Wednesday, September 30, 2020

You can shove your "implied worldbuilding." I'd rather state things outright.

So I've been doing some writing today, and I've at least finished the first half of Part One of the module, the setting background and central "gimmick"—namely that Älyewinn is a Middle-Earth pastiche inflected by both "ancient aliens" style sci-fi and the infamous "Tom Bombadil is evil" postulate. I've always wanted to take that idea in both hands and dash for the horizon with it; this is the result. 

Read the preview here.

The fact that I'm going to wind up devoting something like eight pages at the beginning of this module to nothing but backstory and setting info will, no doubt, irk some readers. There's a tendency in OSR circles to prize "tight" writing above all else (despite many bloggers' professed love for High Gygaxian prose) and to laud especially the phenomenon which has come to be known as implied worldbuilding—dashing off a single sentence in the corner of your artsy-fartsy game-module that suggests the presence of a certain world-element without actually doing anything at all to explain it.

Say that instead of a skill system, your RPG book has a career list. If you populate that list with entries like "electric goose wrangler" and "haberdasher assassin," that certainly implies that the setting presumed by your game includes such things as electric geese, people who wrangle them, and assassins who either are or who for some reason specialize in killing haberdashers—even if none of these things are ever mentioned again elsewhere in your book.

I fucking hate that shit.

Gaming sourcebooks don't need to be fucking coy. They are supposed to be examples of technical writing. Their purpose is to convey information to the referee! If they can do that while also telling the occasional entertaining story, well and good, but the main point is to get the point across. Sometimes, that entails saying everything that needs to be said. Sometimes, if you only try to say just enough and leave the rest to be merely inferred, you wind up saying nothing at all.

Yes, leave gaps for referees to fill in where appropraite. Yes, trust your readers to have both intelligence and imagination. But, for the love of all that is good, please please please do not merely imply that your setting might have elements which are interesting. Give it elements which are interesting—and do the work to unpack them, so that your readers can see why.

"Engines & Empires" and "World of Gaia" Updates

Hoo-boy. Here we go. The final versions of the Engines & Empires Core Rules and the World of Gaia Campaign Setting have been submitted to DriveThruRPG and are awaiting clearance from the printers before I can order proofs. On the last editing run-through, I made two reasonably major changes that I didn't expect I would be making, but I found that I couldn't help myself:

• I renamed one of the attribute scores, changing "Acumen" to "Wits." Not only does it sound less pretentious, I also think it's clearer. When I see the word "acumen," even though I know intellectually that it means "discernment" or "judgement" or "keenness of perception," on a gut level it just feels like a high-falutin' synonym for "intelligence." By changing it to "wits," it becomes a little more ineffable, which is very purpose behind changing the names of the ability scores in the first place (how or why would you even go about checking "valor" or "wits" with a d20 roll?); it becomes clearer why this is the score that modifies saving throws (you avoid danger by "keeping your wits about you"); and it's just plain easier to say. "Valor, Fortune, Wits, and Presence" rolls off the tongue far better than "Valor, Fortune, Acumen, and Presence."

• I tweaked the prime requisites and level limits of several of Gaia's demihuman classes, changing a prime here, adding or subtracting a maximum level there, all in the name of better balance and characterization. But three classes got a major overhaul: the fay, the goblin, and the gnome. It makes more sense in the context of the Gaia setting (and provides more mechanical breadth to the game) to make fays rogue/mages, goblins fighter/techs, and gnomes rogue/techs. (The goblin class in the E&E Core Rules is still a rogue/tech; Gaian gnomes more or less are this class, but small-sized.) 

And that's it. It's off to the presses, set in stone, no more changing anything. 

I'm back to working on Lands of Älyewinn now, and I'm kind of stuck on a minor task: drawing town maps. There are two towns in the adventure (the village of Nibelholt and the much larger walled settlement of Oboe's Crossing), and I hate drawing town maps. They're boring—and if you do it wrong, it's super-easy to make a town map look like pure ass.

Oh, well. I guess when you commit to writing up a whole adventure module, you have to take the grunt work along with the fun bits.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Lands of Älyewinn: Overworld Maps are Complete

 Hey, so this is neat: I've finished the world map and continent map for Lands of Älyewinn Part I! Check 'em out—

We have the planet Ordwyrd—

The Lands of Älyewinn—

These were fun to draw. Cheers for now!

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Oh, yeah. I do have a dungeon to publish after all.

