. It’s a serious problem, and the argument is getting heated.

Havord himself has a skull 4 times larger than a normal human skull. He is otherwise a normal skeleton.

3. A classroom where a trio of intelligent skeletons try to teach some of the dumb reject skeletons how to think, and perform simple tasks. The program is effective, but frustrating. The curriculum is similar to what you might see in a kindergarden class, but with a lot more discussion of killing the living.

4. A storage room where the skeleton vanguard keeps their weapons, and a bunch of animated skeletons folded into boxes because there’s not enough room for them to move about more comfortably.

5. A 24 hour skeleton dance party. The best way to unwind for off duty skellos.

6. The floor of the room has been dug up in several places, and a frail weave of twigs placed across the opening to 15′ pits. The trap is painfully obvious to anyone with any intellect, but apparently it’s sufficient to trap dumb, wandering skeletons. Even now, scraping sounds carry from several of the pits, where dumb bags o’ bones are trying to claw their ways out.

Flux A.

Description: Small gargoyles and other statues punctuate the stonework. Every so often, when you look away, the bones here rearrange themselves.

Size: 3

1. 2d4 students from the Necrotic Praxeum. They’re either on their way to, or returning from, a supply run in the city above.

2. A door made of pink flesh. A supernatural darkness obscures the room beyond, refusing to allow any light to penetrate. The room beyond can only be navigated by touch. It is soft and fleshy, with a slimy mucus seeping in through the floor and walls. The room is deep, but does not seem to contain anything interesting. Each turn, there is a 1-in-4 chance that 2d20 goblins will come flooding out of this room, and out into the catacombs beyond. If the room is harmed, this flood may be prevented for a few days. If it is harmed severely, the room may be killed, and the goblins will cease to be born from it.

3. The Goblin Market, where all manner of oddities are for sale. There’s jars full of eyeballs, armors, buttplugs, and a whole shop dedicated to selling various styles of 10′ poles. (That last one is having a blowout sale. They’re overstocked). No violence is allowed at the Goblin Market.

4. 2d6 + 4 goblins, which have just finished killing a group of three human adventurers. The goblins are in the midst of organizing the adventurer’s equipment, and slicing off meat from the adventurer’s bodies.

5. A randomly determined member of the party trips. They flail their hands, and grab on to a leg bone that’s sticking out from the wall of the catacombs. Unexpectedly, it turns down, as though it were a lever, and a secret door swings open. Beyond is a room with a plinth in it, and a skeleton wearing golden armor.

The armor is incredibly valuable, but whomever takes it from this place is cursed. Any building they sleep in has a 1-in-6 chance of catching fire in the night.

6. A map to a Vampire’s lair is sketched onto the wall. Next to it are the words “PLEASE KILL ME.”

Flux B.

Description: A green ooze seeps from between the stacked bones, dribbling onto the floor and disappearing into the cracks. Many of the rooms contain abandoned camps. Apparently this area was once more heavily settled by homeless people, which have since left for whatever reason.

Size: 4

1. 2d6 + 5 highly capable troops of the Skeletal Vanguard. One of them is working on a map of the area, while the others are holding weapons at the ready to kill any meat-people they bump into.

2. A little shop, built into an alcove in the wall. It has a bar, some stools, and a sign which reads Durza’s Drugporium! Durza herself is a squat, fat old woman. She’s coy about how she survives down here, and she sells the best drugs you’re ever likely to get your hands on, at cut rate prices.

3. A fountain swarming with fairies, all of whom are men. They’ll offer to cure anyone who is injured, only revealing after the fact that they require blowjobs in return. And you’ve gotta swallow, ‘cuz that’s the part that will heal your wounds. To add insult to injury, their vaunted curative abilities amount to a single hit point of restoration.

4. A finely ornamented Victorian parlor, with all the fashionable amenities. There’s a fire going in the fireplace, fresh biscuits on a tray, and several comfortable looking lounge chairs arranged in a conversation circle.

The chairs are alive, and will attempt to eat anyone who sits in them.

5. 2d4 + 2 goblins fighting with 2d4 + 2 skeletons.

6. A very obvious lever, built into the floor. There’s writing on the handle which reads “Pull for treasure!” If pulled, nothing happens.

