Wednesday, December 17, 2014


So I've got a serious offer to write a second dungeony dragony type book, even though the first one is still delayed.  (I've seen a sample of the new layout and a draft of the cover and they are both hella sweet, by the way.)  I don't feel right talking about the business details of the new thing, except to say that if I were to take this offer, here are the things that would have to come together for me:

1) The book would have to overlap with my research interests here at school.  So either a Wessex book or a book in which Romantic poets beat up goblins.  The former would be a hex-and-key, hey have some dungeons, and treasures and whatnot book.  The latter would be more like what if Masks of Nyarlahotep was set in 1816 London.  I'm up for either but I have a LOT of material already for Wessex and since my classes next semester are set to kick my ass*, I should really choose the path of least resistance.

2) I told my new player group that if I take this gig the system and setting will be determined by my writing needs and most of them were cool with that.  So I've got the green light from them.

3) As I've been thinking this through I've come to the conclusion that I need to get back in the saddle with respect to blogging and flailsnailing (yes, it's a verb now).  But I can't do this without all y'all backing me up.  I need some cool peoples to step up and promise to give me sixteen shades of hell if I let a week go by without a blog post of some kind or two weeks without running a game online.  I probably don't have time to follow the sweet new releases or to keep up on the gossip, but I am going to make time for the thing itself.

So that's the deal.  New Wessex stuff, a new dungeon, new blog posts, as long as you promise to hassle me if one week from today there is no new post or if I haven't run a game in 2 weeks.

*In my program only a fool takes two PhD seminars in one semester and I am that fool come January.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Jeff goes Phandelving

So on Friday night David, Thaddeus, Kara, Katy, Ben, Mark and I gathered around David’s newly purchased plastic folding table.  I first meet Thaddeus, Kara and Katy at the orientation for new graduate assistants a year ago and they’ve been friends ever since.  David and Mark are new to my department this year, and as such they may labor under the impression that I know what I’m doing, as I was one of the leaders for their orientation.  But they’ll wise up soon enough.  Ben is Katy’s boyfriend and is the only person in the group who isn’t in grad school for English studies.  He has a real job, working for the local megacorporation that secretly controls all our lives.  As a group, they have a wide variety of role-playing experience, much of it in the 3e/4e/Pathfinder range of D&D variants.

For this get together I had purchased, opened and even slightly read the 5e Starter Set.  I hadn’t followed the development of this set very closely, so a lot of it was new to me.  Since the box comes with 5 PCs and I wasn’t sure how many people would show up, I also printed the pregens from this post at Beyond the Black Gate.  Thanks to Chris Sheppard for pointing that out to me.  Three of the Starter pregens were selected: the dwarf cleric, elf wizard and halfling rogue.  The rest of the party were Malakus the Wizard, Gorum the Butcher and Frodoric the Halfling (renamed Frankoric for reasons unknown) from Beyond the Black Gate.

Selecting the characters took longer than I thought it would, so we didn’t get too far into the adventure.  As per the book the party started out in Neverwinter.  I told the players that they were all drinking individually in this seedy bar when one by one they all figure out that everyone in the room knows Gundren Rockseeker.  I decided that dude is the Bill Brasky of dwarfs: twice as big as any normal dwarf, with a beard of three different colors, and capable of legendary exploits.
To Gundren Rockseeker!
As they are enjoying another round of toasts to the health of their infamous friend, who should walk in but the dwarf himself, who immediately begins buying rounds like Ragnarok is scheduled for tomorrow.

The next thing the party knows, they regain consciousness hung over as hell and walking alongside a donkey cart.  Gundren in finishing his speech thanking them for agreeing to escort these supplies to Phandalin and rides off on his horse.  (Gundren Rockseeker is the only dwarf big enough to ride a fullsized horse.  Everyone knows that.)  So of course the players needed to futz around with the cart for a while and inspect its contents and try to secret the beer barrels away in their backpacks (not happening).  And then there was the debate as to whether or not to just got back to Neverwinter and sell the stuff.  Standard player behaviour.

Later, the party stumbles across two dead horses, one of them obviously Gundren’s.  They search for clues but soon come under attack by goblin archers.  The combat went fairly smooth except for a couple of minor problems:
  • I spent an extra moment or two hemming and hawing over whether there was such a thing as a Ranged Touch Attack in this edition or if hitting with a firebolt, etc. was the same as shooitng someone with an arrow.  I still don’t know the right answer.
  • I forgot about the stupid fire-and-pop-back-down ability of the goblins.  This is partly my fault, as my prior rules knowledge kept telling me that of course goblins don’t have special abilities.  But the decision to put all the monster stats in an appendix in the back of the adventure also kept me disoriented.