It occurred to me as I was working on the character classes for Shining Armour today that I also have a neato little five-level dungeon sitting in my big file-folder of old campaigns, just waiting to be cleaned up and published. Back when I first moved to Omaha, I was staying with my brother and some of his college buddies, and they asked me to run Engines & Empires. (This was back when it was a Labyrinth Lord supplement: I ran it for them using the Rules Cyclopedia, the Creature Catalog, and the Advanced Edition Companion—in large part because those were the only books I had been able to bring with me from Indiana.) They weren't at all well-versed in old-school D&D at the time, so I decided that I would show them the ropes by drawing up a multi-level dungeon, and I would drive home the fact that exploring the dungeon was the point of the game by awarding XP for rooms discovered (rather than treasure removed). It was a fun little game that lasted for a good number of sessions; and though I wouldn't ever choose to use those XP rules again, they were satisfactory as an introduction to the concept of a dungeon-centric campaign.

After my brother asked me to run the game, I basically took a day to draw up my dungeon. I didn't have any graph paper at the time, so I just sketched out all the rooms on lined notebook paper. I wanted something reasonably classic, but also a little on the weird side (I was reading through the John Carter books at the time, and they probably had an outsized influence on where I wound up taking the dungeon—but that's a long story for another post). The end result—the Fiendish Ethericite Temple—is, I think, just unique enough to be worth putting out there. Once I've taken the time to clean everything up and make it all properly presentable, that is.

After I finished running the Temple campaign, our little group switched over to Retro Phaze for a very short series of adventures (not enough to be called a campaign, not really) and then disbanded for a longish while before reconvening to play the Shade Isle campaign. This was the second time that I'd run Shade Isle, and it was in my opinion the best of the three runs that setting has had. I mention this because the third time that I ran the Shade Isle campaign (which was also pretty great), that was for my long-running FLGS group at Omaha's Dragon's Lair, and I followed up that campaign by running the Fiendish Temple for that group—only, this time around, I put it in a different setting. When I ran the Temple the first time, for my brother and his friends, I had placed it in Gaia (in the Kingdom of Asgard). But for the FLGS group, I put the temple in another setting altogether, the Heathlands of Alyewinn.

I have three major campaign settings that I return to again and again: Gaia, the setting that I invented in college and have published; Faerith, the setting that I maybe 75% invented back in high school, spring-boarding off the ideas of my best chum from back in the day when he would DM for us all the time; and Alyewinn, a setting that I created whole-cloth purely for the sake of canonizing the lineup of demihumans that wound up being used for the Core Rules edition of Engines & Empires (the adventure-junkie spying elves, gold-grubbing inventor goblins, pastoral sniper dwarfs, and spirit-totem barbarian ogres). So this is a setting that is actually deeply intertwined with the very roots of the E&E Core Rules; they both exist in part because of each other.

And that's how I'm going to publish the Fiendish Temple. Shade Isle is set in Faerith; when I finally get around to drafting everything for that massive hardcover, its first chapter is going to be a guide to Faerith's central continent of Lethandria. And as I work on cleaning up the Fiendish Temple (which I'll be doing simultaneously with my work on Shining Armour), I'm going to place it in a short module along with a broad-strokes guide to Alyewinn (think, the Known Word information that takes up a couple of pages in X1: The Isle of Dread) and a more zoomed-in hex map of the Heathlands, the wild border-country in between all of Alyewinn's civilized kingdoms. 

So: yeah, my next Engines & Empires product is going to be a module, with a world in maybe two pages, a countryside in two more, and the rest devoted to a five-level (actually twelve distinct sub-levels) dungeon where the main gimmick is that about half the levels were made by a wizard who locked them off with magical doors, and the players have to collect so many chunks of magic crystal called ethericite to open the way—but the ethericite crystals are valuable in and of themselves, too, because this wizard has also left a number of magical items lying around the dungeon (weapons, armor, staffs, wands) that the crystals socket into to change their magical properties. It makes for a rollicking good time.

And I also have two more dungeons sketched up for this setting (Cwealmdréor Castel and the Dungeons of Palad-Zôl), so the Fiendish Temple is only part I of III (or maybe IV, depending on how I split things up). I don't know when I'll have the time to get all of this done, but I do have to say, I've missed working on game stuff. It makes me feel more and more like myself again.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A First Look at "Shining Armour"

 It's just a little text file at the moment, but this should give eager readers a little idea of where things are going:

Shining Armour Introduction & Preview

I might actually manage to make some real headway on this game this upcoming weekend. I have the class stats, I have the game mechanics, I have sprite art… this may actually happen sooner rather than later. Color me as shocked as anyone.

Also, I'm trying something a little different this time around with Shining Armour. In the past, I've always done drafting and layout at the same time, using MS Word, setting up the formatting first and then writing everything up right there in the proper fonts and columns, tweaking as I go to avoid paragraphs running too long or short to fit into a column as I go. It's tedious, but it works well as a means of creating a nicely formatted book without having to know the first thing about layout-and-design software.

But for Shining Armour, I'm not doing that. I'm drafting the text in Word without paying any heed at all to how it will look in the final product. (Seriously, this is a novel idea for me.) Then I'm going to try and lay it all out using Scribus (because seriously, who can afford Adobe InDesign?). And maybe at the end of this process, I'll have learned a little something about how books are laid out professionally. Sounds fun.