Flux C.

Description: Apparently there’s an underground river running nearby, because there are fountains everywhere, pumping cool clean water, despite the fact that none of this has been maintained in centuries.

Size: 3

1. 1d4 skeletons who are wandering away from the Necrotic Praxeum. They’re dumb, and clumsy, but do have basic life-destroying instincts, and will try to attack any living creatures they encounter.

2. 2d6 + 6 soldiers of the Skeleton Vanguard. One is mapping, while the rest seek out dumb skeletons to recruit, and fleshlings to kill.

3. If the players found and pulled the lever in Flux B.6, they will a door here, with a plaque on it that reads: “Congratulations, lever puller!” Within is a chest containing two bags, each olding 500 silver pieces each. If its been more than a day since the players pulled the lever, the chest may already have been looted. If the players haven’t pulled the lever at all, there won’t be any door. They’ll just have the vague sense that they’re missing out on something cool.

4. A forge, with a bellows and an anvil. The air his hot, and rings with the blows of hammer against metal. Weapons of war are being forged here by…snakes. Snakes, holding hammers in their mouths, and slithering around with buckets of water on their backs. Thousands of them are here, working together. If the players bother them, they will scatter into little holes in the wall, and wait for the players to leave.

5.Garrison Renuar, a 325 year old Vampire, sitting on the edge of his coffin with his head in his hands. Garrison wants to die. Life is dull, and he doesn’t really like killing people. However, the vampire which birthed him is still alive, and he is incapable of killing himself of his own free will without permission from his ‘parent.’ He will beg anyone who meets him to try and kill him, but is obligated to fight his best to stay alive.

6. A nearby fungus growing into the corpse of a wizard has been mutating out of control for awhile now. Recently (as in, last week), it began to produce a race of mushroom people: squat, 2′ high mushrooms with eyes, mouths, and feet. These new creatures don’t really know what to do with themselves. They haven’t developed a language or a society yet, though they are intelligent enough to do so. For now, they’re just following their fungus instincts, but those aren’t really taking advantage of their new mobility and intellect.

Blogs on Tape

Blogs on Tape OSR MixtapeAudiobooks are great. The ability to read while I’m driving, walking, exercising, cooking, or doing the dishes has allowed me to absorb so many books. Stuff that I probably wouldn’t have made time for otherwise. By now, I think I’ve actually listened to more books than I’ve read, and I’m extremely grateful that the option exists.  I’d have missed out on some of my favorite stories if it didn’t.

The biggest problem with audio books is that there aren’t enough of them. Too much great writing is trapped in squiggled symbols on a page or computer screen. If you can find the time, reading them is a joy. But, none of us has enough time to read everything we’d like. And a particular issue for me is that there are dozens or hundreds of OSR blogs, all of which have good stuff on them just waiting to be read.

TL;DR, does anybody else think it would be really cool to have a podcast where people read OSR blog posts aloud?

It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile. And, over the past two weeks, I’ve been getting in touch with people to start the ball rolling on what I’m calling a “pilot series” of episodes. Something to test the waters a bit before anybody decides to really commit themselves to doing this. And so, below are 10 blog posts, read aloud by myself, Sam Jack, and Gregory Blair. Please give them a listen.

The music used is a selection from “Journey of Solitude,” composed and performed by Russel Cox, distributed through OverClocked Remix.

Episode 1 – Structuring Encounter Tables, by Nick LS Whelan
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 2 – The Purpose of a Map, by Alex Schroeder
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 3 – Tangle Armor, by Brendan S.
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 4 – Tests of Skill and Tests of Chance, by John Bell
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 5 – An Orcish Prayer, by Arnold K.
(Read by Sam Jack, Original post here).

Episode 6 – Basic Wands, by Brendan S.
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 7 – Questgivers are Evil, by Nick LS Whelan
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 8 – God Hates Orcs, by Arnold K.
(Read by Sam Jack, Original post here).

Episode 9 – On Erecting a New Campaign, by Courtney Campbell
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 10 – Tiki & D: Gary’s Hawaiian Shirts, by Richard G
(Read by Gregory Blair, Original post here).

