The Lurking Wordfill

A few days back, my buddy Pete Schweighofer over at Griffon Publishing Studio published a new work, an old-school fantasy setting book called The Greydeep Marches.

To celebrate Pete's new book (and because Pete enjoyed that Paranoia puzzle I posted a while back), I felt I had no other choice but to create this, The Lurking Wordfill of Veen. If you take pencil in hand and try it, I think you'll find it a pleasant diversion. You can click here to download it.

When My Feelings Say "Wordfill," They Aren't Asking.


Tactical Roleplaying

This is #3 of the RPG Lexicon series. Click here for #1, if you're new and you're feeling linear!
(But, this one stands pretty well on its own, too)!

Today I want to talk about a term I depend on, but which has stalled more than a few conversations in confusion: tactical roleplaying. It's the essence, in many ways, of what I love most in RPGs. S. John Hearts Tactical Roleplaying, Hearts It So Much.

We should probably start by being crystal-clear on the word tactics. Let's say we're playing Scrabble, you and I. I just played near a triple-word square, hoping to follow up on my next turn, but it's your turn now! Alas, your tiles suck. They suck so hard. But ... you've got just enough in your tray to cobble together a low-scoring word that fails to grab that square, but lies adjacent to it in a way that makes it unusable to others. If you make that play, you block me from my intent. That blocking move is a tactic: you made a choice, you took an action, to help you win.

In RPG culture, some folks get stuck on the word's military connotations, using it to refer to combat. That's exactly right, in some contexts. Not this one. Scrabble has no combat rules, give or take a few colorful homebrew variants.

That's where many of these conversations get confusing. But we've got it out of the way, right? Let's try it: Blackmailing Detective Phelps to get to the Chief of Police? Tactic. Handing a freshly-unearthed copy of the Necronomicon to someone else so they can read it instead of you? Tactic. Taking this Wookiee to custody? Tactic. Choosing between the Mines of Moria and the Gap of Rohan? Tactic. In RPGs, any choice that affects the outcome of character endeavors is tactical. Instead of players "winning" and "losing," Player Characters succeed by degrees (plus or minus qualifiers) at dozens or hundreds of endeavors over the course of an adventure. Thanks to the invisible rulebooks, RPGs have tactical infinity, and that's the magic mojo happy juice.

So, now we're at tactical roleplaying. Roleplaying is sometimes tactical. Sometimes, it isn't, because sometimes it affects outcomes, and sometimes it doesn't. That's the whole term. Tactical roleplaying. Roleplaying, that affects outcomes. As a player, I love it. As a GM, I do my best to serve the players by providing for it. As a designer, I consider it a core design ideal and a valuable point of contrast. But what are we even contrasting? Two things:

  • The first is non-tactical roleplaying. If two PCs playfully banter while sharing the road, for example, that's usually non-tactical: it's atmospheric; it's entertaining, but it doesn't affect any outcomes. If we removed it from play, the course of events wouldn't change. We don't want to remove it from play, though, because banter is fun. We like banter. It even enriches Scrabble.
  • The second is player-level gameplay: tactical decisions made by the player as the player, rather than the player as the character. It can be a mushy line, but it's not THAT mushy. This gets us into age-old RPG talky-points like "character knowledge vs. player knowledge:" If it's a decision based on the visible rulebooks, that's a player-level decision, for example. I adore many games where this is the core of gameplay (like Scrabble).

Sometimes, this can get into murkier zones of player knowledge (the player knowing the game-world better than the character ever could) or player intention (the player's goals superseding the character's). Handing off the Necronomicon, for example: is it an example of tactical roleplaying? Depends. If the character knows what harm reading such a book might do to a fragile mortal mind, passing it along is tactical roleplaying, and specifically it's an act of in-character cruelty. That character is a dick. On the other hand, if the character is innocent, and hands it off because the player has some understanding of the danger, that's a player-level gameplay, and that player is a dick.

So either way it's a dick move, but each version has a different dick.

It should be easy by now to track how we cascade to this from the Invisible Rulebooks. In games leaning visible, procedures and mechanisms are more important, so reliable resources are more important (for defining both PCs and the obstacles they face), so decisions based on knowledge of the visible rules are more important. This calls on the players to drive the gameplay, and calls on the GM to focus challenges in that same head-space lest the PCs be rendered mechanically irrelevant (a dick move). These are all just spectral tendencies but they can really add up, because they're mutually reinforcing. In such games, there's usually a clear division between "the game parts" and "the roleplaying parts," to the point where some gamers will even express preferences in those terms.

Over the course of the hobby's history, there's been an unfortunate tendency to cast this in terms of role-play vs. "roll-play," as if to suggest that mechanistic groups roleplay less, or value roleplaying less. In my experience, that's seldom true and never fair. Gamers leaning visible don't roleplay less than gamers leaning invisible. Nor do they value it any less. It's just, in those games, roleplaying is less tactical, because the tactical "load" tends to focus on "the game parts." Meanwhile, "the roleplaying parts" are still welcome and encouraged, because they enrich the game, making it more immersive and entertaining for everyone.

In games leaning invisible, the resulting change isn't "more roleplaying" but rather roleplaying becoming more tactically important, gradually fusing with and (at the further end of the spectrum) becoming the central mode of gameplay. This, in turn, magnifies the impact of characterization, and lets players just game wholly in character, if they like, with fewer reasons to poke their attention anywhere near a mechanism or procedure (because the characters are busy, solving problems and overcoming obstacles and buckling swashes and probably still bantering). And just as visible-leaning games have just-as-much-roleplaying, invisible-leaning games have just-as-much-tactical-meat. The trade-out is where it sits: crucial decision-making tends to slip from the hands of the players, flowing down into the fictional world, to the hands of the characters.

Are there other consequences to all this? Oh, so many. But we've got a whole blog to explore them in. See you next installment, in the Lexicon.


Town Maps: Tops, Bottoms, and Hot-Spots

Correspondent Joshua Wolfe writes:

"Your maps always look so pretty. Is your process for map-making towns bottom up or top down? Do you start with your list of hot spots and assemble how the town should look around that? Or, do you start with an idea of how the town and topography should look and then see where your location ideas fit into it?"

Thank you! Those terms sound kinky! The short answer is "neither," but there are always shades of each, so the short answer is actually "both." Unless it's "neither." Or both. I mean answers. Let's restart.

I've never drawn a town-map without prior context; it's always within an existing setting (Uresia or some other world I'm mapping that day). Consequently, there's always something established before I begin, even if it's just the location of the nearest coastlines and the nearest relevant mountains and what kingdom/realm we're in. So even if I wanted to begin without considering those things, it's never an option.

My Master Hex-Map, Unpublished For a Reason: It's Super Dull

After that we dive deep into "it depends." I don't just write about Uresia; I GM the hell out of it, so it's rare for me to map a town we (the players and I) haven't already gamed in or at least heard in-game stories of.

Sometimes, that amounts to what might be called "hot spots." From recent games in Jubilance, for example, we know the city's Guild of Lapidaries has a heavily-constructed (stone) guildhall on the east end of town, that it has two above-ground stories, and a walled yard tucked against the town's own wall. So, if I get around to mapping Jubilance in "town scale" (like Trostig and Scott's Landing), I'd need to (A) beat my head on the desk because I really need to stop mapping cities in town-scale and (B) make sure there's an appropriately-shaped building in approximately the right area. Town-scale doesn't include low walls on the scale of a single burgage plot, so that detail wouldn't need to be present: just a largish stone building and some greenery in the yard. Maybe a teensy fountain if I want to indicate how swank it is to be emerald-cutters in Dreed (it's very swank).

But everything else we know about Jubilance is the kind of stuff that wouldn't show up at that scale: we know an inn where the PCs stashed their stuff (they never got to sleep there), a bordello where one of the knights did some stuff (again, sleepless), a tavern where tavern-things happened, streets down which a happy parade of Trolls bebopped, and a seaport where seaport-things went on.

