This Map is Crude

This blog turned 2 months young yesterday, so I may as well commemorate that with a summary of where we are with the Lexicon series in particular. This is a crude two-dimensional squishing of a decidedly multi-dimensional topic: my view of my niche, within the larger realm of tabletop games.

I work the orange part of town, as a writer and designer. As a player, I wander the entire map from time to time, and beyond it (I also love some card games, board games, miniatures wargames, computer games, parlor games, yard games and more). As a player, I'm an omnigamer.

But in terms of what I make, I work the orange part of town, including those areas of overlap that contain a smidge of orange ... pretty much to the degree implied by the color, and to the extent implied by the overlap.

Some gamers think of these as "camps." I consider them neighborhoods. Maybe there's not much difference, but it means that I consider everyone in every circle my neighbors. I think that's difference enough from what "camps" implies.

I also think of them as subcultures, dialects, flavor profiles, notes and octaves, depending on the metaphor of the moment.

I'm confident that the view from your window will differ from mine, and from everyone else's. I'm keen to learn what you see. The terrain blocks itself, in some ways. I suspect a more universally-agreeable map would be four-dimensional and very blurry, possibly to the point where the text must be guessed-at. Plus kind of swirly. And there'd be Dorito crumbs. Alternate angles on the same implied "question" would take other forms entirely; overlapping circles, or even spheres, wouldn't do.

And it's Interactive Sunday. My inbox, as always, is open. I'm also really keen on finding some nighttime gamers for online RPG sessions ("night-time" in Colorado might even be broad daylight where you live). Either way, hope this finds you well, and gaming.


Challenging the Character, Not Just the Sheet

This is an RPG Lexicon post. If you're new, you can dive right in, but it'll make more sense if you start with the Invisible Rulebooks.

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Today in the Lexicon I want to tackle a breezy one. Some of the terms I depend on in RPG design are ... provocative, in certain contexts. This one, not so much. Mostly.

Today's terms are strong characterization and weak characterization, as they relate to the characterizing potential of an RPG challenge.

In games leaning invisible, one of the qualities of an excellent problem (for the PCs to face) is a goodly dose of characterizing potential. In simplest terms, this just means "different characters are likely to solve the problem differently."

By this extra-simple metric, most problems have some small degree of characterizing potential. Even the fillerest of fillers, the Locked Door, will be solved differently by your basic videogame-style fantasy troupe: the burglar can probably pick the lock, the wizard can probably cast some kind of open-sesame spell, the gronky bricks can probably crack the door open with their otherwise-uncalled-for craniums, etc.

This exposes the limits of the simple definition, because that is some weak characterization. It reveals the basic niche of each character, but we learn nothing about them that we couldn't already tell from glancing at their painted miniatures.

In the forthcoming 2nd Edition of the Risus Companion, I use an adventure-design example called the "Jumper Mayor." In Superhero City, the mayor has just stepped onto a 16th-story ledge of an office building downtown. His expression is a bit glassy, and the only words anyone's heard from him are "I think I'm going to jump." Nobody's sure why: demonic possession? Doctor Hypnotic's Hypno-Satellite? A mayoral doppelganger sent by The Devious Duplicator? Or is the mayor just in a serious emotional low-spot, isolated and in pain?

The point being, Deadpool would handle this differently than Captain America, who'd handle it differently than Wonder Woman, who'd handle it differently than Black Widow who'd handle it differently than Green Lantern, and more to the point, the different Green Lanterns (and the different Captains America, and so on) might also handle it differently, from one another. Hal Jordan is a very different person than Guy Gardner who's different from Kyle Rayner and so on (lots of Lanterns to choose from). So it's not about what the green ring can do: it's about the kind of person who's wearing it.

I mean, if you had a power ring, what would you do? Let the mayor jump, but catch him safely from his fall? Bind him to the wall and prevent him from jumping? Knock him unconscious first? Try to talk him down? Give him the power to fly? Trap him in a force-bubble until you can figure out what the cause is? Would you make it a point to stand there on the ledge with him? Fly in front of him? Solve it from a distance? Would you talk first to the mayor, or to the witnesses? Would it be important to let the fire and rescue people solve it if they can, and not "superhero" all over it unless absolutely necessary?

