Beyond Compare: Breakfast with Kraygen, Lunch with the Ratman

I love a well-crafted adventure module. When I celebrate them here, I'll feel the need for a spoiler warning, and you just finished reading it.

There are sixty or so published RPG adventures I've loved to some degree, and around two-dozen that continue to inspire and inform my own designs. I'll eventually post about everything in that two dozen; this is about two: Escape From Poughkeepsie (John Nowak, 1987) and A Love in Need (Brian M. Sammons, 1997).

These modules are worlds, genres, and a decade apart. Love is a nonlinear mystery, an atmospheric Cthulhu module intimate in scale and grim in outlook (focused on the fate of a young boy stricken with a terminal illness). Escape is a linear, 'splodey, action-movie quest set in the world of Car Wars via GURPS Autoduel, a snarky run into a nuked-out IBM lab, ending in the camp of a hubcap-barbarian warlord. Once you play them, you'll notice something else: they're beyond compare.

Rock-Solid One-Shots

I get a lot of play from both these adventures because of how reliable they are as single-session runs. If you need to fit them to a 4-hour slot at a game shop or convention, they'll deliver without fail. Each achieves that solidity through different acts of game design:

Escape From Poughkeepsie has a linear structure which boils down to three important roleplaying encounters (an outcast nutjob barbarian, a fringe librarian barbarian, and the chief barbarian) decorated with stuff to flesh out the world and deepen the atmosphere (ambush by a patrol, floods of mutant insects, the ruins of a nuked-out lab). The three roleplaying encounters provide clear tent-pole markers for the pace and give the PCs a sure sense of advancing toward their goal. The other, decorative material can be expanded or contracted at need, in real-time, since it's just connective tissue between the trio of critical NPCs ... thorny brush along a trail of clues and social introductions.

A Love in Need has a nonlinear mystery structure (multiple clues and leads from the start, and a small town to explore). Its guaranteed pacing comes from what's happening behind the scenes where the PCs (at first) can't see: there's a ritual happening soon,where an alien wizard intends to take his wife and adopted son away from Earth forever, riding the backs of byakhee (like ya do). This exit will end the series of murders that seem to be the crux of the adventure, but the murders are really just the backstory for the PCs learning of a horrible compromise to keep a child alive, and decide what they want to do about it. Whether they learn enough, fast enough, to make a wise decision (and what a wise decision even means) is up to them, but it's strapped to that ticking clock in the background, providing an ironclad schedule for the adventure's climax.

Populated With Juicy NPCs

Both adventures provide NPCs I look forward to roleplaying, and that eagerness puts a lot more spring in my GMing step.

Love features (among others) the earthy, serious Sheriff Tageret, feckless "Feckless Bob" (the mechanic), a part-time smuggler and full-time red herring called John Bog, sympathetic and doomed little David, and above all, it has David's parents: walking magic battery Phyllis (cooking up space-mead in the boardinghouse kitchen, keeping two sets of books out front, smiling cheerfully as she sizes you up for murder), and ... The Amazing Kraygen, an alien sorcerer in human form who'll engage you with on-the-nose philosophical references over breakfast.

Escape has that backbone trio I mentioned, each a juicy plum of roleplaying: The Ratman is the nutjob outcast, with an army of friendly rats, Peter Lorre's voice (the module is explicit on that point), and a vest of nitroglycerine vials. He'll hook you up with Specks, the Barbarian Librarian, who cooks fish over a burning copy of Great Expectations because fuck Charles Dickens (a motif in the book; no really), and he can pass you along to Glenn "The Knife" Knickerbocker, the barbarian chief who wears the shiny disc you're searching for ... but he'll be glad to cut a deal for some entertainment.