There were memorable moments attached to all of them, but on those town-scale maps they'd all just be ... streets, a seaport, and teensy little town-buildings occupying ordinary plots of land. Those memorable locales would look exactly like their never-visited equivalents.

And that's true of most town locations, really. I generally map towns in two styles: the town-style, and the city-style (which shows only major streets and oversized permanent structures like walls and citadels).

Now, just between you and I: I'll absolutely linger on those little boxes, giving them special attention, because they have identity in my mind's eye. But I also take care to linger, almost at random, on a certain portion of all the little boxes, because otherwise the town looks bland. I can't abide a Row of Identical Rectangles unless I'm deliberately trying to communicate that this is a particularly ordinary, even tedious, row of buildings. I want every town map to be filled with stuff I do understand and stuff I don't, and I learn a lot about each town when building them.

Some of the Simplest Boxes Have the Most History and Vice-Versa

Uresia isn't a "medieval" world in any serious sense, but it does have a certain Gone Drunkenly to the Renfaire aesthetic, so most buildings are scaled and arranged in a hand-wavey Oldeish Europe sort of way, where I stay conscious of how each town arranges lots and frontages and closes so as to make the town survivable to tiny meep-meep cars in the imaginary Uresian future, but terribly inconvenient to a lumbering full-size American sedan.

So, there are rules I draw by (broad rules based on cultures, specific exceptions based on cultural collisions and local circumstances), and inevitably a few basics in my head, going in: Jubilance has walls (not always a given in Dreed); Jubilance has that nice east-end guildhall for the Lapidaries; Jubilance is a seaport on the northwest coast of the island. It's a couple of days' hike to the mountains, and it has generic town-type-things. It's Dreed, and it's got emeralds, so it's at least partly, grossly, rich (which means broader frontages, more frequent fountains, more frequent greenery).

Having gamed there (and having already mapped all the Uresian coastlines) I have a general shape which emerges from necessity.

So that's square one. A mushy blend of hot-spot and topography. Instead of top-down or bottom-up it's just sort of saggy middle. Imitating its creator, no doubt.

From there, the process is iterative. I don't just start with a blank sheet of paper and draw 'til it's done (I've seen people who do; they impress me). I start with a blank piece of paper and scribble a deeply crappy first draft.

This follows my approach to writing. I'm a huge fan of "splat the first draft, [insert gross sound effect] and then sculpt it into something that's less like hot garbage." Sculpt it via second and third and fourth and as many drafts as it takes.

As those drafts roll out (freehand, usually on whatever cheap notebook paper comes to hand, or clean sheets stolen from the printer tray) I learn more about the town (including hot spots and topography, along with history and resources and fires and wars and hills leveled and ditches dug and walls argued-over because pennies got pinched), and I interrogate the design, engaging in fruitful acts of doubt, questioning why-is-this-there and why-is-that-shaped-that-way and shouldn't-there-be-a-more-direct-route-from-this-gate-to-this-marketplace and so on.

Sometimes I Use SketchUp to Visualize the Elevations

I don't consider any of this to be the cartography. Not yet. During the splats I'm just designing the town, and it's a bit like the distinction I make between RPG design and RPG writing (click here for that): I want to have a lot of the design finished, solidified, interrogated and multiply-drafted, before I start worrying about how to present it (presenting it: that's the cartography).

Once I'm satisfied that I know my way around, I go digital: using scans of the least-splatty drafts, I begin constructing the territory (water, elevations) in Adobe Illustrator or some other vector-art software (I built the original Shadow River plan in DTP software because Illlustrator still terrified me in those days, but the principle's the same).

And then I really go to town ... In city-scale, I focus on the identities of entire neighborhoods and principal landmarks. In town-scale, I go less sane: lovingly obsessing over each close, alleyway, street and square; every space allotted for caravans or livestock; every bit of clean water that becomes nasty water and flows somewhere else. Literally every single tree (within town) and then swaths of forest beyond it, if there are any. That part's a long story.

Once it's done, I can drag those nice clean vectors into Photoshop to thrash them around, warm them up, and give them their final textures and colors. This often means a return to natural media: the way I get watercolor textures, for example, is I splat some cheap supermarket-toy-section watercolors on equally cheap paper and scan it. I also use textures made from photographs I take of everything from rocks to leaves to other rocks to food to stones to rocks.

And that's the process. Such as it is. Tops, bottoms, hot-spots? Yes? Sort of.

From Cold Vectors to Warm Textures


GMing: Some of My Pre-Campaign Habits

While every campaign is unique, I have a handful of habits I return to in the pre-game stages. These are my favorites.

Foundation Materials

I always distribute some kind of campaign document, a hyper-distilled micro-worldbook, emphasizing the parts of the setting the PCs should/would be most aware of, or might be dealing with in the near future. Depending on the needs and moods, it'll run from 2-12 pages.

My runs lean toward the invisible end of the spectrum, so I like to GM the kind of adventures that invite and reward investment in the setting, and this kind of focused document boils things down for casual readers, while providing in-depth setting junkies with a starting point.

It doesn't even matter if the world is well-described by free resources. If I'm running FASATrek, for example, focusing on fallout from the Organian Peace Treaty, I can point them toward multiple Trek resources online ... but to the casual reader, those thousands of pages can be more intimidating than inspiring.

The most casual players can read my stripped-down summary, and they're ready to go. More ambitious roleplayers might want a character with strong ties to the event – someone who's suffered or prospered from the Treaty, for example. They can start with my mini-version, and wiki onward from there.

Structure vs. Scheduling

The enemy of grown-up gaming is Mundane Life. Many campaigns die due to circumstances beyond the game: someone had to move across town (or across state, nation or planet); someone had a romantic breakup (or an exciting new romance); a couple had a baby; someone's night-shifts got day-shifted, etc. Most campaigns can survive one such blow (we'll missing having an Ace Starpilot, but the ship's AI can fly well enough) but as they pile up, things start to look grim (we like to think that AI ship is still out there, doing all the jobs the crew used to).

Few campaigns are mundanity-proof, but I do my best to anticipate potential issues, and bake those into the campaign structure during early planning. If key players are likely to drop in and out frequently, for example, I'll lean toward an episodic campaign, where each adventure is self-contained. This makes it easy to explain why Drake Truncheon, Two-Fisted Man of Danger, joined us on our 1933 caper in Algeria but didn't make it for our [very next session] 1934 trek from Chengdu to Mandalay.

Since not every campaign really works as episodic (sometimes you just gotta have a big ol' single-focus epic), for other games we've reached for stranger solutions, like "the PCs will often be on remote treks for many sessions in a row; we'd love to have you drop in now and then, but would you mind if your character is someone the wizard summons from his pants? He has pants full of demons but some of them are pretty nice. Really any character could live in his pants. It's a world in there."

There's no one-size-fits-all solution (add your own "demon sweatpants" joke here), but it's always worth scanning the horizon for the most likely hazards, and adjusting early.

The Creation Session

For many one-shots, I'll just say "bring a character suited to X and Y, and off we go." For a one-shot, it's all good.

For campaigns, though, I host a session devoted to character creation. We don't usually gather at the gaming table for these ... any social setting will do: a favorite restaurant or bar, someone's living room, or the FLGS.

I prefer a pencils-down approach to these. It isn't about statting the characters out (players are welcome to do that at home), it's about creating them, individually and as a campaign ensemble: seeing which niches (if any) anyone wants to carve or share, establishing some relationship dynamics, knitting connections between backstories and long-term goals. In practice, the players "run" this session themselves in a cross-table barrage of brainstorming and Q&A, and I just dip in at need to offer advice. Even when the ensemble is built around friction (a party of cutthroat pirates, or Paranoia troubleshooters, someone's pulling a Jayne Cobb, etc) it's nice to give it just a bit of form, so we can hit the ground running.

The Mood Watch

I do this one maybe half the time: we gather to watch a few movies selected to set a certain campaigny mood. Most of my campaigns take place in some version of real-world history (with thick layers of genre-syrup on top), so it's usually fun to pick two or three films touching on the same genre / time-period in some way.