I think I'm going to work on getting as much of the battle-mechanics as I can written up in the near future before I turn my attention to more character class progressions. That way, things will hopefully make more sense soon. (But feel free to ask questions about the little tidbit I've put out so far!)

E&E Retrospective: Castle Thadrian


The only adventure that I've ever actually published is Castle Thadrian, which hasn't been available either in print or as an ebook for many years now. I took it down for a number of reasons, some good and some petty.

• I first removed it from my Lulu page when I decided that I wanted Engines & Empires to be its own game, no longer associated with Labyrinth Lord. Castle Thadrian was dual-statted to work as either an E&E adventure or a generic LL/OD&D adventure with zero tweaking or converting. You'll notice that the adventure is labelled "B1": the old LL-based version of the Engines & Empires Campaign Compendium was actually designed to work with red box or 'Cyclopedia D&D, and it went up to 36 levels, explicitly defining each tier of gameplay as "Basic" (levels 1–3), "Campaign" (levels 4–14), "Dominion" (levels 15–25), and "Epic" (levels 26–36). My original and overly ambitious plan had been to release several adventure modules for each tier, so that E&E would have had a B-, C-, D-, and E- series of adventures (with red, blue, green, and black covers, natch), plus an A-series of accessory supplements. Obviously, since the standalone E&E Core Rules only go up to 10th level and no higher, this is no longer possible (or desirable, for that matter).

• The other major reason that I'm not revising and releasing Castle Thadrian now is that I long ago incorporated its 2½-level mini-dungeon into my favorite long-running mega-dungeon campaign, Shade Isle. So the adventure will still be republished; but it won't be as part of a small module. It'll be a whole chapter in a book that also contains an overworld island, a mega-dungeon, and four other small dungeons like it located elsewhere on the island.

• Finally, as originally designed, the titular dungeon from Castle Thadrian, the Tomb of General Tullius Maximus Diro, has issues. I drew up this dungeon over a decade ago, long before I had internalized any old-school game theory. The dungeon is highly linear, with only one pathway through the rooms in several places—and you have to pull a lever in the basement in order to open the portcullis to the upper level. I need to Jaquays the heck out of the dungeon-map before I can feel good about re-releasing it.

At any rate, here are the floor maps for the dungeon. They aren't the original hand-drawn maps I used in the module; rather, they're recreations (done up in MS Paint of all things!) that I put up on Obsidian Portal back when I was running the Shade Isle campaign for the second time (at the former location of the Dragon's Lair FLGS, here in Omaha).

I'll get around to revising these maps as part of my work on the Shade Isle campaign book for the new edition of E&E. I have… many, many, many more maps for this campaign and its several dungeons, in particular the twelve-level monster that is Shade Abbey. And for some reason, I'm excited about all of this again! 

In fact, the only thing that has me worried is art. I don't like the hassle of procuring proper art assets for RPG books, and I can't draw myself. But I think I need to start learning. High time and all that, if I really do want to commit to this whole small-time adventure-publishing racket.

Anyhow… onto the tactical skirmishing rules! Shining Armor stuff coming up next.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

"E&E: World of Gaia" is revised and once again up for download!

Now, at last, this book is back as well! (It can also be downloaded from DriveThruRPG and printed via Lulu.) Having rushed all day to get this done, I'm… tired. Happy that it's over with, pleased as punch to have both my E&E books back up and in print again, and really very ready to do something else.

But, as promised, I'll still start working on a little Shining Armour preview tomorrow.

Quick Little Update

It's late, I'm sleepy, this post will likely be incoherent. Forgive me if it is.

Engines & Empires is once again up on as a print title. It took a bit of doing to figure out their new interface, but once I did, it was pretty smooth sailing. The thing is, Lulu no longer has an option for uploading ebooks in PDF format (they only do EPUB), so it looks like Lulu will only be useful for print books in the future. On the plus side, I was able to get the book back up for POD right away, and Lulu's printing options now include a premium title with 80# paper (which is bound to be a far cry nicer than the 50# that Lulu used to use for its printed hardcovers… my goodness, but those were trash).

E&E can also be obtained from DriveThruRPG now, just as a PDF download so far (it's the exact same file that I have linked to here on the blog, through the sidebar and the previous post). There's a whole process you have to go through to get print copies up and running on OneBookShelf, including ordering a requisite proof copy before sales go live. Which is cool, obviously that's the best practice, and I'm going through with it now. It's just… slow. At any rate, OneBookShelf's printer, Lightning Source, seems to have higher standards for its hardback book covers (but with some potentially dodgy color quality compared to Lulu according to what I've seen and heard), and the premium option for the interior paper is 70#, which is still better than what I was used to before. So I look forward to seeing what a DriveThruRPG copy of my book is like when I have one in hand many weeks from now. And then I can finally see how it stacks up against one from Lulu.