On this point, the modules are dancing to the same basic tune, and it's classic rock for a reason. NPCs have a clear function in each design, but none are simply functional. Both modules are structured around Player Character responses to roleplaying scenes. The choices the PCs make in dialogue, and the choices PCs make about NPC behavior, NPC sanity, NPC intentions, NPC well-being and NPC justice, will determine how these adventures turn out. To grease those wheels, each provides characters worth inhabiting by the GM, and every time I prep 'em, I'm hopping in my seat, eager to dive in.

With Agency in Spades

Both adventures have a quality I treasure: I can never guess how they'll go. That's never a matter of luck; it's down to design.

With Escape From Poughkeepsie, you might imagine a linear structure narrows its range of possibilities, but that line is just the trail connecting free-form scenarios within the scenario, a "string of pearls" as Dan Smith used to say (within each pearl? ANARCHY!). In play, the most variable pearls are the endgame (where the PCs know where the disc is, and must choose their own brand or blend of diplomacy, sneakery, trickery and thuggery) and the first major encounter, with the Ratman (I've seen parties destroy him, work around him, run screaming from him, and best of all: one party basically adopted him, because they pitied his status as an outcast).

In A Love in Need, the web of clues is nonlinear, but boils down to a single problem: an innocent boy is alive because his parents are willing to use an alien magic murder-cure to keep his disease from killing him, resulting in years of quiet slaughter of loners passing through the tiny town, seeking shelter at the boardinghouse. I've seen groups stop the murders in ways that doom the child, volunteer their own lives to extend his, try to rip him away from his murder-curing parents to seek another way, send him to space without his parents (I like to think he grows up to be Space Tarzan) and even dive immediately into their chemistry sets to find their own cure. I've also seen them get their faces chewed off, get the sheriff needlessly slaughtered, take the space-mead and run, or just go all guns and dynamite and it's bits of byakhee all over the lawn.

These adventures demonstrate three clear components to ensuring infinite variety in the face of a finite quandary. The first is a matter of omission: neither adventure presumes a solution to its central problem. The PCs must devise their own path. The NPCs have their own ideas about how things should end (the Kraygens intend to whisk David off to an alien world; the Knife is willing to give up his prize disc if the PCs will send a champion to battle his own) but the designs don't lean on the NPCs actually deciding anything: it's all squarely in the laps of the PCs.

The second ingredient gives backbone to the first: In addition to no solution being presumed, no solution is optimal. Even if the PCs were to gain omniscient knowledge of the ramifications of every choice, there's no clear "best" answer to either adventure's core questions. In the case of A Love in Need, the quandary is moral and ethical with a side-order of logistical. In the case of Escape From Poughkeepsie, it's logistical with a side of moral and ethical. In both cases, how the PCs feel about the NPCs will also exert a lot of gravity (some people find Kraygen and/or the Knife basically likeable, others find them intolerable, and this can cloud the practical shape of the question).

The third ingredient is: the PCs likely won't gain omniscient knowledge of the ramifications of every choice, and what the PCs do learn depends on their choices and personalities. This provides an explosive multiplier to the first two ingredients, because the PCs, with an incomplete understanding of the problem (but differently incomplete compared to other groups), facing a problem with no optimal solution, and where no solution is presumed to funnel their actions ... I'm running out of commas, here. To restate the upshot: I can never guess how they'll go, and that's well-crafted adventure design.

And They've Got Walkin' Shoes

I run a lot of different games across many worlds, genres, modes and styles, so this is a big deal to me: both of these adventures adapt cleanly and simply to genres and worlds beyond their defaults.

Of the two, Escape From Poughkeepsie is the most versatile, because it doesn't depend on any kind of supernatural anything (just the existence of a tribal group that might possess something unique the PCs need)... so I've adapted it to hard-science-fiction, pulpy space-opera, Paranoia, Star Wars, Star Trek, the World of Greyhawk, the wild west, the Marvel universe, 1930s crime-drama, my own homebrew fantasy world, and Bunnies & Burrows. Just find your metaphors and zoom.