It was also suggested that we might do periodic “round table” episodes, where folks discuss some of the previous posts. I thought it was an interesting possibility, so I made one of those as well, with Sam Jack and Michael Raston joining me.

Roundtable 1 – Nick LS Whelan, Sam Jack, & Michael Raston

Alright, so, didja listen to those? Didja like them? Didja hate them? I know blog comments are kinda passe here in 2017, but I really want to know how people feel about this. If we go forward, it’s going to require a lot of time, and a lot of bandwdith to keep up with. I had a heckin’ good time with these first 10, but I have to admit the idea of committing myself to doing this long term is pretty daunting. So criticism, detailed ones, would be very welcome right now.

Hopefully, if the series does continue, we can make it into more of a community effort. Sam & Greg both helped the project along quite a bit by contributing episodes of their own. If that could eventually grow into five, ten, or more people all recording episodes, it would make managing the project much less daunting than it is.

So, what do you think?

8 Reasons Why D&D Is Better Than Video Games

Dont You Just Hate ThisDumb people think D&D is an outdated game. That it served us well as the midwife of video games. But, now that video games are here, it’s stupid to go back and play something so much less advanced.

Ironically, this view seems to be most common among people who actually play tabletop RPGs. Specifically, the folks who emphasize the thespian aspect of role playing, to the exclusion of all else. They seem to think anyone who didn’t get rejected from Shakespeare in the park is a pleb, who would be much happier playing video games, rather than sullying the good name of their noble and artistic hobby. 

My frustration with this pervasive idea led me to start collecting these reasons that it’s wrong. So if you’ve got any to add to my eight, I’d love to have a few more.

1. Tactical Infinity

In any given situation, there are only so many actions you can attempt in a video game. If it’s a game about punching, you’ll have a punch button, and most problems will be solvable by punching. There may be other options (kicks, jumps, headbutts), but the list is necessarily finite. This is not a bad thing. Video games work best when they focus on doing a small number of things really well.

Adventure games, like Zork, probably have the greatest number of possible actions you’ll ever find in a video game. But even still, the player is limited to whatever actions the game designer was able to predict they might attempt. If the player is clever enough to come up with something the designer never expected, rather than being rewarded for their cleverness, they’ll be slapped down with some variation of “You can’t do that.”

When you play D&D, the game designer is sitting right there with you, creating the game moment to moment as you play. So when you decide that the best way to defeat the Cult of Filth is to buy a pig and convince them it is the avatar of filth on earth, the game can accommodate that. Maybe you will fail spectacularly, but at least you were able to try.

Rube Goldberg2. Having a Real Impact on the Game World

The other side of tactical infinity. You could call it infinite reaction.

In a really good video game, the player will see the world change in big and small ways as a result of their successes and failures.  If you save the farmer’s son, then when you go to the farm she won’t be crying anymore. Instead, she’ll be happily going about her farming, with the help of her son. This is good. When the player sees the impact of their actions, it will make those actions (and by extension, the game world they happened in) feel true.

But the game’s reactions are limited. It’s not even proper to call them reactions in the first place, since they’re scripted in advance. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. Complex enough that it’s fun to follow along from point A to B to C, but the end result is already there, waiting for you to reach it. Even if the player does make a choice, it’s always between two, or three, or ten different pre-scripted results. And, once you see them, the message is usually pretty clear: you’ve reached the end of this road. Go do something else.

3. Infinite Play

By now, a pattern is emerging that a lot of what is good about tabletop RPGs is the various ways in which they are infinite. This one, infinite play, is what prompted me to go from being casually interested in D&D, to being in love with the medium.

One of the worst things about falling in love with any fictional world is that someday, you’ll need to leave it. I can go back and play my favorite video games over and over again, but there will never be any new areas to explore, or enemies to defeat.

With tabletop games, all you need is one set of rules, and one set of dice, and you’re set to play for the rest of your life. You may choose to stop playing a specific campaign, move on to a different game system or a different group, but the possibility that you could go back for more will always exist.