Wolrd of Gaia is approximately halfway through the editing process, and I think I'm actually managing to turn it into something I wouldn't be embarrassed to have people read and play with. Switching back to full-on demihuman race-classes in the Core Rules was probably the best decision I could have made for the sake of making this book worthwhile. Gaia has lots of demihuman races. And robots—did I mention the robots? There are now separate character classes for playing steampunk versions of Artoo, Threepio, Tik-Tok, Nick Chopper, and the Terminator!

At the moment, I am finished with the rewrites to the character classes and the setting lore, and 10% of the way through editing and proofreading and repaginating the remainder of the book (the descriptions of the ten countries that make up the bulk of the setting: Asgard down; Avalon, Elysia, Hesperia, Illyria, Midjard, Pohjola, Sylvania, Tirnanog, and Utopia to go). With a bit of time and elbow-grease, I should have a download back up by the day after tomorrow.

Once that's accomplished, I definitely need to take a break from working on this kind of stuff. Real life has demands too, after all. But I do want to turn my attention fully over to Shining Armour next: it feels like I can maybe make some headway on that project now that, at long last, E&E is very nearly back to where I want it to be again. And it just feels wrong somehow, to have Engines & Empires back in my life without also having something quick and video gamey to take the place of Retro Phaze.

So: it's still going to be a while before I can actually publish something new, but I think I can maybe put together a little preview. I'm thinking, an example of how Shining Armour's 4d20-based combat system works and the progression table for the Swordsman→Hero character class. (I'm still hung up on initiative, though. Still no clue how I'm going to make that work in this system. Group initiative, with an alternating Player Phase and Enemy Phase, like Fire Emblem? Or individual initiative, like Shining Force, where initiative is determined by each unit's Agility score plus a random roll? It'll take some thinking and some experimenting to find a combination of mechanics that works properly while also being simple enough and quick enough to use at the game-table.)

BIG OL' EDIT: OMG I'm almost done with World of Gaia. Just one country and the back matter left to go!  I've been rocking out to the gorgeous Arcanum theme music while working on proofing and editing, and it's just been perfectly atmospheric for a project like this!

Friday, September 18, 2020


The revisions to the Engines & Empires Core Rules are finally complete! Once again, the book is available for download as a free PDF file right here at this very blog!

Of course, it is at the moment ONLY available as a PDF file, because Lulu went and changed everything about how they work, so now I have to relearn how to publish for print-on-demand all over again. And I'll probably just switch over to DriveThruRPG anyhow, because that's a market where I'll actually find an audience. But I digress. It's 2 AM, and I can figure that nonsense out tomorrow. For now, take a look, peruse, read, enjoy. Me, I'll be refereeing a one shot for some friends and neighbors tomorrow. I can't wait to take the new rules for their first official spin!

I'm back, baby!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

I'm Editing Like a Madman, and My Hatred is My Fuel

I've finally finished editing the chapter on the Fae. I've striven to respond to good feedback and criticism wherever it's been given, and in this case my editing has focused on two main areas. The first is reorganizing the Fae creatures in Engines & Empires around my revised cosmology and alignment rules, which is basically a minor set of tweaks, just cleaning things up and making everything clearer and more understandable, while also making alignment even less of a deal than it was in the previous edition. (Because, seriously, fuck alignment and the Chaotic horse it rode in on.) 

The second is in response to Ynas Midgard's hugely appreciated review of the E&E Core Rules, which has been in large part the only source of constructive criticism I've received. But I've taken the opportunity to whittle away at the full page of linguistics, etymology, and terminology concerning faes and faeries that I had originally placed at the beginning of this chapter, turning it into a much more accessible glossary in a sidebar. All of the same information is still there; it's just off to the side and more digestible now.

But I've noticed something else in the past few days, as I've worked to batter Engines & Empires into the shape that I want it to hold forevermore—to forge it into the gaming equivalent of tempered Damascus steel. 

I've noticed that I'm being driven by my hatred.

It's not all-consuming hatred. It's just a quiet simmer of constant annoyance. Perpetual background ire, if you will. I've been catching up on and reconnecting with the old-school gaming scene again, and I find that it still bugs me. It's the usual suspects: the artpunk stuff, the so-called games and settings and adventures that are really just collections of pithy tables with some avant-garde illustrations making the whole book a dubiously-useful eyesore; the so-called hacks and mini-games that claim to distill the old-school experience down to ten pages or less; the more complete games that nevertheless aren't even vaguely compatible with OD&D or AD&D; and above all, the execrable historical revisionism that continues to this day to define the "OSR play-style." That stuff all still bugs the crap out of me, and for whatever reason, it's driving me to actually work on getting my game back out there and being the change I want to see in the world. It's petty and irrational, but it's constructive.