A Love in Need depends on a supernatural gimmick (the alien magic murder-cure), but alien magic can easily become superpowers, psionics, exotic technology and plain old fantasy magic, so I've adapted it to every genre where realism can take a scenic hike (including multiple superhero universes, five different fantasy worlds, one cyberpunk setting, and several forms of soft-science space-adventure). Most recently, I wove it into two other favorite adventures in my local fantasy campaign, so if any of my players find this blog: nervous laughter and hello!

How does a module achieve this level of adaptability? Strong, transparent structure. Both modules can be condensed into simple moving parts attached by clear lines or skeins of clues, where every part either (A) serves an obvious function or (B) clearly serves as decoration/atmosphere. Once you recognize what the pieces are and what they're for, it's easy to send them to wardrobe for a costume change while you re-dress the sets. They each lay something simple on the table, trusting the process of roleplaying to snarl them into something unique.

Buried Treasure

Alas, neither module was published on its own, which makes them both more obscure than they deserve. A Love in Need is wedged into the middle of a 1990's CoC collection called Secrets. Escape From Poughkeepsie is tucked into the back of the AADA Road Atlas and Survival Guide Volume One: The East Coast. You can find either by rummaging in the right used bookshop or dusty box under a dealer's-room table, or snag them in PDF form from their respective publishers. They're a good time.

In a "Beyond Compare" post, I contrast the awesomeness of two or more RPG works. This first installment appeared on the prior blog; there are more on the way.



If you're making a new RPG character and you're desperate for a G-rated curse word the character can utter as a trademark, you could do a lot worse than "Aw, stinknoodles."

But stinknoodles – that is to say, shirataki – have become pretty important to our household diet, lately, so I figure I'd write a little about them.

Due to ill health, Sandra and I have some pretty serious dietary restrictions ... we have to limit calories, carbs, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium ... pretty much everything you can restrict, we have to restrict.

Shirataki noodles are pretty much 100% indigestible, in the good way, so they have something approaching zero carbs in impact terms, and virtually no calories either, so they're not food ... they're a kind of fake structure you prepare with food, as alternative to starchy, delicious, starchified starchlike starch.

If you're watching calories or carbs, consider keeping shirataki on hand. The texture doesn't resemble flour-based pasta, really – it's got more of that bungie-cord elasticity, closer to something in the ramen/udon territory. It's also virtually flavorless, so again: not food. But, a pretty impressive way of adding a pasta-oid, pasta-esque character to a dish of veggies and/or meat.

Because it's not starch, the texture doesn't really change. Where regular pasta gets progressively softer by cooking, shirataki just ... doesn't. This is strange at first, but becomes convenient once you get the hang of it. It makes single-dish cooking easier (as shown in the pic, where I'm getting the noodles hot next to some of the sauce components, all at once).

There are several brands available, some with a bit of added tofu ... and as near as I can tell, the only point of the added tofu (which adds a teensy calorie or two, nothing to worry about) is to make the noodles more opaque? I think? They don't taste any different (which is to say, they continue to lack any flavor of their own), so I think it's just some weird marketing thing where the assumption is that American buyers want their noodles more opaque. If you know a real reason, let me know.

The thing I find most interesting about the different shirataki brands is how they address the stink. Because these are stinknoodles. They're typically packed wet, and the water smells like dog poop having a stink-contest with rotting fish, in a battle royale where everyone loses.

Or, as the Nasoya label says, a "mild earthy smell."

Or (my favorite) the House Foods brand warns of the "authentic aroma."

Stinknoodles pretty much only stink when you open them. When rinsed and added to actual food, the stink fades rapidly, and vanishes entirely by the time you serve them.

But for a shining moment, you can breathe in that earthy authenticity.


Save That Which Lives

Nobody reads Risus: The Anything RPG and says "Hey S. John, was that a nod to Eitri, King of the Dwarves, who Peter Dinklage played in Avengers: Infinity War?" For a variety of reasons, they just don't. But yeah. That one goes out to King Eitri. And so does this rambling explanation:

In 1986, I got a job at a game-and-comic store in North Carolina, and those would be my first real days as a gamer. In one of my earliest conversations there, everyone got to talking about cool magic items.