But this was a test run anyway.  Goblins were slaughtered and looted (at least the ones that weren’t burnt to crisps) and the party eventually tracked the little blighters back to their lair.  That’s all we got to before we were all pooped out, especially me.  I was double booked that night and had come from a grad school thing where I had made tacos for a dozen people.  That’s how busy grad school is for me nowadays: I had scheduling problems on Friday night.

Overall, the new system seemed pretty decent.  I’m not sold on it as a replacement for my B/X rulebooks, but for my purposes it seems like a perfectly cromulent iteration of D&D thus far, much moreso than 4e.  And it seems to have a lighter touch to it than 3.x.  However, the adventure itself isn’t really lighting anyones jets.  Many people at the table, myself included, were annoyed by the plot rails we felt attached to.  I understand why many adventures are structured that way nowadays, but I just don’t want that sort of set-up.  My guess is that we’ll finish the goblin lair next session and move on to something else.  Whether we switch systems or not, we’ll see.  But we’ll probably go on some other type of adventure.  You know, like a bigass dungeon or a wide open sandbox.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Vorpal Wind

So here's one of my favorite bits of dodgy old background material from an obscure RPG.  And incidentally, it totally works as a half-assed justification for campaign-hopping FLAILSNAILS shenanigans.

Vorpal Wind

A Vorpal Wind is one of those complicated things that’s real hard to explain, but easy to describe (especially when you made it up in the first place.)

Not too long ago a vast interstellar war occurred in another dimension.  During the final battle the KKjhasn decimated the Gak’n”e fleet leaving the KKjhasn the rules of the known universe.  But the Gak’n”e flagship (a super-heavy dreadnought with an experimental ‘weave’ drive) escaped.  The KKjhasn gave chase to the only surviving Admiral with his prize ship and soon had the Gak’n”e boxed in, ready for the capture.

Well, the Gak’n”e Admiral (Bob was his name), couldn’t bear to see his arch-enemy, the evil Commander Karok, pluck his prize ship, so Bob (the Gak’n”e Admiral) decided it was time to test the ‘weave’ drive in a desperate attempt to escape.

Bob rang the ship’s engineer, “Give me full power Scrottie,” Bob said, “I want to hit weave-9!”

“Aye Cap’n, Ah woul’, bu’ ah cain get noo powwerrrr!!!” Scrottie replied.

“Just do it, Scrottie,” Bob ordered firmly, “If she blows, she blows.  And Scrottie, it’s Admiral, not Captain.”

Scrottie did as ordered, by shutting down all other ship systems he managed just enough power to engage the weave-drive at the untested nine factor.  Unfortunately for all on board Scrottie had to down the life-support systems in order to get the power necessary to hit “weave-nine.”

The weave-drive was designed to literally “weave” the ship through the dimensional fabric that separates all alternate realities, without ripping or tearing the thin substance.  Instead, due to damage sustained during the terrible battle, the drive malfunctioned and shredded a gaping hole in the fine vorpal fabric.  The ship plummeted at ever increasing vorpal speeds ripping through one dimension after another and upsetting for the first time the laws of dimensional separation.

Dimensional pressures became unbalanced and the result was deadly Vorpal Winds blowing in seemingly random patterns between neighboring dimensions.  The winds tangled up time-flow and caused all manner of other physical and dimensional side effects.  The Vorpal Winds have now stabilized somewhat and though they appear to have no pattern, a determined player can figure them out.

--pages 9-10 of Excursion to the Bizarre by Brian Carlson and D. Wolfgang Trippe.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Re-reading Is Fundamental

I think it's a common enough occurrence that when we re-read something we find new stuff in a text.  We either notice stuff we missed the first time around or we can connect it to new thoughts in our head.  That's why I reread the 1st edition DMG from cover-to-cover every couple of years (Though it's been more like three right now.  That's grad school for you, I guess.).  And there's a line from an Frantz Fanon piece that I didn't understand when I was assigned it as an undergrad and I didn't understand it when I was assigned it again the first year of my Masters degree.  Just last spring I was assigned the same chapter a third time and I think I've finally got the gist of that one sentence now, but I don't understand it well enough to trot it out casually in a discussion, or to make it a key component of a paper.  Maybe that'll come later, after further wrestling with the piece some more.