Any possible response to the Jumper Mayor might solve the short-term problem while exacerbating a long-term one, or be distracted by the short-term problem while missing some vital bigger picture. So, in terms of characterizing, the Jumper Mayor has a lot of potential for strong characterization: any superhero PC who seeks to solve this problem is likely to reveal more than just their suite of skills or powers or gadgets; there's a good chance they'll reveal something about their nature, priorities, values and beliefs, and that's good stuff.

What's more, any solution to the problem is likely to spin into ancillary problems which magnify that potential.

As usual, we're talking about a spectrum, not simple boxes tagged "strong" and "weak." But it's a spectrum with some recognizeable bands. Here's a quick half-dozen, arranged from weaker to stronger:

  • Solutions to this problem reveal broad niches (tank vs. caster, good vs. evil, etc).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal principal abilities or gear (gunplay vs. psionics, etc).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal obscure abilities or gear (things the PC doesn't often call on: mastery of the cheese omelet, the ability to speak Hovitos, etc).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal the kind of person the character likes to project (outward style, self image, declared values and allegiances).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal the kind of person the character's friends and family would recognize even if others wouldn't (down-to-the-wire loyalties, priorities, insights, capacity for sacrifice).
  • Solutions to this problem reveal the kind of person the character is, but keeps hidden or even subconscious (deepest beliefs, hopes, fears, snapping points and wells of inspiration).

This brings us to the faint chance of being provocative, because this cleaves along visible-to-invisible tendencies. If you've been following the Lexicon series, you can work that out without me belaboring it. If you're new, suffice it to say: I consider it a point of GMing quality (and adventure-design quality, often both at once) that a "good" adventure provides at least a few central challenges with potential for strong characterization. An adventure which provides nothing of the sort is one I'll reject as an editor, feel shame about as a GM or designer, and roll my eyes at, as a player (before declining to attend future sessions, citing hair-washing and nose-picking responsibilities).

I carefully refer to the potential for characterization. There's no such thing, in absolute terms, as a 100% "characterizing" or "non-characterizing" problem, because games leaning invisible embrace tactical infinity as the core of gameplay ... so we can't be sure (and never want to be sure) how any given PC or PC-group will solve (or nullify, destroy, or end-run around) a problem. But characterizing potential is still a real, recognizable thing, something we can include, or fail to include. A keen eye for that potential is a critical skill in RPG design, with an impact most strongly-felt in adventure design, but with powerful echoes in setting and resource design, and even a few drips down to the systemic basement. When the time comes to dive into the design articles, you'll see a lot of these terms.

In the meantime: breezy! Mostly breezy. See you next time, in the Lexicon.

"Give a Girl a Gusli, and Everything Looks Like an Audience"


Lexical Longings

I want to touch on my long-term goals with the RPG Lexicon.

The goal I've mentioned already is: I want to do some deep-dive RPG design articles, and those would be fraught with fraughty things if I can't pepper them with hyperlinks exploring the terminology I depend on.

The other goal is a loftier one: I want to meet other designers of like mind, working in or near my design niche, to form a community for mutual support, friendly chatter, and the exchange of techniques.

This niche I'm in is, frankly, a bit obscure. There's no mystery why; I'm very clear on the reasons for other forms being more popular ... but this old boat is my home for larger, deeper and older reasons than those can compare to, and her popularity isn't why I signed aboard. Bottom line: she offers experiences impossible elsewhere, and I treasure those, as player and GM. I can (and do) enjoy other forms on their own terms (I still love me some Scrabble), but they're unable to provide a substitute for this form, and that means this form's endurance is crucial.

This amounts to a conscious decision to be a bit isolated from the larger RPG design community. Not because I don't love those folks; I do (and I admire their work). It's just that, at the level of craft, their techniques are largely irrelevant to my work, and vice-versa. I can talk to OSR folk about how to promote a PDF on OBS; I can talk to storygame designers about how to work around Adobe InDesign's clumsy limitations on global kerning exceptions; I can talk to my D&D friends about coloring a map that will print clearly using only black toner. And I'm grateful for those kinds of conversations.

But when it comes to building worlds, characters, adventures ... the reasons I do this to begin with ... it becomes the difference between being a people-doctor and a horse-doctor. The skills relate, the tools relate, but ... the differences limit the fruitful exchange. Different dosages. Different arrangement of organs. Different bedside manner.