They were just citing their favorites from the DMG or Judges Guild books or issues of White Dwarf and Dragon, but I didn't know that. As a gaming noob, I had no frame of reference. I thought they were extruding these things from spinnerets near their butts.

When it came my turn, it took a half-heartbeat of panic to remember I did have a favorite magic item! I DID.

So I relaxed, and droned in my best faux-fantasy-serious-guy voice that my favorite was "a blade, which will cleave through ALL ... [dramatic pause, dramatic rise of the eyebrows] ... save that which lives."

"Oooooh," said Nick, one of the gamers. "That'd be kind of frustrating but kind of fun. Lots of creative uses."

Pat added "That's why I like the Decanter of Endless Water. You can really surprise a DM with that!"

I didn't know what a Decanter of Endless Water was, but it sounded cool. I kept burbling: "Like, you couldn't really stab a guy with it but you could wreck his sword and armor ..."

"And whatever he's standing on, too!" said Nick. There was a collective nod of approval, as everyone mulled it over.

Then the conversation passed to the next person, and I had survived my turn. I had contributed a favorite without embarrassment. I felt guilty that everyone else had spinnerets near their butts, but I had, at least, survived.

I'd go on to put some version of that sword in several of my campaigns, and it sparked a lifelong interest in magic and powers with multiple, non-obvious uses. After becoming a storied blade of many campaigns, it popped up in my old homebrew Talisman cards (Blue Room fans may remember those) and of course, it gets a passing nod on page one of Risus. It's had different mechanics and origin-stories and in-world "rules" but it cleaves ... to its origins in an X-Men Annual from 1985.

That's Sam Guthrie (Cannonball of New Mutants) and King Eitri, after Sam and friends had an adventure in Asgard that rocked my lil' adolescent socks. There was, and is, nothing interesting about the armor. But a super magic stabby thing that can't really stab anyone ... it stuck in my memory because, before I was ever a gamer, it still sent my imagination running in a superhero-fan way: how would Sam use this new power? Does it stop at flesh or just ghost through? Would he let the other New Mutants know about it? Will he give away the armor? He's already pretty much invulnerable when he's blastin', etc ...

Anyway. That's why – beyond seeing Peter Frickin' Dinklage in an Avengers movie – the sight of Eitri gave me a bonus inward smile, recalling that he once forged me a favorite, and it's lasted.

If you're curious to read of the New Mutants' adventure in Asgard (including the X-Men Annual I mentioned) that story is currently available in both digital and physical form from Marvel as New Mutants Classic, Vol. 5.

Law of the Land

I'm still exhausted (in a good way) from digesting the new Avengers movie, so that's as good an excuse as any to rescue this post from the prior blog.

The Gangster! RPG (1979, Marinacci & Petrone) has, in many ways, earned its rest in obscurity. The writing ranges from "functional" to "painful," it scrapes itself thin across more history than it has room to support, and it's just generally more charming than gameable. And it is charming, but ...

Gangster! managed to commit one of the most amazing acts of player-handout design in the entire history of our hobby, and it did so in the form of Book 2: Patrol Guide and Laws of the Land. I can't begin to praise this little booklet highly enough, but I'll give it a go.

You know crime-drama cop clichés about "the book?" He's a by-the-book cop. Let's throw the book at 'em. This game went to the trouble of including the book. You can't do a police procedural without some inkling of police procedures, and here they are. Book 2 is a micro-compressed library of everything from the deportment of an officer to the consequences of crimes.