Hey, sometimes you've just got to take some
good advice from a creepy dude named Sheev.

On the bright side of all things old-school, Grognardia is back! Which is great—although for the life of me, I'm still not sure whether the word "grognard" should properly be pronounced like French or corrupted fully into English. On the one hand, I like corrupting my old-timey foreign words into English. I like to say "HAR-kuwh-bus" and "KWEE-ras" for harquebus and cuirass. I like to say (as English readers at the time did) "Don JOO-an" and "Don KWIX-it." But on the other hand… "nards." If you don't pronounce grognard like a grumbling Frenchman (roughly, "gwã-NYAR"), you can't talk about grognards without constantly saying "nards." It's a pickle, and I'm not sure I have a good solution.

EDIT: Update on the E&E revisions, now humanoids are finally done. Goodness, but that took a long time. That just leaves three categories of monsters—planars, plants/oozes, and undead—and only undead need a major overhaul, with planars just getting tweaked to match the revisions to the cosmology and alignment, and plants/oozes being pretty much fine as they are (they're just getting an ordinary proofing and editing pass). After that, I can finally tackle the last major hurdle: magical items. So close now that I can taste it.
EDIT2: Nothing left of the monster chapter but undead now, which I'll save for tomorrow. Undead are the BIG one—whole new mechanics to add on here (in place of energy drain, which is just a pain in the butt to keep track of no matter what form it takes).
EDIT3: Monsters are finally fricking done. And now I have to stop and not work on magic items because society demands that I go be social and interact with people. UGH.
EDIT4: Half-way through magic items now. Finished potions, scrolls, armors, orbs, rings, and tomes. Have rods/staffs/wands, weapons, and miscellaneous magic still to go. Then there's nothing left but the book's back matter and covers to deal with! I might finish this tomorrow!!!
EDIT 5: That's rods and weapons done; just the miscellany left!
EDIT 6: The MAGIC ITEMS ARE DONE!  Working on the back matter now. Then it's just the index (*gag*) and the cover art…
EDIT 7: OMG now it's just the index and the cover left… so close I can fucking TASTE being done!
EDIT 8: …GROAN. THE GENERAL INDEX IS DONE. And the magic/tech and monster indices are so fucked-up page-number wise that it might actually be faster to simply recreate those fuckers from scratch. Don't wanna. Don't wanna do it. But it must be done, and I'm so close to finished with this madness.
EDIT 9: HOLY CRAP IT'S DONE, and a few minutes before midnight even. I did it; madman that I am, I actually finished revising Engines & Empires. Nothing left to do now but make some PDFs and redo the cover art. Expect a download (and a fresh new blog post) tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Making Progress, Slowly But Surely

Quoting an earlier post of mine from 2017, back when I was working on E&E's Core Rules:
I have statted up all the monsters there are to be statted.  Here's the final tally:

33 abominations
172 animals (kill me.)
47 chimeras and magical beasts
42 constructs
29 fae spirits
44 humanoids and giants
27 planars and elementals
24 plants and oozes
16 undead

434 bloody monster entries in total.

Holy fucking shit.

I should just re-title this book "The Steampunk Monster Manual" and be done with it.
As things stand, I have just finished going back over abominations and animals. The animal chapter is… long. There are more entries in it than several other chapters put together, although those entries tend to be blessedly short and light on or even absent noteworthy description. 

So far, though, I haven't hit any areas where I need to make major changes to the monsters—that's coming for lycanthropes, faes, humanoids (my goodness, do I need to overhaul humanoids), and especially undead. Those are going to be the big hurdles.

Once that's done, its onto reorganizing the magical items chapter (there are lots of little tweaks I need to make to magical items based on things I've learned from my last several long-running campaigns; tl;dr, I'm kind of over mithril as a thing all magical armors and weapons need to be made from), and then the final cleanup—fixing up the character sheets and charts and tables, and (*shudder*) redoing the index.

EDIT: And that's chimeras/dragons in the bag! Onto constructs and automatons!
EDIT2: And that's constructs in the bag too. Now we're onto the frigging fae… This chapter doesn't need any truly major overhauls, but there is a bit of lore getting tweaked around here, so it will involve being meticulous as I go through it.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Oh God, my eyes, my sore and tired editor's eyes

I've just finished revising chapter 3 (magic) of the Core Rules. It took all day, but I finished it. Which means that having knocked out chapters 1–3, I've successfully finished going through about 20% of the entire book, and all I have to do to be back where I was before the damned pandemic is to run through chapter 4 (technology) again. Thankfully, that should go much faster: the technology chapter is a bit shorter than the magic chapter, and I didn't make as many ill-advised changes to it during my previous revision pass that I need to renege on now. (I never converted the list of high-tech inventions to an OSE format like I did with magic; I only gave that treatment to the tech's 0-level gadgets and daily chemical preparations, but that's easily fixed.)