Whether I schedule the Mood Watch before or after the chargen session depends on the run. Sometimes, I want the films to inspire chargen choices and gameworld perspective. Sometimes, I prefer to have the players attached to their character concepts before such exposure.

The Campaign Glossary

Every campaign I've run for the past 20 years or so has its own Campaign Glossary. I find them invaluable.

The Glossary is just a document listing all the stuff: NPCs and locations, objects and events, and more. Depending on how many mysteries/secrets I'm juggling, I sometimes have two versions of the Glossary: one for the eyes of the players, one private. A simple Glossary entry might be something like:

Blackwind Cove: Isolated cove north along the coast from Jubilance, where the PCs battled for the Banderilla in Session B3.

A fleshier (but still brief) entry:

Carmichael, Lonnie: An Agent of the King, legal overseer of the emerald mine at the village of Illies. Affable and more even-tempered than his colleague, Tully. Described himself as "Blind Deacon born-and-raised." PCs met him in Session B1, B2. Due to connections to Scholar Teague and the death of Clenson Dara, Lonnie was apparently questioned (even tortured) in Vanity sometime between the PCs last seeing him, and Session 15 (when they heard of this questioning from Salem Lambeth).

That campaign was your basic world-spanning mystery, so tracking all the moving pieces on the global chess-board was handy for everyone. I maintained the document on Google Drive, gave everyone access, and updated it after each session. Snazzy for me when weaving threads; snazzy for the players when NPCs returned after a long absence, etc.

These days, it's also a snazzy memento. Between the campaign "micro-worldbooks" and the Glossaries and the session notes ... any of us who played can revisit each campaign, in a way, for years to come.

And if I ever publish a book about Uresian Loreseekers? Well, you'll know where a lot of it started.

In response to yesterday's Interactive Sunday, correspondent Jack Dawson asked for a piece on campaign groundwork. Thanks for the prompt, Jack! While I can't write an article for every request, I always appreciate a good writing prompt, and I'll write posts for as many as I can. Is there something you'd like a ramble on? Drop me a line.

From the Same Campaign. I Do Love a Loreseeker.


Deadly Goobers, Hollow Points: Another Dip into the Lexicon

We've previously examined tactical infinity and the invisible rulebooks. Be sure you're up to speed on those, because these new terms depend on them. As before, I'm not really describing concepts here (if you've been gaming more than a week, you already know these concepts); lexicon posts are about the terms, which are the tools, I use in designing.

Today's terms: I find it useful to recognize the difference between reliable and ephemeral resources, and their proximity to mechanistic vs. creative problem-solving.

Gameplay in RPGs is frequently about solving problems: There's a child in need of rescue. There's a war that needs preventing. There's a planet that needs exploring or a beastie eating villagers or a mystery we haven't solved or a mark we haven't robbed yet. An adventure contains problems, and the PCs set about solving them ... whatever "solving" means to these PCs, in this context. While we're at it, some PCs spend a lot of time magnifying, multiplying, and creating fresh problems of their own!

Boiling it further down: this frequently comes down to the application of resources to attempt solutions.

Reliable resources are those recognized and defined by the visible rulebooks. If a game has a "Strength" score, for example, being strong becomes, to some extent, a reliable resource. If a game has rules for 9mm hollow-point bullets, having a pocketful of those becomes, to some extent, a reliable resource (usually moreso if you've got a gun). The extent to which a resource is reliable is the extent to which the visible rules recognize and define it.

Reliable doesn't mean "guaranteed to succeed." Your 9mm pistol might be able to jam or misfire; you might be able to miss, and shooting the problem might not solve it. Reliable just means "guaranteed to be something you can look up in the visible rules." Skills, stats, spells, superpowers, potions of invisibility, starships, weapons, armor, tricorders, cars, fanny-packs, provisions ... if the visible rulebooks, to any extent, define and describe a thing, it's something that has, to that same extent, the "reliable" tag. The same bullets can be more or less reliable in different games, based on how reliably you can look them up to understand what they can do.

Ephemeral resources tend to emerge from elements the GM has prepped or improvised for the adventure or campaign, including things like the weather, current events, the nature of a local culture, or the quirks and interests of specific NPCs. These sometimes matter only in the here-and-now. An offhand mention of an NPC priest's peanut allergy is a resource the PCs can leverage toward a solution, if the priest's potential for misery and maybe-fatal anaphylactic shock might be part of that solution. Maybe that priest will never appear in another adventure, but right here, right now, his allergy goes on our list of assets, next to the wheelbarrow we left over the albino.

For the PCs to apply an ephemeral resource often requires the invisible rulebooks, because not every game explicitly defines the mechanistic effects of peanut allergies, and even if they do, they seldom provide a mechanism for determining if any given priest is subject to those effects, or if the PCs know about those priests. These resources spring from the mouth of the GM, and the GM must ultimately adjudicate their uses. To the extent that the visible rulebooks do not recognize or define a resource, that resource is ephemeral. As with the bullets, this peanut allergy can be more or less ephemeral, depending on the game.

I've been using the word "extent" a lot because this is all super-duper spectral. A given resource can occupy any position from wholly reliable to wholly ephemeral. Similarly, any attempted solution can occupy any position from mechanistic to creative. While we're at it, a thoroughly-defined resource can still be used in creative ways, and an ephemeral resource can still be leveraged using visible rules.

Yet, despite all this spectral mushery, there are clear consequences for any design's reliance on the visible or invisible rules, whether we're talking about adventure design, world design, resource design or ... anything we design.

In games which rely heavily on the visible rules, player characters tend to be defined in terms of several reliable resources, and they're often outfitted with belongings which are also reliable resources. As a consequence of that, adventure-design tends to follow suit by defining most central problems in mechanistic terms: the difficulty of the lock, the thickness of the star destroyer's armor, the power level of the telekinetic villain. In games of this kind, there's distinct pleasure to be found in managing and applying reliable resources in reliable ways (which might still have highly unpredictable results, depending on how everything works). There are frequently optimal solutions to central problems, and it's satisfying when the PCs can deliver that solution.

At the other end of the spectrum, characters in invisible-leaning games tend to have fewer reliable resources on their character sheets, and adventures for such games tend to define central problems in less-mechanistic terms, and those problems seldom have optimal solutions ... so the pleasure and satisfaction comes more from recognizing the potential of ephemeral resources, and applying that potential creatively.

Because it's always spectral, all these pleasures (and pleasures combining them) can arise in any game ... but the tendencies are real, cascading through every form and level of design.

And that's why I wanted to get these terms out of the way early. They're pretty basic, but we'll need them a lot going forward. See you next time in the Lexicon.

No Amount of Mechanistic Definition Could Stay SAINT THRAZAR From Using His Axe - or His Lapels - Creatively.


Workshop 001 Results

I'm happy to present the results of Workshop 001: The Haunted Attic. This exercise had seven entrants: a mix of newcomers, occasional writers, and seasoned professionals. These filtered in from (at final count) 24 interested writers, a few of whom I'm sure we'll see more from.

A round of salutes, please, for those who made it all the way! This is fairly tough stuff: a purpose-built exercise which takes a doughty band of writer/designers, straps their designing arms behind their backs, removes their shoes, and asks them to scale this ridiculous indoor rock-climbing wall, two to three hundred words tall.

I've presented the entries in random (die-rolled) order, without the authors' names attached. I've done my best to preserve the original spelling, punctuation, and formatting of each entry, to the extent possible in the space between Blogger's WYSIWYG HTML and my own primitive grasp on tweaking it.

Whether you're one of the authors, or a reader following along: thank you for being here! I think just observing the workshops has value, too. My advice for studying the entries is just: take your time. Don't skim. If need be, lay this blog-post aside for later, when you can really pay each writer's efforts their due attention. After the entries, I'll offer my closing notes.