And when I say it's micro-compressed, I'm praising it so hard. This isn't just a gimmicky presentation of some necessary game information. It's lean enough, focused enough, and sufficiently well-organized to be used in real-time, as a functional gaming prop, without putting the tiniest bit of drag on a session's pace. Everything is boiled down to spare, role-playable basics, and the result is like the perfect sharpening of a blade. With this book in their hands, the PCs will be able to slip into the role of a police officer in a way they'll find more satisfying, more believable, and more fun. Just like that. It's an amazing piece of work.

Had the designers fussed even a tiny bit more over making it more realistically detailed, or packed it with qualifiers by era or location (the game promises to cover 80 years of crime fighting in its two slim booklets, and naturally it can't really do that), it would have been crippled. Instead, it's lean, confident game design of the highest order.

Gangster! is, as a whole game, mostly just a curiosity, a minor milestone in the 1970s awakening of the hobby, the rapid darting outward into new genres, to see what might stick. But it's a game any designer might learn from, and Book 2 is the reason why. If you happen on a copy, pick it up - because you'll find this a useful prop not only for its own game, but for any number of games you might set on Earth at any time in the last century and change.


The Oil Rush

It was 1983, I think.

It was a trailer without a trailer-park; set on its own bit of land in the backwoods of Virginia.

It was my very first anything resembling an RPG.

I owned a set of polyhedral dice. I just thought they were cute; pretty plastic items to make strange dice-games from. My great-grandmother bought them for me at a Waldenbooks a couple years earlier, from a checkout display box. Magic Gemstone Dice, or somesuch.

I'd shown the dice to my buddy John Embrey at school, and he was like "Oh, you have D&D dice!"

"I do?" Internally, it was more like "Grandma would never have bought me these if she knew that."

John offered to introduce me to the game. He also had some Gamma World stuff and more, I think. He didn't get a lot of chances to play, so he was excited about it.

John's place was the trailer in the backwoods. His dad was an ace wild-turkey hunter (the actual bird, not the booze), and his mom was a good cook, and they were always good to me (including introducing me to the best coney-dogs I've ever had, but that's a tale for another time).

John handed me a character sheet with a character on it (nothing so formal as a pregen, just a leftover sitting in his folder) and ran me through a couple of rooms in Lawrence Schick's White Plume Mountain.

There wasn't any backstory and there wasn't any ending. We just did a couple of encounters, then I was like "okay that's cool let's play Mario Brothers," and it wasn't even Super Mario Brothers, just regular Mario Brothers.

But in that hour or less of D&D, there was a magic moment. I was threatened by a Mimic. You know the setup: there's a "treasure chest," so I'm like "Okay I'll open that treasure chest" and he's like "No you don't! It snaps its teeth and growls and tries to eat you!" and I'm like "mother fuck!" and he's like "baha!"

So I search my character sheet for a solution. And keep in mind I've never held a character sheet in my life, so I don't know which parts are important and which parts are less so. I'm just scanning at random and ... LO.

Oil. There's a flask of oil. And a frickin' torch.

"Man I'm gonna douse it with oil and set it on fire."

And he has me roll something and he's like "Yeah okay it burns and dies" and I'm like "YEAH" and the Rocky theme is playing in my head and I'm victory-lapping around this Mimic and in that moment, in that embarrassing, ignorant moment, I am 100% sure that I just invented that shit, like nobody else in the history of D&D ever thought to douse something with oil and burn it, and I just broke the fucking game and they'll have to make a new one because they didn't count on S. John coming down and breaking their goddamn game with his fucking OIL GENIUS.

And John, he could see this, and he just lets me believe it, and more important, he lets me play some Mario Brothers, because he's got video games and I don't, and he's really cool that way.

A few years later, when I became a DM and knew how Mimic stats and initiative and hit points and weapons worked, I'd look back and see all the things that John Embrey left out of that encounter to make it work, including his tactful omission of the simple phrase "Yeah, everybody does that with oil." And then, I took that lesson to heart, and was a better DM for it.

But I still remember the rush of being an oil genius. It was nice. I like to think that if we'd ever finished that module, I would have traded Black Razor for a TON of oil back in town.