So, I'm hoping to build what doesn't currently exist: an online community of professionals writing and designing in my design neighborhood: worlds, resources, and adventures designed around characterizing, creative problem solving ... tactical roleplaying in games where the visible rulebooks are spackle-caddy to the invisible ones. Traditional RPGs with rules engineered around their own relative unimportance compared to the miracle made possible by a living, breathing Game Master.

I'm by no means the Last of My Kind, but I'm one of a small number. I think it would be better if we were all friends. Drop me a line. It's Interactive Sunday, after all.

Me. It's Totally Recent If We Round To The Nearest Century.


Workshop 002 Results

I'm pleased to present the results of Workshop 002: The Summer of Love. This exercise had eight entrants, up one from last time. And what courageous entrants they are. Hats off to everyone who dared step into the ring, because this time around I tightened the screws, demanding the writers describe an undeniably upbeat thing (a summer festival of shopping, music, food and free healing) in grim and downbeat terms, using only their powers of word and phrase.

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 lunkheaded formatting skills.

Whether you're one of the authors, or a reader following along: thank you for being here! As ever, I think just observing the workshops has value. My advice for studying the entries is just: take your time. 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 some closing notes.

Entry #1

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On Midsummer’s Eve, an inconsequential field to the west of the king’s tower in Carrenwald is draped in the facade of joviality and celebration for the annual Midsummer Fair. It’s branded as a market fair; merchants from Carrenwald and the neighboring kingdoms boast the sale of their purportedly unique products, hawked to those attendees who have money to waste. For the common folk, there’s plenty else to do besides greedy commerce. Trumpet-heavy music blares throughout the fair, driving crowds to wild dancing and overindulgence on food and strong drink, with raucous sporting events hosted for those with competitive tempers.

As Midsummer’s Eve corresponds to the end of the decimating Firehand Plague, the king himself supplies the real reason the fair is swarmed with local and distant visitors. King Volus II pays an excessive amount from his personal coffers to host a cadre of healers for the fair’s attendees, in remembrance of the plague’s elimination. Any caste of healer is welcome, from mundane sawbones to wild-eyed mystics, their craft offered freely to all. Many make a desperate visit to this fair, seeking remedies for persistent illness, damaged sight, severed limbs, and all other ailments endemic to fragile, mortal existence.
Entry #2

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Carrenwald’s annual Midsummer Fair is a chaotic, indulgent display, organized by the Church as a self-congratulatory memorial of the eradication of the Firehand Plague.

On Midsummer’s Eve—the anniversary of the triumph of the Council of Healers—eager hordes from Carrenwald and beyond descend on a muddy field west of the Wooded Tower to gorge themselves on food and drink. Trumpet players entertain drunken dancers while athletic contests disintegrate into bloody brawls. Compelled by the will of the Church, merchants from Carrenwald, Valtis, Erinar, and elsewhere bring the unique wares of their kingdoms, and spend seven rainy days defending their booths from raucous peasants.

It is said that the local pickpockets see better profits than the merchants, and perhaps the only lasting benefits of the fair come from the trained physicians and miracle-healers hired by the king. Echoing the legendary efforts of the Council of Healers, these well-paid savants treat fair-goers gratis, restoring lost limbs, giving sight to the blind, and snuffing out diseases that might otherwise bloom into a new pandemic.

Thus, wine, orgies, and penicillin keep peasants docile for a season or two, while the Church renews its glory.
Entry #3

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“Come, one and all! Be healed! The Midsummer’s Fair sees the blind and maimed restored! Diseases cured!” That’s all true. “Today, I bring tears of our god, Olin. This tincture can cure any ailment! Simply apply it everyday of the fair, Midsummer’s Eve ‘til the fair’s close!” None of that is.

I could never be a real healer. I don’t have the stomach.

A crowd lines up, though. Eager faces from three kingdoms or better attend this festival every year. Looking out over the field – folks feast and drink, they dance to the raucous of trumpets, they throw hammers or horseshoes or joust – it almost warms my heart. Almost.

“Wellness! Yours at no cost! Our King, honorable, compassionate Volus, pays for you in memory of that Midsummer’s Eve so long ago – The Firehand Plague extinguished! What ailment of yours could endure!? Step up! Be healed!”