Entry #1

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The attic is mostly filled with forgotten, worthless junk. The only notable features are an empty chair, and next to that, the dry, misshapen corpses of Abigail Whitehouse and her dog, Bo. Abigail died, 91 years old, after she (with her faithful hound at her side) had finished killing her family. After her murderous task, she and her dog retired to the attic – it’s a comforting place for her, a favored place to hide as a child, and now, a place to rest content. She fed morsels of her slain granddaughter's flesh to her dog as she awaited the reaper. Once she was gone, with no other food or means to leave, Bo took to feasting on Abigail’s corpse until he too died, curled up to his beloved owner. Abigail’s desiccated corpse still shows signs of Bo’s voraciousness. Exploring the attic’s contents will awaken Abigail’s spirit. She will appear in the chair and, after a moment, notice her own corpse. Unfazed by her own demise, she’ll seem troubled by the corpse of her cherished pet. She’ll regard the PCs passively, responding only if spoken to or threatened.

If spoken to, Abigail is willing to describe and confess to her grisly crimes, in casual, conversational tones. Any other lines of questioning will be politely ignored.

If threatened, Abigail will call on Bo, who’s ghost will readily appear to protect her. Abigail herself lacks the ability to cause any harm, but Bo has a freezing, spectral bite that causes paralysis and potentially fatal tissue damage. The ghostly pair can only be harmed by magical or psychic means. Bo’s only other weakness is the hunger he still feels – his aggressions can be deterred with an offering of meat.

Entry #2

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Read or paraphrase the following.

At the top of the pull-down stairs, you peer into an attic strewn with broken furniture, and a single intact chair. Oh, and two bodies on the floor. One body is human, and looks partially eaten. The other is a dog, curled around the remains of the other form.

At least the bodies are dry and twisted from the passage of time rather than moist and noisome.

If the player characters poke around the room, a ghostly presence appears in the chair. An old woman, looking content. They might recognise Abigail Whitehouse, the family matriarch, from portraits. She died at the age of 91 at the same time as the rest of her family. The solution to the entire mystery of the house could be here!

Abigail looks at her corpse, then the dog. "Poor Bo! He must have been terribly hungry after I died. Still, at least he enjoyed the last meal I gave him."

Abigail will cheerfully elaborate if asked questions. Bo's last meal was the hand of Abigail's sweet granddaughter. Indeed, Abigail killed her entire family. After that, the matriarch was able to rest, satisfied, in the attic where she so often hid back when she was a child.

At this stage the player characters might seek to do Abigail harm. As a ghost, she is invulnerable to physical attack, and cannot hurt the player characters. She is vulnerable to magical and psychic damage, and if threatened she calls upon her faithful hound Bo.

Bo died hungry, and unlike most ghosts is still able to affect the material world. His bite causes cold damage and potential paralysis. Bo still believes he is material. He can be distracted by meat. The meat doesn't even have to be human flesh.

Entry #3

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Entering the Attic

After climbing the creaky pull-down stairway, the characters will find a dimly lit attic room. A shaft of light from a small window shines down on two bodies laying in front of a dusty chair. It is the body of an woman in a tattered house dress slumped over and a large hound curled up next to her. The dry attic heat has mummified them, stretching their skin tight over their desiccated corpses. Looking closer, the characters will find tears near the hem of the woman's dress and cavities on her legs where chunks of flesh have been torn loose, exposing the bone. A steamer truck and various boxes of knickknacks line the perimeter of the room. The sill of the attic window is covered in animal scratches.

Stirring the Spirits

Should the characters disturb any of the items in the room, the apparition of Abigail Whitehouse suddenly appears in the chair. She looks down at her body with a crooked smile, and speaks in a scratchy voice, “Oh, Abigail. After 91 years, you are finally ready to meet your lord and join the rest of the family. But, where is Bo? He is always so hungry? I thought a piece of the little one would tide him over.” If the characters inquire about her family, the ghost describes in shocking detail how she murdered them. Otherwise, she watches them impassively with her wild eyes. Should the characters try to disturb or attack her in any way, the ghost of the hound appears from the shadows and attacks. Its bite stabs into the flesh like icy needles, paralyzing with a shock of pain as it freezes and tears the flesh in gruesome fashion. Being incorporeal, the ghosts may only be harmed by supernatural means. The characters cannot physically interact with the spirits.

Entry #4

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The first character climbing the folding stairs to the attic comes face-to-face with the smiling, desiccated body of an old woman sprawled on the floor...presumably Abigail Whitehouse. The shriveled body of her faithful hound, Bo, snuggles in the twisted comfort of her body. Closer examination reveals something long ago gnawed portions of her arms and legs; crusty blood mattes the fur around Bo’s muzzle. An upholstered wing-back chair looms in the center of the room. Gnawed bones, possibly the arm of a little child, lurk under the chair. A heavy blanket of dust covers everything: the chair, bodies, and the piles of rag dolls, dilapidated puppet theater, and the decrepit dollhouse stacked under the eaves. Anyone rooting through the attic contents rouses Abigail’s ghost. It appears seated in the chair, swaying contentedly. She gazes at her own body on the floor, but her brows twist in sadness when she notices Bo’s lifeless form. She peers at the characters inquisitively. Attempts to speak with her ghost only draw memories of her crimes: “Abigail took care of them all,” she rasps. “Needful sons, nagging spouses, spoiled children, cursed Whitehouses. Throats slit, nice and neat, stacked in the basement like so much meat.” She ignores all other topics, preferring to dwell on her butchery. Should anyone threaten Abigail’s ghost (verbally or physically) she calls for Bo. The dog’s spirit coalesces in front of her, sniffs at the bones beneath the chair, licks ghostly Abigail’s legs, then turns to growl at the characters. Physical attacks don’t harm either ghost, though both remain vulnerable to psychic and magical attacks. Bo snaps at anyone seeking to harm his mistress. His ghostly bite stings with sharp cold, possibly paralyzing characters and draining their life-energy without proper psychic treatment.

Entry #5

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Cluttered with worthless junk, this attic contains nothing of interest, except for a gnawed corpse on the floor and the dog carcass curled up next it. Both are shriveled with the passage of more than a century, yet the corpse still bears a satisfied grin. This was Abigail Whitehouse's favorite hiding place as a child, but she had lived 91 years when she returned here to die, just after murdering her entire family. Her hound Bo became trapped with her, and though recently fed on the flesh of her granddaughter, starvation drove him to feed on Abigail as well.

Exploring the junk will cause Abigail's ghost to appear, seated in the chair she died in. She will study her own remains, lamenting for Bo, then turn her gaze upon those who have awoken her. She will only respond if asked about her crimes, confessing them in detail. If she feels threatened she will rouse Bo's ghost, though he can be distracted with meat, as he can never forget his hunger.

Abigail and Bo cannot be physically harmed, but are vulnerable to psychic and magic attack. While she is harmless, his bone-chilling frost-bite can injure, paralyze, or kill.

Entry #6

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The attic is a dusty hodgepodge of items stored and forgotten, none of particular value. Near a chair to one side of the entrance, the bent and dessicated body of an old woman lies on the floor. Something has taken a few bites of her arms and waist. Curled next to her is the body of a hound dog, similarly dry and twisted but fully intact. If the player characters explore the stored items, the spectral form of an elderly woman appears, seated in the chair. The ghost looks at her body, and then the body of the dog, and shakes her head. "Poor Bo," she says. "Guess he got a little hungry a'fore the end. Pity he couldn't find a way out on his own." Then she looks to the PCs. She responds if spoken to, though she only speaks of her last day and ignores questions on other topics, humming cheerfully to herself.

Abigail Whitehouse died in this very chair, very pleased and content, at age 91 years. This attic was her favorite hiding place as a child — "her little refuge" — and the place to which she retired after murdering her entire family, root, branch and twig. (If pressed for a reason, she says only "It was the right thing to do.") She led Bo upstairs to keep her company to the end, using a granddaugher's left leg as enticement.