Which brings me to an idea I've been pondering for a while now: levels of spell comprehension.  Because the world needs one more way to make M-U's more complicated, right?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

about Zak

It's 5am here in central Illinois and I should be writing a preposterous paper on how object oriented ontology explains the relationship between the faux medieval verse of Thomas Chatterton and John Keats's long and ridiculous poem Endymion.  But I guess that can wait for later, because I am a little annoyed and need to talk about Zak's present situation.

Do I need to tell you about Zak or do we all know who I'm talking about?  Zak S(mith/abbath) is a guy with a weird haircut and a dragony tattoo on his head who makes art and writes about playing games with adult video performers and occasionally produces excellent gaming supplements you can buy but more often just throws brilliant free stuff you can steal onto his blog.  He is one of the key people who got the old school scene to embrace Google+ as a play venue, leading to a crapton of great gaming.

I think I've known him about five years now, but my memory for dates is hazy and it could be longer than that.  We've never met in person but I've read a bunch of stuff of his and talked with him online and exchanged emails with him.  All the stuff you do with online friends.  Maybe I'm naive, but I feel like I've known him long enough and well enough that if he were this kind of jerk, I would know about it.  To me, the idea that he uses the followers of his blog as some sort of invisible harassment legion would be laugh-out-loud ludicrous, were it not also such an easy way to ruin someone's reputation.

I still kinda want to laugh, though.  The man is one of most overt people I know.  Apparently some people really think a guy with a dragon where half his hair should be, who also makes it a point to tell you in the title of his blog that he plays D&D with porn stars, is some sort of sneaky bastard.  I am baffled.  He may be a bastard, but he ain't sneaky about pretty much anything.  (However, maybe some confused individual is misreading Zak and thinks that when he criticizes someone he is sending a secret telepathic signal to harass that person.  If you are that guy please KNOCK THAT SHIT OFF.  Seriously.)

Zak's "here is a picture of me with my dick out, now let me write 3,000 words about goblins" overtness can really throw people off their game, especially in places like RPGnet, where some days it seems like Sneaky Bastardry is an official sponsor.  In such venues simple interrogatories like "I am asking you point blank: are wizards awesome or not?" often function as rhetorical land mines.  You say yes and the other person writes three paragraphs explaining how, by clear logic, anyone who likes wizards obviously endorses the Holocaust.  So when Zak asks similar-looking questions with all sincerity, people freak the heck out.  People also freak out sometimes when he says things like "We're having this theoretical argument about gaming and it's getting pretty heated, but I suspect that at the game table we have more in common than we think.  Howabout I run a game for you and we see what happens?"  Apparently gaming discourse in some circles has gotten so messed up that an invitation to play a game is sometimes misinterpreted as someone laying a trap.

Zak's also been accused of being sexist and transphobic.  As a cis het male, I am not in an ideal position to evaluate these claims.  Scrap Princess confirms my own gut reaction to accusing him of transphobia.  I guess I could see how at first pass Zak flaunting his association with porn stars could be read as a bro-tastic performance of hypermasculinity, but from where I'm sitting, my impression from reading his blog shows him treating his adult actress associates as players, as friends and as people.  And female characters in his game writing are way more interesting than I would expect from a sexist jerkwad.  Does that mean Zak has somehow magically escaped the patriarchal systems in which the rest of us mere mortals are trapped?  No.  I'm not putting the guy up for sainthood.  I simply suggest that he's one of the people acting in good faith,  trying to get it right.  Like most other people, I'm sure he gets it wrong sometimes.

In conclusion, I'd like to say that Zak is okay in my book.  If you want to call him out on something, that's completely cool with me.  We all need to be called out once in a while, I think.  But cite your damn sources, please.  Passing on vague rumors is a bullshit move and you damn well know it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

oh, look. a monster.

We live in a visual age.  The advent of photography and cinematography plus earlier advances in the reproduction of images followed by the invention of the world wide web have resulted in a culture where we share images with one another constantly.  As a result, some guy in LA can immediately share the paintings he's created with the entire world.  While some other dude in the midwest can have a tumblr account that is 99% him recirculating images other people have created and posted.  Earlier ages would have called these activities miracles, but for us they are now routine components of our lives.