Indeed. Volus will pay well, me and the actual healers and physicians he’s invited. But think of what he gains – the influx of commerce, the exchange of specialty good from three kingdoms. Volus is no fool. Out to the East, I see storm-clouds over the Wooded Tower. I smile.

“Step up!”
Entry #4

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For seven days each year, the peaceful field west of the king’s tower devolves into a carnival maelstrom in the display of debauchery known as the Midsummer Fair. Greased with funds from the King’s own pocket, physicians and healers use their magic to pervert the natural order, curing diseases as well as granting sight and restoring limbs with little consideration of adverse effects. This seems only fitting for a festival that hearkens back to the apocalyptic Firehand plague, as Midsummer’s Eve is supposedly the day the plague was cured.

The festival itself is packed with sick, desperate peasants who’ve come from all over the lands, hoping to get a moment with one of the witch-doctors. Drunken revelers leer at those who pass, stuffing their faces, gambling on sporting events, and awaiting the sexual frenzy that commences after dark. Vendors from Carrenwald and several neighboring kingdoms hawk their wares over the braying of trumpets as the hypnotic swirl of dancers distracts visitors from the thieving hands in their purses. Some years bring torrential rain, others bring lost children and frantic search parties, and throughout it all the grotesque cacophony of the market fair continues unchecked.
Entry #5

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Every year, Carrenwald hosts the Midsummer Festival, a week-long market fair that begins on Midsummer's Eve. The beginning of the fair marks the night that the divine punishment known as the Firehand Plague, which decimated the kingdom, was finally cured by the Council of Healers. In a way, it also observes the end of the schism and bloody war that ripped apart the church. In acknowledgment, King Volus pays through the nose for skilled physicians and miracle-healers to provide free healing in the field west of his tower. Though typically curing disease, the restoration of sight to blind orphans and missing limbs to maimed warriors has been performed in past fairs. In addition to the featured sporting events, trumpeters and other performers bring song and dance to the festivities. The fair draws folk from around Carrenwald as well as the surrounding former enemy kingdoms to trade food, booze, and specialized goods. Of course, the popularity of the event makes it a magnet for pickpockets and swindlers.
Entry #6

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The Midsummer Fair: On the anniversary of the Firehand Plague's being cured, the eve of midsummer, crowds gather in the shadow of the Wooded Tower for a week of sustained revelry. Although exotic wares can be found in the market stalls and exotic music at the dances, pride of place belongs to the crafts and trumpets of Carrenwald. The King himself pays for doctors and faith-healers to heal anyone at the fair – treating incidental injuries and curing recreational diseases, but also mending limbs and restoring sight to the blind. The days mostly belong to legitimate merchants, healers, dancers, bards, and pilgrims. The nights are also a time for grifters, thieves, and visitors seeking wilder pleasures. Beyond the lantern light, the faint luminescence of violet butterflies guides debauchery and dark rituals.
Entry #7

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The annual Midsummer Fair sprawls across the the field west of the king’s Wooden Tower. Commoners, vagabonds, merchants, and healers from Carrenwald and the surrounding kingdoms make the pilgrimage here to commemorate the date on which  the devastating Firehand Plague was cured. Mobs of sick, blind, and broken bodies seek solace with the physicians and miracle-healers King Volus II pays to offer free care to fair-goers (when they aren’t spending their generous windfall on less-charitable indulgences).

The fair offers diversions for everyone: food and spirits, dirge-playing trumpeters, subdued dancing, grim tests of physical prowess, and merchants hawking distinctive merchandise from Carrenwald and nearby realms (both above board and under the table). Swindlers find gullible marks aplenty and pickpockets reap a lucrative harvest from the ample, distracted crowds. Many stumble off into the nearby woods or private tents when the children succumb to sleep and the barrels run dry, seeking to lose themselves in the arms of amorous partners.
Entry #8

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Roll up for the Carrenwald Midsummer Fair! Celebrate the end of the plague with us, and the Church of Olin Firehand united evermore.

Eating and drinking to excess! Shooting! Wrestling! Music and trumpets! Midnight romantic pleasures!

Goods from Carrenwald, Valtis, and Errinar. Free services from Council of Healers. They cured the plague! They reattached the famed Sir Baleor's legs! They restored the sight of the seven orphans!

Come on Midsummer Eve, and stay for seven days. You'll regret it when you leave!