If Abigail's ghost feels threatened, she whistles up Bo's ghost to defend her. Neither ghost can be harmed physically, but both are vulnerable to psychic and magic attacks. Abigail's ghost can do no harm, but Bo's intangible bite can freeze limbs or hearts. Bo's ghost still remembers his final hunger and so can be distracted by meat.

Entry #7

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What happened here: At the age of 91, Abigail Whitehouse murdered her entire family, then withdrew with her dog Bo to the attic, which was her childhood hiding place. She fed Bo a little flesh from her granddaughter’s body, then sat down in a chair and died, content. Bo, unable to escape the attic, fed on Abigail’s corpse, and eventually died. Immediately visible: This is a small attic, choked with the smell of decay. Abigail and Bo’s corpses lie on the floor, side by side, dry and misshapen with age. Hunks of muscle from Abigial’s arms and legs are missing, torn away by canine jaws. Household clutter collects dust in the corners, and a single chair sits in the center of the floor, underneath a long-dead incandescent bulb.

Abigail: If someone disturbs the family possessions stored here, a figure of wintry mist will coalesce in the chair, taking the form of an old woman who resembles the human corpse on the floor. She’ll see the two bodies and will regard the dog with fond sorrow. “Such a good dog,” she’ll say, in a nearly inaudible voice. If questioned, she’ll willingly confess what she did to her family, in calm, painstaking detail. She’ll ignore any other topics. She cannot affect the material world and cannot suffer physical injury, though supernatural forces can harm her.

Bo: If Abigail feels threatened, she’ll call to Bo, and he’ll manifest as a savage wolf-like apparition whose growls rattle the house. Like Abigail, Bo’s ghost is immune to physical violence, but vulnerable to supernatural forces. Once awakened, he’ll attack all trespassers, and though he has no physical strength, his bite lands with a sharp chill, intense enough to paralyze and potentially kill. Bo died hungry, and the sight of meat can distract him.

• • •  The Roundup  • • •

Did some of the participants get their designing arm wriggled free, just a little? Absolutely, those straps were designed to loosen in event-legal ways, so that the writers might constructively waggle their elbows: the contents of the attic, for example, were left for the writer to determine or ignore. Abigail's sentiment about Bo was defined, but not scripted, and more. There's also a general allowance on details which follow inevitably from established facts.

Did some wriggle a bit freer than that? Yes, alas. But we caught it all on camera. Each RPG-writing athlete will decide for themselves if they made the climb to their satisfaction, and challenge themselves with more discipline in future exercises. It's a given that these writers could do more with more words, could do more with more design freedom. But I hope they were happy to discover what they could achieve with less.

Which brings us to the broader topic of judgement. In this series of exercises, that's not what I'm here to do, despite my established nature as an opinionated so-and-so. If it pleases you, enjoy this guide to roleplaying as me, and apply my exacting standards to the work shown here. More to the point, apply the standards of the workshop and the rules of this particular exercise. As author or reader, ask yourself how well each entry delivers on the needs of the piece: does it get you, as the GM, in the right mindset for creeping out your players? How does it achieve that? By creeping-out the GM out in advance, to set a mood? By highlighting the mood-potential of what's in the attic? Both? Does each piece deliver all the required facts? Does it deliver them with clarity? Could you find them easily in play? How does each piece serve different GMs' prepping styles? How would it serve yours?

What would a version assembled from the best of all of these look like?

If you're inspired to share your take on any of this, on social media or your own blog, let me know! I'd love to read it, and (with your permission) link to it in a future post so others can enjoy it, too. There's a lot left to unpack here once the roundup is done. Note also that while I'll never reveal the participants' identities, they're welcome to do so, if they'd like to 'fess up or brag! None of the authors know the identities of the other authors, so they can only "out" themselves.

I believe each of these writers has something to teach us. Here are some of my favorite bits from each entry:

  • Entry #1:  Awaiting the reaper. "Feasting" and "beloved" in such near proximity. The framing of Bo's distractibility as a "weakness" highlights it well, and I like the phrase "an offering of meat" a lot.
  • Entry #2:  "From portraits." The choice of the granddaughter's hand as the meat Abigail gave Bo. The wry note about which meats might distract Bo. The use of boxed text gives me a nostalgic grin.
  • Entry #3: Tattered house-dress. "Mummified." The tell-tale scratches from Bo's clawing. Delivering the granddaughter detail via Abigail's musings. "Supernatural means."
  • Entry #4: "Twisted comfort." The bloody muzzle. Shamelessly exploiting the traditional creepiness of dolls and puppets. Ghostly dog behavior, with the sniffing and licking. Abigail's rhyming confession.
  • Entry #5:  Exceptionally tight discipline. The enduring "satisfied grin." Use of "study" for Abigail looking down at her body. "He can never forget his hunger." Very nice use of "frost-bite."
  • Entry #6: "Dusty Hodgepodge" is my next character's name. Describing Abigail's body as "bent;" that's a choice word in this context. Leaving the "something" that chewed Abigail's body implicit. Abigail's dialect. "His final hunger."
  • Entry #7:  The bulb. The "nearly inaudible" note for Abigail's comment to Bo. "Supernatural forces." Overall sense of organized presentation. The balance of mood-setting approaches.

Thanks again, to every author who participated, every author who meant to, and everyone reading along. This has been the first in an intended series of RPG writing workshops, each designed around different (and comparably specific) challenges. Whether you're a hobbyist or a career RPG writer, I welcome you to participate in future challenges as they appear. The next one planned will have half the target wordcount as this one.* That should make it easier ... right?

* Half-ish, says S. John From the Future.


Another One Bites the Dots

I expect you've seen this video by now; the teaser for Bohemian Rhapsody. It's hard to tell much from a teaser trailer, but it's a pretty good teaser.

The prominent use of Another One Bites the Dust really gets me thinking about Pac-Man, and I don't mean regular arcade Pac-Man or any of the modern iterations of the game, I mean the deeply crappy 1982 home version for what we now call the Atari 2600, but at the time usually just called the Atari.

When 2600 Pac-Man hit stores, Another One Bites the Dust had already done victory-laps on the charts two years earlier. But they'll always be smooshed together in my mind.

I was living in Cumberland (Maryland) in those days, living the formative years, as they say. Mom was busy going to school, Dad was off doing Marine stuff. We went shopping regularly at a department store called Hills.

I loved Hills for exactly three reasons: they had Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars (which I adored beyond all reason), they sold previously-frozen hot pretzels from a snack bar near the checkout (mustard packets at the ready) and they always kept at least one Atari out where kids could play it. Not much different from a modern department store, but lower-tech and with a greater chance of someone wearing plaid. Including me. Old photographs prove beyond the power of my denials that I wore plaid pants as a child.

At no point in my childhood, teen-hood, or early adulthood was I ever in a position to play cartridge games at home; things like that were for for other kids. This never bothered me; it didn't occur to me that it should. I had Matchbox and Hot Wheels and we had television and record-players and I had no more direct contact with reality then than I do now; I was busy daydreaming. I think I was 12 or more before I even noticed the difference between the gadgets I had access to and the gadgets others had, and by then I was obsessed with reading, and reading is a pretty cheap obsession.

But man, I loved going to Hills and playing Atari. I remember some deeply awful games. Empire Strikes Back was one I must've played a hundred times there; Mom would just leave me to the Atari while she did her shopping, presaging a basic parenting technique that would define my and all subsequent generations.

Pac-Man though ... that was an event. The normal Atari display got moved away from the long wall and placed on a big end-cap display with tons of Pac Regalia. There was sometimes a line. A frickin' line to witness the butchery of this beloved arcade game, reduced to sluggish boxes colliding with other boxes making a dull bump-bump-bump noise while the player wrestled with the world's least cooperative alternative to a joystick. Every ounce of charm from arcade Pac-Man had been extracted with a rusty bandsaw, the resulting gore sprayed in the eyes of eager children.

And for whatever reason (to show off the bass, I suppose), the nearby wall of stereo equipment was thumping out Another One Bites the Dust on an endless loop. This was true for several visits in a row, and the resulting association is a bit like that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Beethoven is tainted for all time. Part of me doesn't understand why no one in this trailer is playing Pac-Man.