4. Complex Lateral Thinking Puzzles

Some video games do a great job of creating good complex lateral thinking puzzles. But, because they lack tactical infinity, the solutions to those puzzles must always be intentional. The designer must go to great effort to carefully inform the players of the tools they have for solving the puzzle, and must ensure themselves that those tools are sufficient for solving it.

In a tabletop game, the referee is often not even aware that they’ve created a complex lateral thinking puzzle. But they put the locked treasure vault next to the anti-gravity room, which is itself only two stories down from where the troll is sleeping. And the players have a paperclip, a spool of dental floss, and an iguana in their inventory. And somehow, putting all those things together, they figure out how to get into the treasure vault without trekking across the world to find the key.

That’s beautiful to me.

Women playing D&D5. D&D is a Party

D&D is an inherently social activity. Sometimes this is is a boon, sometimes a bane, but one way or another it’s always going to be true.

“But wait” I write, anticipating a likely objection so I can preemptively respond to it. “Many video games are multiplayer, and ergo social activities. This is hardly unique to D&D.” And of course, that is true. I myself have spent an immense amount of time bonding with friends in World of Warcraft. D&D is just better at it.

Even in the most social of social video games, everyone is looking at the game. The focus of their discussion will usually be on overcoming the challenges created for them by a person they will never meet. In D&D, everyone is looking at each other, talking about their own ideas.

Maybe that seems like a trite, or shallow difference. But, to me, it is important.

6. Investing Your Character with True Personality

When you disagree with 95% of what a person says, it’s easy for that 5% of overlap between your views to get lost in the rhetoric. I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink explaining why I find a thespian approach to games boring. But my distaste for prewritten backstories, and anyone who uses the word “spotlight” doesn’t mean I hate role playing. I just view it as a nice sauce, rather than the whole meal.

Vidya attempts to approximate this in different ways. Sometimes the protagonist is silent, so players can project their own thoughts and emotions on to them. Other games create dialogue trees, and multiple paths which give the player some character-driven choice about how they approach a problem. But in the end, unless the player wants to skip out on game content, they’ve always gotta do what the game wants them to do.

In a tabletop game, I can make a firm decision about who my character is, and stick to it. If I decide to be a good guy, then the game can never force me into a situation where my only choice is to go against my character, or skip part of the game.

Character Death7. Failure is Actually Meaningful

When you lose at a video game, the only thing to do is go back and try again. You play through the same bits over and over until you succeed. Maybe the game is randomized so the bit you replay is never quite the same. Maybe there are failures states which allow the game to continue, such as losing a party member. But, one way or another, the ultimate failure state always requires you to play through some part of the game over again.

In tabletop RPGs, there’s no such thing as starting the same game over again. When you die, a new character comes into the world, and must deal with the consequences of the previous character’s actions. All their successes and failures.

8. Zero Barriers to Entry for Designing Games

Obviously, there will always be a difference between a good game designer and a bad one. (I’ll make no claims about which group I fall into). But all it takes to get started is to come up with an adventure, and run it at your table. Boom: you’re a game designer.

If you’ve got a cool idea for a video game, even if it’s something small, you need to develop skills with coding, and art, and music. If you don’t know how to do any of those things, you’ll need money to pay someone to do them for you, or you’ll need to find someone you’re comfortable sharing creative control with. You need all of those things before you can even begin to develop good game design skills.

The barrier for getting your stuff published is only slightly higher than the barrier for making it in the first place. So, of course, there’s a lot of childish garbage out there, but there’s also a lot of phenomenal stuff that may never have made it to production otherwise. Stuff like Stay Frosty, Crypts of Indormancy, Hex Kit, The Sleeping Place of Feathered Swine, or The Tower of the Weretoads. Just stay away from anything published by the Mongrel Banquet Club. They’re a disgusting little band of degenerate filthmongers.

Kids Playing Vidya

None of this is to say that video games are bad for their limitations. A book is not bad because it lacks a soundtrack. A painting is not bad because it lacks motion. Different mediums have different strengths, and that’s really what this is about.

Video games are not an improvement on RPGs. They are different beasts that share some DNA. It’s possible to compare and contrast them with each other, just like you can compare and contrast books and movies. But both are capable of doing things the other will never be able to achieve.

Thhhhbhbhbhbhhbhbht.

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