Messengers deliver the king's invitation to the people of Carrenwald and its neighbours, and palace slaves prepare the fairground west of the Wooden Tower. The notice is accurate, but doesn't mention the thieves, or the isolation of being abandoned in a crowd of strangers. It doesn't mention that drunken guards will hinder, not help, those lost or robbed.

King Volus sends personal invitations to the physicians and miracle workers at the fair, and pays them well from his own funds. But amongst them are charlatans and failures thrown out of the Council of Healers. Such people are happy to relieve the suffering from excessive funds, or worse, try out experimental cures.

• • •  The Roundup  • • •

This workshop was tougher than last time. While the design-facts were a bit simpler, the word-count was notably tighter and the whole make-a-nice-thing-sound-nasty (without changing how nice it is) is torturous contortionism in RPG form. Consequently, we can observe a higher rate of gnawing the design arm free; several entrants couldn't resist the urge to invent a detail or two. As always, I leave the flagellation (either kind) to the self.

While this exercise is nuts, it's the echo of a pretty common situation in RPG freelancing, where the demands of the editor and/or publisher and/or line chief and/or licensing approvals department and/or coauthors conflicts with one of the other demands, and you find yourself needing to satisfy contradictory interests. This exercise (indeed, every one of these exercises) is a warped replay of actual stunts I had to pull in my freelancing days, and this kind of contradiction is something we'll see more of (in different ways) as the workshops progress.

This is a small part of why my freelancing days are behind me, but it's a big part of why I'd never trade those days for the world, and why I still freelance now and again: meeting these kinds of demands is challenging, and educational, in a way self-publishing can't be, in a way I still draw lessons from.

Here in the workshops, we get to learn from each other, without risking the rent. Some of my favorite moves from this time around:

  • Entry #1: Draped in the facade. "For those with competitive tempers." Well-placed use of "sawbones," one of the least-pleasant terms for a physician.
  • Entry #2: "Eager hordes descend" on a "muddy field." Disintegrating to bloody brawls. Especially vivid: merchants defending their booths.
  • Entry #3: The crooked perspective of the narrator turns wide-eyed words of praise like "honorable, compassionate Volus" into injections of ironic venom.
  • Entry #4: "Devolves" for the gathering, "greased" for the payment; "pervert the natural order" for the miracles; leering and frenzy and cacophony and grotesque.
  • Entry #5: The phrase "divine punishment" casts a nice bit of shade over what's being celebrated. "King Volus pays through the nose."
  • Entry #6: Not merely west of the Wooded Tower, but in its shadow. "Recreational diseases" is a nicely-gritty merging of the orgy-note with the curative services.
  • Entry #7: "Mobs of sick, blind, and broken bodies" cuts nimbly to the heart: a festival of healing is, by definition, a festival inviting those who've suffered.
  • Entry #8: "You'll regret it when you leave!" put a curly Grinchy smile on my face. "Relieve the suffering from excessive funds" is juicy irony.

Thanks again, to every author who participated, every author who meant to, and everyone reading along. While I'll never reveal the participants' identities, they're welcome to do so, if they'd like to 'fess up or brag! This has been one entry in a 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 exercises as they appear.


Workshop 002: The Summer of Love

It's Interactive Sunday, and it's time for another RPG Writing Workshop. Join us! But, please read the orientation article if you haven't already, or take a peek at last month's workshop and results to see how it all goes.

The context for today's exercise is a traditional fantasy world with the usual elves and things living in quasi-medieval pseudo-Europe. The book is a setting resource describing the Kingdom of Carrenwald. The section you'll be writing describes Carrenwald's annual Midsummer Fair.

This would be straightforward in a sane contract, but sanity has passed this project by. You've been given a rundown on the facts of the design from the designer, and they're upbeat. The Midsummer Fair is clearly a positive event, overall. Your editor, meanwhile, delivers some distressing news: the publisher has decided that Dark & Gritty Sells this season, and has insisted that the artwork and writing be as gloomy and dismal as humanly possible, emphasizing themes like failure, isolation, abandonment and regret. The art director is already busy lining up illustrators who specialize in charcoal on scratchboard. The writing is up to you.

Note from the editor: "Hey there writer. I'm so sorry. I know it's pretty much impossible to make this fair sound as dark as the publisher wants, so I'll go to bat for you no matter what you come up with. But, please, help me out, and inject as much gloom as possible without screwing with the designer's details. Any darkness you can give me, I can do my best to talk up. I'll owe you one."