I hasten to point out: it didn't feel like childhood trauma. It felt like getting to play Pac-Man without any need for precious quarters, followed by disappointment I couldn't fully process, followed by having a song stuck in my head for weeks, the loud singing of which concerned my mother for reasons I didn't understand.

I just thought it was nonsense words. I mean, we were poor but we could usually afford a previously-frozen soft pretzel. Nobody I knew bit dust for real. It just sounded really fun and was easy to sing and made higher-quality thumping noises than department-store Pac-Man.

They didn't look this good. Clipart pretzels are better pretzels.


RPG Writing: The Ground-Floor Basics

These are some of the qualities I admire in RPG writing, and the ones I demand as an editor:

Good RPG Writing is Clear

Without clarity, writing fails. It's the most critical quality, in most respects.

But it's also something most medicine labels can manage. If the highest praise I can muster is "that was clear," it's a bit like saying to an illustrator "That painting of your sister reminds me of your sister," or to an interior designer "This new living room really contains chairs." Like, high-five. You've achieved the rudimentary.

Good RPG Writing is Informative, Lean, and Confident

These are three facets of the same diamond. By informative, I mean it doesn't just communicate clearly, it communicates with a lot of bang-per-buck, a lot of stuff per word. It's not uncommon for RPG writing to be so empty it takes 2,000 words to communicate a single gameable idea. I expect from four to twelve, interwoven with many dozens of subordinate ideas, in that same count.

Leanness is about how many channels you're broadcasting on. Poor writing plods along on Channel One, relying on the literal definitions of words, strung in a series, to putter out the payload. Good writing delivers on several bands at once, leveraging connotation, context, arrangement, and what I like to call shapely silences: communicating in the logical space between other assertions.

Confidence is the crucible for the others. When a writer lacks a sure hand, that's when things get flabby: spoiled by qualifiers, stray adjectives, ornate puffery, artless redundancy and desperate pretense.

Good RPG Writing is Layered

Here, leanness strides the fourth dimension. In the name of clarity, the writing must deliver the payload without ambiguity ... and in the name of leanness, it needs to do so using the full force of available channels. Good RPG writing soars beyond that, providing more to enjoy as the text is digested.

Layered writing isn't about holding back or obscuring information; delivering the payload is never optional. Layered writing is about shining a light on ramifications, themes and perspectives to enrich characters, adventures, gameplay and the process of reading. The payload is the design; the layers reveal the design's possibilities.

Good RPG Writing is Surprising

I mean in the smallest moments, in the gentlest ways. I don't expect RPG writing to make me go "HOLY FUCKING SHARKSHIT MY LIL' MIND IS BLOWN" four times a page or even at all, necessarily. When it does, that's about design rather than writing, and I'm not talking design here.

What I'm talking about is dexterity with words and structures, and the artistry of tickling a reader's short-term expectations. I'm talking callbacks, ironic twists, turns of phrase, simile and metaphor. We can name a dozen devices, but they each deliver surprise, and not the SHARKSHIT kind, the tiny-inward-smile kind. When you're writing, you're laying racetrack, and that means mixing the straight-aways with little dips, lifts and the occasional hairpin. Make me feel it.

If you're spotting more and more overlap between these qualities, you're getting the idea.

Good RPG Writing is Musical

While we're at it, bad RPG writing is musical. All writing is musical. So what I mean is the music of an able musician.

With a few exceptions (some speed-readers, a few others) people hear the words they read. When I make a parenthetical remark (this one, for example) you hear a shift in tone. When I punctuate or italicize, you ... Hear. These? Changes! Every sentence has a cadence, every paragraph collects them into a composition, and the reader knows the difference between a concerto and some jackass, stumbling in the orchestra pit. Cacophony can be music too ... just make sure it's deliberate.

Good RPG Writing is Inspiring

Information and inspiration are the products of the trade, the one-two punch of game-writing justice. The best RPG writing is celebratory, flush with the fun living in this book and waiting to POUNCE at the gaming table.

I don't mean it's all unicorns doing rainbow glitter-farts; even the grittiest dystopia can be celebrated in the language of gritty dystopias. The idea is: this shit is fun to make characters for. This shit is fun to adventure in. This shit is the shit, and the GM is gonna rock it and the players are going to roleplay the fuck out of it and we're all going to be so hyped and dehydrated that these Doritos are going to taste ten times better after we've gamed all over them.

Or maybe don't sell it so hard. But as the writer, it's absolutely your job to sell it. This is a relay race: you hand it to the gamers, and the gamers run with it, and they'll run it to places far greater than we've ever seen in the playtest rounds, more amazing than our fondest hopes for the material.

Unless we give them no reason to.

Good Writing is Clear

Full circle. All these qualities contribute to clarity, to render the payload not only accurately, but indelibly. Good RPG writing doesn't sacrifice clarity, because it doesn't have to. Good RPG writing achieves each of these basic qualities ... or it goes back to the writer in a bath of blood-red ink ... and the next draft begins.

Long-time fans may notice I left a few of my favorite rants out of this article. Not to worry, I'll be writing about (for example) the importance of warmth in future installments. I'll also re-explore some of the above in greater detail. Remember that my inbox is always open if there's something you'd like to see examples for or expansions on; I love hearing from others who care about good RPG writing. I promise I'll write about RPG design sometime, too!

I Just Noticed: Walnuts Are Food

The package of chopped walnuts we bought tonight proclaims their perfection for baking or snacking. The pack of of diced walnuts already in the pantry features a recipe for banana walnut bread, but offers no other suggestions. Until recently, my only savory-dish use for walnuts was in my Thanksgiving stuffing, where they barely rate a passing mention in the options (though, truth be told, I haven't made stuffing without them for years).

That's changed. I've recently become infatuated with walnuts in stir-fries and other throw-together wok dishes. They dance beautifully with beets, snuggle up to onions, provide a more textured counterpoint to tofu. They're a source of protein and omega-3s, so if you're looking for omega-3s but don't like cooking with fish (we don't; small apartment, sensitive noses) they've got that going on.

But mostly, they're just really yummy.

Clipart Squirrel Prefers Peanuts. Rock On, Clipart Squirrel.

At every fresh stage of my descent into dietary restrictions, I seem to meet at least one thing so pleasurable that I'd keep it around even if my health were magically restored. This is the latest. If the diet genie said "you can just put ground beef in everything again," I'd still get cravings for shredded beets with walnuts, tossed in a nice hot wok with some sweetness and spice.

I just feel foolish for never tossing walnuts in the wok before now, before cholesterol became another Thing I Have to Watch, before getting some omega-3s became a goal. I wish someone had mentioned it, so, I'm mentioning it: walnuts are boss as legit, main-dish food.

Not just walnuts, of course. I've always liked slivered almonds with green beans, but I never treated them as an everyday cooking protein 'til now. I've always liked pine nuts in a pesto or sunflower seeds in fresh bread. But now, I've mentally shifted all of them from "these are nice snacky items" to "these are staple proteins to pile veggies onto."

Our new diet isn't wholly vegetarian, but for cholesterol reasons, it's mostly vegetarian, and while we like some tofu just fine, we love some variety just finer. My tip for today is just: even if you have no dietary reason to toss walnuts (or whatever nuts/seeds/legumes you're into) into your wok, you might find the pure-pleasure reasons equally compelling.


Workshop 001: The Haunted Attic

It's Interactive Sunday, and it's time to get these RPG Writing Workshops underway. Join in! Our first exercise is dead simple: we’ll be describing a room, with a body or two. Please read the orientation article before you proceed!

The context is a haunted-house fantasy/horror adventure. The house is the final resting place of a family murdered more than a century ago. You’ll be writing the entry for a single room which shares the space with a few dozen others. We can suppose that the others are just as cliché-ridden as this one. This is a systemless module so there are no statblocks or rules, just general references.