Chapter 4 does need to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that it comports with any changes I've made to weapons and combat so far, because the technology rules interact with the weapon rules a lot. Many of the tech's inventions straight up are weapons, after all, so of course that's going to be the case. Hopefully I can do what I've done with the magic chapter and simplify, simplify, simplify, eliminating needless corner-cases and exceptions from the rules wherever I find them. 

But for now, it's late. For now, I sleep.

BIG OL' EDIT: And now I've finished chapter 4. Took longer than I thought, but I'm glad I gave it a thorough pass, I caught plenty of typos and other minor grammatical fuck-ups as I went.

Now it's onto chapter 5, the referee's miscellany, which is where I give all of the rules for building campaigns, stocking dungeons, placing treasure, and awarding XP. It's also where I used to wax poetic about what it meant for a game to be OSR, but now I have to rewrite all of my philosophizing to comport with the tabletop adventure game ethic that I adhere to now. Oh, and chapter 5 is where I've squirreled away the demihuman classes, so as to keep the game suitably humanocentric. 

Question for anyone who reads this: I don't have any mechanic like infravision in my game (I hate anything that renders light-sources unnecessary), but would it still be worthwhile to include other minor special abilities for the non-human character types? I feel like I can put such things back again, now that I've returned to race-as-class and level limits. But I'm not certain that I should.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Retreading and Backtracking

It's been weird to shift from fiction-writing back to game-manual writing. One must still pay meticulous attention to grammar and word-choice, but for completely different reasons. (As I go back through the text of the Engines & Empires Core Rules, I find myself correcting the ever-loving fuck out of my comma use. What is this shit? Did I not know what a fucking clause was when I first drafted this book three years ago!?)

So much of what I'm doing is either a reversion to the way things already were in original/basic/expert D&D, which I've talked about before (eliminating critical hits and d20 checks from the game entirely); or it's an undoing of a change that I had planned on making when I first started this revision, only to think better of it with time (I won't actually end up switching to 1d6 weapon damage across the board after all, and I'm right now deep in the weeds of de-OSE-ing my spell descriptions after already having spent a great deal of time OSE-ing them to death back before the pandemic).

I really do like the full spell descriptions much better. Yes, they add page-count. Yes, they're slightly harder to parse in the middle of a game-session. So what? They've got soul. Moxie. Chutzpah. Literary je ne sais quoi.

And anyway, the sheer, unvarnished, pantswetting fear that I felt at the thought of having to give the OSE treatment to E&E's literal hundreds of monsters—the utter revulsion I felt at the notion of that—was probably what kept me from touching my revision at all over the summer. The thought of not having to do that to either the monsters or the magic items—that I can just give them a swift editing pass, make the changes and I need and want to make, and call it good—that gives me heart. It gives me hope that I can actually do this.

…And then I remember the fucking index. Ye gods.

Friday, September 11, 2020

I think I've got initiative licked

In classic D&D, there's an order of actions.  Everybody can sing it along with me now, we all know the five alliterating m-words—movement, missiles, magic, mêlée, miscellaneous—but for various reasons I chose not to include this particular rule in Engines & Empires. I like it well enough when I'm running vanilla D&D, but it's not without its problems. When lots of players (or monsters) all take the same type of action (e.g. "We all shoot bows and arrows!"), adjudicating what happens when can get a little hairy. And when initiative is bloody simultaneous—look the heck out, because then it's time to dust off the old "DM fiat" gavel.

Many of the problems with classic D&D's group initiative rules can be overcome by using some kind of individual initiative system, like you see in 2nd edition AD&D or any of WotC's d20 editions. But those systems are all dreary and soulless and slow the game down. Nobody likes rolling individual initiative. It's pointless tedium, and there's usually no reason for it. 2nd edition actually fares the worst out of all these systems, because in 2nd edition, every creature and character on the battlefield is rolling an adjusted 1d10 every round, as opposed to the cyclic spread of modified d20 rolls employed only once, at the beginning of 3e/4e/5e battles.

And yet, I feel so much nostalgia for 2nd edition's method, that I wondered recently whether it might not be the key to solving a little problem I have with classic D&D's initiative system.

You see, classic D&D employs group initiative with 1d6 rolled for each side. This means that there's usually 2d6 being rolled, one die for player characters and one die for monsters. So in the vast majority of combat situations, there is a 1-in-6 chance every round of having to go through the hassle of dealing with a simultaneous group initiative situation. (In the long Barrowmaze campaign I ran at my FLGS, it got to the point where, by the time the players were getting up to 3rd or 4th level, every round with simultaneous initiative was being accompanied by a groan from at least three players.) Obviously, the chance of simultaneous initiative could be reduced by simply increasing the die-size—use d20s to make the chance 1-in-20, or heck, roll percentile dice for each side to make it 1-in-100.