Now I am not a luddite by nature.  I like having a lever in the kitchen that causes fresh, clean water to erupt from a spigot, for example.  However, we live in a fallen world where every boon has its unintended consequences.  For us, one of those consequences is the way that our hyper-visualized culture can ossify parts of our imagination.  Allow me to demonstrate: take a moment to think about Frankenstein's monster.  I feel pretty confident you could immediately call up an image of the monstrous star of books, comics, films, etc.  And I also feel pretty confident that most of you imagined something like this.  The original novel by Mary Shelley has almost no description of the creature.  You can just about count on one hand the number of sentences that describe him.  And none of them mention green skin, bolts in the neck or a flat-top head at all.  Our collective imagination relies on the visual of the 1931 Universal Pictures film.

Which is not to say that I am arguing that you should all read the original 1818 novel (you should, but I'm not arguing that here) nor am I trying to argue that the yellow-eyed creature with translucent skin portrayed therein is superior to Boris Karloff all dolled up by make-up man Jake Pierce.  The latter version continues to haunt us for a reason.  However, I do think we should take a moment and reflect on what our hyper-visual culture does to our games.

Particularly, I am thinking about how monster books or chapters are put together.  This thing we do where every monster comes with a glamour shot is bugging me today.  Are we not doing to ourselves what the 1931 Frankenstein did to us?  For example, in my crazy brain I think I know exactly what a level 4 shambling krenshar looks like, because when the krenshar appeared in 3.0 the nice folks at Wizards kindly supplied us with this illo:

This monster is a hyaena-leopard thing that shows you its own skull before you die.  I think that's a pretty effin' cool concept.  But I'm not sure the art direction here delivers that concept.  In fact, I think this picture takes away rather than adds to freaky-deakiness of the krenshar.  What could be a monster instead becomes an interesting specimen from a wildlife documentary.

You know who did this crap right?  Sandy Peterson and the crew at Chaosium back in the 1983 Call of Cthulhu boxed set.  Dig it:

That little black silhouette suggests rather than defines the look of the Star-Spawn.  I would go so far as to say it raises as many questions as it answers.  What color is this creature?  A lurid green?  Jaundiced yellow?  Or perhaps it's pale white and shot through with creepily visible red veins?  That knobby head, is that an exposed brain, maybe?  Does this creature have a mouth under those tentacles?  If so, is it a slobbering, fanged maw or a snapping beak or a puss-dripping sphincter?  Etc, etc.

I'm not saying I'm against monster art.  I like pictures of monsters and little miniatures of monsters and videogames where you do nothing but blast hordes of monsters.  What I'm concerned about is the effect of definitive visual representations in monster reference books.  The systematic representation of monsters goes a long way to de-mystifying them, which takes away part of the numinous joy of having your PCs head ripped off by some unknown thing.

However, there are some things that I think you can do to put a little but of that frisson back into a game that doesn't involve chucking the beloved canonical monsters.  I'll try to cover those in my next blog entry.  Feel free to yell at me on G+ if I haven't posted by Saturday.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Random Hamlet Names

My new campaign map indicates the location of cities, towns and villages.  Hamlets are smaller-than-village units (10-60 inhabitants according to Ready Ref Sheets p38,) that can be found in any 5-mile hex containing a castle, town, or village.  On my smaller scale wilderness map I also assume at least one hamlet in any hex marked as cultivated land.  (The 1st edition DMG uses a slightly different definition of "hamlet" with a population of 100-400, while a "thorp" has 20-80 (DMG p 173).)

Since I'm working on "where the heck are you from" charts for PCs, I might need names for these tiny burgs.  Rather than mark and name each individual place, I thought a random table would be more fun.

Random Hamlet Name (2d30)

1st RollFirst Element2nd RollSecond Element
1Arse-1-back, beck
2Barmy-2-borough, burgh, bury
3Bog-3-bourn(e), burn
5Bugger-5-by, bie
6Bung-6-chester, cester, caster
7Cock-7-cotte, cote
12Fart-12-hall, hale
15Knicker-15-heath, hythe
16Muck-16-ing, ings, ington, ingham
17Pig-17-ley, leigh
21Rot(ter)-21-stead, sted
22Rust-22-stock, stowe
23Scab-23-ston, stone
27Sod-27-tree, try
28Stink/Stank-28-wall, well
29Tick-29-wich, wick
30Turd-30-worth, worthy