Optional Fact

The room has a single door leading down into a corridor below, a pull-down stairway. Opening and climbing that stair is how the PCs will enter the room (it’s the only way in or out). The GM is presumed to already know about the door from the text on the module floorplan, so you needn’t mention it, but you can refer to it if you’d like.

The Facts of the Design

  • The room is an attic.
  • The room’s contents are mostly junk of little value or interest (specify as needed or leave vague).
  • There is a chair here.
  • Abigail Whitehouse died in the chair.
  • Abigail was 91 when she died.
  • Abigail died happy and satisfied.
  • The attic had been her favorite hiding-place as a child.
  • Abigail had just finished murdering her entire family.
  • She had her hound with her.
  • Her dog’s name was Bo.
  • Before passing, she fed Bo some flesh from the body of her murdered granddaughter.
  • Bo otherwise had no food.
  • Bo had no way to leave the room.
  • Bo fed on Abigail’s body before he died.
  • Her body is on the floor.
  • Her body is dry and misshapen from the passing years.
  • Signs of Bo feeding on her are visible.
  • His body is on the floor.
  • His body is dry and misshapen from the passing years.
  • He is curled up next to her body.
  • Abigail’s ghost will awaken if the PCs explore the attic junk.
  • Bo’s ghost will awaken only if Abigail’s ghost feels threatened.
  • Abigail’s awakened ghost will be visible in the chair.
  • She’ll look at her corpse first, and express sadness for Bo.
  • She’ll look to the PCs next and respond if spoken to.
  • She doesn’t mind confessing to her crimes.
  • She doesn’t mind describing her crimes.
  • She ignores other lines of inquiry.
  • She cannot harm, or be harmed, physically.
  • She is vulnerable to psychic and magic attack.
  • If she feels threatened she will rouse Bo’s ghost.
  • Bo cannot be harmed physically.
  • Bo is incorporeal but can “bite” with cold, causing potentially-lethal injury.
  • The cold of Bo’s bite can cause paralysis.
  • Bo is vulnerable to psychic and magic attack.
  • Bo believes he is still hungry, and can be distracted by meat.

Exercise Goals

Write a brief entry (200-300 words at most) imparting all of the supplied facts. The standard rules (click here if you need refreshed) apply. Write with the Game Master of a traditional fantasy/horror RPG as the target audience. Engage the Game Master’s enthusiasm for running this room in a way that the players will find entertainingly creepy and evocative. Use any format, tense, perspective, structure, etc that might serve these purposes.

. . . . . . . . . .

Deadline had been 2:00 AM, Mountain (Colorado) Time, 5/16/2018. This exercise is complete. Click Here for the final results!


Workshop Orientation

If all goes well, I'll be posting new RPG writing workshops to Rolltop Indigo on a regular basis. All of them share a few ground-rules and basic ideas. This article explores those. Read this before your first exercise, and revist at need.

This is an RPG writing workshop, not an RPG design workshop.

In real life, RPG creators are often writer/designers, blurring the line between two interlocking, but distinct, skill-sets. In this workshop, there’s no design allowed, because we’re isolating and exercising our writing muscles. For that purpose we’ll draw a bright white line instead of the usual blurry one.

Designers determine the facts. ALL the facts. Doesn’t matter if it’s a fact of the rules, a fact of the gameworld, a fact about a particular NPC or that NPC’s third cousin’s left sock. The facts are, collectively, the design.

Writers express the design, delivering the facts to the reader, in a manner suited to the book's mood, themes and intended audience.

Without the writer (or without the writer side of each writer/designer), RPG books would be bone-dry lists of facts. Kind of like those science-fiction food pills with all the essential nutrients, but none of the flavor, texture, sauce or heat. Each workshop exercise begins with a deconstructed food pill, like this fragment of an NPC:

  • Captain Burns serves in the Patrol
  • His duties focus on lethal combat with the Zarg.
  • He’s served for nine cycles.
  • It's been difficult.
  • He’s come to doubt his own worth as anything more than a killer.
  • He hates the Zarg.
  • His hatred helps maintain his devotion to duty.

Which could be expressed like this:
For nine grueling cycles, Captain Burns has served the Patrol, exterminating the hated Zarg … and doubting what remains of himself.
… or maybe like this:
Captain Burns has endured, for duty’s sake, nine cycles of killing the enemy, of hating the enemy. But as the Zarg die, he feels himself die with them. For duty’s sake, he endures.
… or ... if we must:
Duty, and hatred. The twin suns searing at the heart of Captain Burns. Duty, to the Patrol! Nine cycles of dutiful slaughter! Hatred, for himself, for his adversary. He’d been a man once, more than just an instrument of death. As each foe falls, they bear witness to his hatred, bone-cold and soul-deep. They see hate for the Zarg, oh yes, but hate, too, for himself, for living to kill again.
Each of these delivers the same design, the same facts, whether implicitly ("endured") or explicitly ("nine cycles of killing the enemy").

The first is straightforward, the second reaches for a bit more drama, and the third one is desperate, pretentious and hokey, but … still delivers the goods, eventually. Any of them might be right, depending on the book's intended tone. Consider the choices on display here, in wording, structure, and emphasis. Note the "bookend" repetition in the second example. Note the economy of the first.

None of the three introduce new facts, though the third trowels on lots of characterization and opinion and just a hint of speculation. That’s fine. Characterize, opinionize as much as you need to. Metaphorical twin suns aren’t added facts; the reader isn’t expected to treat them as gameable, literal suns.

Captain Burns is presumably human. We could say that he's feeling the loss of his humanity, if we wanted to phrase it that way. That’s fair-game embellishment. We don’t know if a “cycle” is more like a year or more like a month or maybe some kind of military tour, but nine of them are clearly too much Zarg-popping for one well-meaning Captain. We know he’s well-meaning because wrecking Zargs is wrecking him. He’s got a conscience.

Embellishing is fine when it’s based on that kind of inference. Don’t beat yourself up on that point, play to the spirit of the rules. Nobody wins or loses in this workshop, so you can only cheat yourself. Write, don’t design. I understand how difficult it can be to suppress the natural tendencies of the writer/designer, how unnatural it feels. That’s not accidental.

The example above is also unfair. We could do so much more if we knew the contents of prior passages! Which we would totally know! If we knew why Burns hates the Zarg, we could call back to that. If we knew something of Zarg religion, we could allude to sending them to the smoking tunnels of Glurth or whatever they call their post-war afterlife (maybe it’s more like churning their soulmeats back to the astral meat-mountain). There’s a lot of unfairness baked into this brief example. I promise: there'll be room for much more in the actual workshop.

In each exercise, the imaginary designer remains unapproachable, absent, uncooperative, inflexible. What a tool. I mean literally it’s a tool.

Will these exercises feel like real RPG writing? About as much as a treadmill feels like a real hike. It’s exercise, not a holodeck. But it will isolate and work those muscles, and offer some perspective, too.

Submissions and Results

When I post an exercise, everyone has 72 hours ‘til deadline: three calendar days to write and send me a short passage per these general rules, plus any specific rules attached to the exercise. Every exercise is open to every reader. There's no sign-up sheet, and no obligation: just an open invite. You can just decide to join in; please do!

Email submissions within the body of an email to blogmail@cumberlandgames.com with the word WORKSHOP somewhere in the Subject header. No file attachments. If you don't use Rich Text email, that's fine: indicate italics and boldface (if needed) with any normal kind of plaintext markup, whether it’s <B>bold</B> or *bold* or what-have-you.

I reserve the right to reject or ignore any submissions, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever need to. That's not a dare.

A few days after posting each exercise (sometime past the 72-hour deadline), I’ll post the results. They’ll be presented anonymously, with no names attached. I’ll write a bit about them, but my comments will be parsley compared to the steak of the submissions. You’ll see what I mean. Just participating, then observing the differences, will show you more than my critiques and labels will.