But that's only a good idea if you think frequent simultaneous initiative is a bug and not a feature. To me, it's a feature, however bothersome it is to deal with. I like the spicy hint of chaos that it adds to my combats. So, how do we square this circle? How do we keep simultaneous initiative, but make it easier to use?

Obviously, the answer is to replace simultaneous initiative with individual initiative, used only on those rounds where the 2d6 roll turns up a pair.

* * *

In Engines & Empires, characters' actions are organized into moves rather than according to the order-of-actions listed at the beginning of this post. Every creature gets three moves per combat round, and it costs 1 move to move your encounter speed and 2 moves to take most actions. (A few actions, like casting a memorized spell, cost 3 moves.) This more or less neatly organizes movement and combat actions from classic D&D in such a way that very little changes: a character with a speed of 30' (90') can still move 90' in a round by spending all 3 moves on movement, or they can move 30' and attack by spending 1 move on movement and 2 on an attack action. (Without getting into the nitty-gritty of disengaging from a mêlée, the main substantive difference between E&E and classic D&D is that a ranged attacker could now shoot first and then move second, nothing prevents that any longer.)

The basic initiative procedure is as follows:
1. Anyone who wants to spend a full round on total defense or spell-casting from memory has to declare it first. All other actions may be decided after initiative is determined.
2. Each side rolls 1d6, with the high roll acting first.
3. If the monsters win, the ref decides what the monsters will do and in what order, and then plays out all their actions. If the players win, they decide what their characters will do and in what order, reporting this to the ref as a group, who then plays out all of their actions.
4. After the side that won the initiative takes all of its moves/actions, the side that lost initiative takes all of its moves/actions.
5. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It's simple enough, while also leaving plenty of room for tactics and planning on the part of the players. If they want to send spells and missiles ahead first, before fighters close for mêlée on that same round, totally viable. They can do whatever they want, in whatever order, when they have the initiative. Likewise for the ref's monsters (and as I'm sure any player here knows, some monsters pull no punches when it comes to brutally efficient tactics, *cough* kobolds and hobgoblins *cough*).

But what about simultaneous initiative? E&E doesn't even have order-of-actions as an organizing principle here. At least in classic D&D, however much of a mess it was, you could still kind of fall back on, "Okay, first all the movement happens; then all the missile-fire…" etc. Just trying to have everything happen all that once would be pure, unmanageable chaos. So… why not, on rounds with simultaneous group initiative, just invoke individual initiative to simulate the fact that everybody's actions are being all mixed up and jumbled together?

This is where the system from 2nd edition comes it. On a round with simultaneous group initiative, every player grabs and rolls a d10 for their character and any henchmen (just 1 roll per player, to keep it simple). The referee rolls a d10 for each type of monster on the battlefield (1 roll for goblins, 1 roll for skeletons, that sort of thing). Ties get broken by roll-offs so that nothing is ever truly simultaneous—i.e., if the rogue rolled 6 and the goblins rolled 6, they each roll 1d10 again, and now maybe the rogue's initiative is 6.7 and the goblins are 6.5, so we know the rogue goes before the goblins—and one can repeat this procedure as needed, which is why d10s are used instead of (say) d20s. Compared to the way things ordinarily work under a group initiative paradigm, this mess of individual actions (inevitably without group planning or tactics on the part of the players!) serves as a good substitute for genuine chaos.

The alternative—the only one I can think of that still organizes things while doing away with the tedium of recording individual initiative rolls on one random combat round out of every six—is to rely on the player-determined order of actions. That is, on a round with simultaneous initiative, first (1) the ref would secretly write down what the monsters do in what order, then (2) the players would report what they want their characters to do in what order, and finally (3) the referee "shuffles" these two lists of actions together into an "action sandwich", alternating between monster and player actions as evenly as possible. But I don't like this solution: it's not random enough, it gives the players too much tactical control, and it still doesn't actually resolve things (or even decide which side gets an action first) without a bit of annoying fiat on the part of the referee. No, it's looking like individual initiative is the better way to go here. That at least doesn't require hardly any fiat, and it brooks no arguments. The dice tell when you go; couldn't be simpler.

* * *

In conclusion, I believe that the best possible initiative system is one that actually combines group initiative with individual initiative, resorting only to individual rolls when the group roll indicates simultaneity. It's elegant, it's functional, and best of all, the outcome is little different from by-the-book Moldvay or Mentzer, just without the headache of needing to adjudicate everything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Vivo, ergo sum.

So that whole plague thing happened, and I fell completely out of the habit of writing blog posts. Or playing D&D. Or doing anything that wasn't school-related, really, which (let me tell you) is a fine recipe for creative burnout. But I digress.

What have I been doing with myself in these pandemical times? I'll not bore anyone with my school-related dealings, or with any of a hundred things I could say about the current political climate. Entertaining stuff only on this blog, thank you very much. 