How do I know? I’ve done these a few times before. It began with live workshops at cons (which worked well, but were limited in scope) then moved to experimental online versions (which worked well at first, but required too much commitment across multiple exercises … not unlike an RPG campaign losing players to real-life scheduling). This new version is identical at the core, but it’s now zero-commitment (you can participate in just one, or none, skip a few, come back, doesn’t matter), and totally anonymous rather than the semi-anonymous approach of prior versions.

As long as I get at least five submissions per exercise, I’ll keep ‘em going for the foreseeable.

And that's it! That was a lot. Sorry. I’m excited. You excited? See you in the exercises!

The Legalese: participants retain all rights to their own submissions. By submitting, participants grant me (S. John Ross) perpetual permission to post them as anonymous results of the exercise, here on my blog or on my homepage (The Blue Room). No further grant of permission will be presumed (for example, I’d need to approach you separately to beg permission to use your examples in a book about these exercises, and you’d be under no obligation to grant it).


Computer Games

Sandra and I are back in Denver for a couple of days for work purposes, which means I've been here in the hotel room, wide awake on my usual nutso night-person schedule.

I was feeling make-something-ish, and I've had this pencil-puzzle bug anyway, so I thought "Hey me, let's do a word-fill puzzle, those are easy to make; you just need to type up a good word-list and let the software jam 'em into a grid. Easy, quick, fun and satisfying."

"Good thinking, me."


So then I decide Paranoia is a good source of words, because I'm a certified junkie fanboy of Paranoia, most especially the sublime 2nd Edition.

So I do the thing, and it's as easy as advertised.

But there's this thing about my brain. It hates easy. So, it sort of sidles up and offhandedly remarks "Hey, it sure would be cool if you dolled it up to look like Paranoia paperwork! I mean, you don't have to, though. That'd pack a few hours on to a quick project. In fact, forget I said anything. It's fine. I'm sure it's fine."

Paranoia has this tradition when it comes to in-game paperwork. It takes place in a lethally bureaucratic society trapped/cared-for by a paranoid AI in a far-future arcology and I'm sure my brain didn't really mean anything by it, it's just being helpful, but then I can't look at the puzzle anymore because it's not this cool thing it could be.

It's a one-night hotel project, you understand. And yet, my brain only seems to have the one gear.

So ... it's around 6AM as I write this. So that's still technically one night.

You can click here to grab it via Google Drive. If you've never done wordfills before, they could be described as "inside-out crosswords," because you get all the answers instead of all the clues, or "What if Sudoku wasn't quite so dry?" because the thinking is similar, but with fitting words instead of fitting math.

I don't recommend actually using this form in a Paranoia session. Not unless it's one-on-one and you need the player occupied while you take a long restroom break. But it does, I daresay, evoke the right general feel. Appreciate, if you will, the truly unnecessary craftsmanship.

I should also point out that while it did take forever to build my custom clean-vector eyeball-monitor and Great Seal graphics, those forevers were other, prior forevers, not tonight's additional forever. The rest was the rest, or pointedly, the opposite of rest.

Enjoy three forevers in a single page. Enjoy them a lot, because Happiness is Mandatory.

Note: this isn't a contest like a full-bore crossword. Just a lil' print-and-play. But if you enjoy it, drop me a line anyway! I love to hear from readers. Version 2.0 of the puzzle corrects a typo in the original, which took another hour and change. I'm totally sincerely going to sleep now.


A Room Full of 'Toons

Normally, when I celebrate RPG people, I'll know their names, but this is a hazy memory from decades past, at Balticon sometime in the very early 90s. It's worth writing down, though, because it's a brief and inspiring tale of heroic GMing.

Balticon has never been a gaming con, but we had a nice (tiny) gaming room in the hotel wine-cellar (which is as atmospheric as that sounds, for the grandest of the tables at least) where gamers would come and go, and catch players as well as they could. There were a few scheduled games but mostly it was pickups.

It was slow evening, and most of the "action" in gaming room was people sitting alone at each table, sifting through their swag from the hucksters, reading comics, paging through modules and worldbooks, or drawing a dungeon or two. If you've done many cons, you know the gaming-room mausoleum hours; this was a typical suppertime pause, the lull before the night-gaming would kick in.

Into this quiet scene swept an energetic young GM, calling any and all to a TOON game he'd be running in his room in one thin hour. He didn't stop for conversation; he was a man on a mission, and he'd extend his mission to the entire hotel or at least all the populated rooms, a town crier with a message of impending TOON.

I heard his brief pitch, noted the room number, and nodded happily as he passed. I didn't want to draw a dungeon and I'd already read my comics, so a pickup TOON game sounded perfect. I went to stash my swag, acquire a beverage, and slip into a TOON-ish mindset (it's never far off).

When I got to the hotel room, I was almost as shocked as the Game Master, standing with a stunned expression across the room ... with at least thirty eager gamers crammed around the bed, on the bed, on the chairs, between the chairs, and on the floor lining along the walls. I was one of the last ones in before everyone agreed the room was too full in the general sense, and probably some kind of fire hazard in the legal.

I watched the GM with interest. He was busy processing his situation, taking it all in, doing quick mental calculations and slamming down some conclusions. He set his TOON rulebook and character sheets to one side; they would not avail him in the battle to come.

I had a few guesses running through my head, but none of them came true. He did the (to me) unthinkable: he let everyone stay, and started the damn game.

There'd be no dice or rules or sheets, not with thirty players and limited oxygen. He cleared the players from the bed; it would be his GMing station. They scurried to the walls and everyone scooted butts to accommodate them.

Bouncing slightly on the bedsprings, he painted the situation in broad strokes with wide arm-motions: It's the 1920s, and the 'toons on THIS side of the room are drinking and dancing and having a blast at the local speakeasy! The toons on THIS side of the room are the Keystone Kops, getting ready for a raid!

"YOU!" he pointed to a gamer near me (on the partying side) "What are you and what are you doing?"

He was a hillbilly bear, drinking from a XXX liquor-jug and dancing like a loon.

I was next, and I was a bowlegged black cat, arc-spitting into a spittoon across the room (it's a 1920's cartoon; I figured someone should be spitting).

On and on, rapid-fire, he led thirty gamers through six-second bouts of verbal character creation and scene-establishing. Some characters were dancing together; some were arguing over a card game; some were serving behind the bar or swinging from the chandeliers or playing musical instruments.

With the party in full swing, he declared: THE DOORS CRASH OPEN, and he went on to do the same character-describing routine with everyone on the police half of the room, as each one came storming in, eager to bash the heads of all these 'toons flouting the Volstead Act.

With never a pause – with, indeed, the same sweep-the-room energy he'd displayed hawking the game across the convention – he played the game in a weaving round-robin from player to player, back and forth from Kop to reveler, until we all felt comfortable with the whole place collapsing to the ground in a puff of smoke, broken glass and hurtling 'Toons.

The game – such as it was – went for an hour and change, no more than two. And in that time, each of us got only a handful of "turns" at the virtual microphone, just brief, manic, violent moments in the spinning spotlight. But we were all engaged, we were all fixated, in fact, and we laughed and we yelled and we must've raised the air-temperature 40 degrees with our voices.

And we left utterly satisfied and thoroughly impressed.

Afterwards, I chatted just briefly with the GM, who was still catching his breath, and looking like he'd just survived a mugging (but in the nice way). He confirmed what I'd suspected: he really had no plan for that many players.

And I wandered off in a happy daze, not just because I'd had a pleasing jolt of concentrated roleplaying, but because I'd witnessed one of the greatest acts of Game Mastering courage I've ever seen. He could have divided us into groups and rescheduled. He could have turned most of us away. He could have done any number of things, but he was fast on his feet (bouncing like a happy kid on that hotel bed), ready to use his voice, and after just a moment's thought, crystal clear on what he was going to do to make sure everyone had a good time.

I don't remember his name; I wish I did. But I'll never forget his game.

Lessons: Sometimes the strongest adventure designs have the simplest premise. GMing can be as much about courage as it is about prep. If it's a 1920s cartoon, someone should be spitting.

This post salvaged (last one!) from last year's proto-blog.