Actual Gaming: The coronavirus killed off the Morgansfort BFRPG campaign that I had been so keen on running. It might have been just as well: I had trouble wrangling players and keeping them to a regular schedule. In theory, 5 players had committed; in practice, 2.5 showed up with any kind of consistency. Then there was a very long gaming dry-spell, during which I got heavily back into writing fiction (see below); and then, a few weeks ago, one of my regular players started running a 5th edition campaign set in the Critical Role universe and wrangled me into playing with him. (Hell, forever!DM that I am, I jumped at the chance to actually play.) I'm playing a human bard. As befits my particular idiom, my character is an insufferable punster and player-of-words. And now that we're doing a proper crawl through the Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I'm actually really enjoying myself.

What I've Learned: My ill-fated Morgansfort campaign only lasted a meager few months, but it bequeathed some valuable lessons nevertheless. I have greatly refined many of the rules that will be going into the Engines & Empires revision (fighters and rouges are slick now, as are the demi-human racial classes). I learned that point-crawls are awesome and a perfectly valid alternative to hex-crawls when the campaign-map in question isn't a barren wilderness in need of charting and exploration. I've learned that the Dungeon of Zenopus from the Holmes Basic booklet (which I placed underneath the Morgansfort sewers in order to kick off the campaign) is perhaps the perfect starter-dungeon, and it may very well have replaced Zanzer Tem's Dungeon as my new favorite introduction for 1st level characters. 

In playing 5th edition these last few weeks, my general opinion of the system has been confirmed overall: it's not an abomination against gaming, but neither is it my system of choice. It's a refinement of everything that 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions tried to accomplish: story-driven, character-centric, combat-focused. The two biggest problems with 5th edition are (naturally) that experience points are awarded for monsters slain, an incentive to pick fights rather than be clever; and that those inevitable fights always take too bloody long—still better than 3rd and 4th editions by a long-shot, but also still an absolute grind of tedium compared to a TSR edition. 

I still couldn't give less of a crap about Matt Mercer or Critical Role.

What I've Actually Been Doing With Myself: When I haven't been doing schoolwork, I've been writing. A lot. Thanks to quaran-times, I've finished the second screenplay in my Rebels of Gaia portal fantasy series; and I've started two new novels: an investigative paranormal urban fantasy called The Faircourt Agency and a Barsoom-flavored sword & planet sci-fi called Urdowyr, both of which live over on the r/hfy sub-reddit. "HFY" stands for "Humanity, Fuck Yeah!"; it's a relatively new sub-genre of science fiction that seeks to subvert the tired old trope of elves, or Vulcans, or whatever the fantasy or alien species du jour is, always being physically and intellectually and spiritually and morally superior to humans. Instead, HFY is all about portraying humans in fiction as the "strong species" or the "smart species" or the "magical species" or the "sexy species" or whatever—essentially, giving the humans a "hat" to wear rather than making them the boring, average, everyday baseline that they usually are. It's refreshing; it's fun.

What I Intend to Do Now: I'm blogging again today because I've arrived at a point where I feel like I need to take a break from writing fiction. Quite naturally, this caused me to remember, oh, yeah, I have at least two or three tabletop games that I need to fix up and publish! So here's the plan. I'm going to turn my focus back to revising Engines & Empires for a while. I really need to get that done. I can't sit back and let Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland be the preeminent representatives of old-school steampunk! They don't even have technology-crafting rules or technologist character classes! They don't feel like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Not at all! So that will simply never do. 

I'm pretty sure that I've got the classes, weapons, combat rules, initiative system (at last!), and everything else all finally where I want them. I just have to do the business of editing. It's going to involve some backtracking, because I had previously committed to "essentializing" all of my spell and monster and item descriptions—turning them into bullet-points, after the fashion of the OSE rulebooks which have since become standard in the OSR. But that was a mistake: I don't particularly like OSE. I don't hate it; I bear it and its players and proponents no ill will. But it isn't me. I'm a writer. When I write or read a gaming manual, I want the process to be entertaining. I want some High Gygaxian prose, for goodness' sake. So I'm going to retain E&E's original format in the end, and this should serve to speed up the revision process quite a bit.

To those readers who continue to ask me about Retro Phaze: please don't. It's shelved for now. I'm someday going to write a spiritual successor to Retro Phaze that I've titled Shining Armour, but its mechanics will be entirely different—much more like Shining Force, hardly at all like Final Fantasy. I've got the basics of the combat system down; it's based on a 4d20 mechanic, probably like nothing else I've ever seen anywhere in a tabletop game before. But an actual draft of the system is still a long, long way off. It's not a priority for me right now.

In Conclusion: So that's an update on everything. Hopefully I'll also start blogging again very soon. I do still need to delve into the pedantic minutiae of initiative systems, after all…