The Facts of the Design

All these facts must be included.

  • Carrenwald hosts an annual market fair.
  • It begins on Midsummer's Eve.
  • It's called the Midsummer Fair.
  • It takes place in a field west of the king's tower.
  • The fair attracts the folk of the kingdom.
  • The fair attracts the folk of several neighboring kingdoms.
  • The fair features sporting events/sporting opportunities.
  • The fair features alcoholic beverages.
  • The fair features food.
  • The fair features the music of trumpet-playing musicians.
  • The fair features dancing.
  • The fair features the unique products of Carrenwald.
  • The fair features the unique products of several neighboring kingdoms.
  • Midsummer's Eve is, by tradition, the night on which the Firehand Plague was cured.
  • The King invites skilled physicians to the fair.
  • The King invites miracle-healers to the fair.
  • The King pays the invited physicians and miracle-healers from his own funds.
  • He pays them very well.
  • He invites them and pays them as a celebration of the plague cure.
  • The invited physicians and healers provide free healing to anyone at the fair.
  • Their services include the restoration of missing limbs.
  • Their services include curing disease.
  • Their services include restoring sight to the blind.

Optional Facts

Use or omit these facts as you please, but do not contradict them.

  • The fair features other music beyond that of trumpet-playing musicians.
  • The fair lasts for seven days.
  • Some visitors journey weeks to get to the fair.
  • Confidence artists take advantage of the fair's popularity.
  • Thieves take advantage of the fair's popularity.
  • Last year, the healers cured seven orphan children of blindness.
  • One of the orphans ran off, inspiring search-parties to seek her out.
  • The child was found, safe, delighting in her restored sight, staring in wonder at butterflies.
  • The butterflies of Carrenwald are a brilliant violet color.
  • Two years ago, the healers restored the severed legs of the hero Sir Baleor.
  • Approximately 1 Midsummer Fair in 6 suffers from the early arrival of the heavy summer rains.
  • Despite the rains, these fairs are still beautiful and beloved.
  • When the weather is warm and dry and the children are asleep, overnight orgies are common at the fair.

Pre-Established Facts

The reader already knows everything on this list from prior sections in the same book (or the core setting book to which this is a supplement) but feel free to refer to them as you like, provided you do so in a way that respects the reader's existing knowledge of them. Do not contradict these facts.

  • Carrenwald's monarch is King Volus II.
  • Volus is well-regarded.
  • The king's tower is called the Wooded Tower.
  • Carrenwald is a tiny, forested kingdom.
  • Carrenwald is landlocked, and sits in the center of a continent of many kingdoms, large and small.
  • One of the nearby kingdoms is the Kingdom of Valtis.
  • One of the nearby kingdoms is the Kingdom of Erinar.
  • Carrenwald was ravaged by plague many generations ago, and nearly depopulated.
  • This was in the midst of a cross-continent war between the four schismed churches of the god Olin Firehand, and the kingdoms allied to each church.
  • The threat of the plague had a chilling effect on the war.
  • Sages declared the plague a sign of Firehand's displeasure at the schisms and the war.
  • Hence the plague's name: the Firehand Plague.
  • Wise healers from all four churches got together and found an herbal cure for the plague.
  • Several of the herbs used in the cure grow exclusively in Carrenwald.
  • The healers who cured the Firehand Plague are sometimes called the Council of Healers.
  • The cure is widely credited with healing not only those afflicted, but the spiritual life of the kingdom.
  • The church united, and now proudly proclaims it has known no schism since the curing of the plague also cured the faith.
  • More accurately, it's known no schism that couldn't be quickly murdered out of existence.

Exercise Goals

Write a brief entry (100-200 words) imparting all of the Facts of the Design, while doing your best to fulfill the condition handed down from the publisher's crass attempt at cashing in on a perceived trend: make it gloomy, dark, gritty, emphasizing the themes of failure, isolation, abandonment and regret. Since the standard rules apply (click here to refresh on those), you may not invent any facts to support those themes, so you must support them using only your writing: your use of the language, your choice of words, your choices of structure and emphasis. Write with the Game Master of a traditional fantasy RPG as the target audience. Engage the Game Master’s enthusiasm for including the Midsummer Fair in a campaign. Use any format, tense, perspective, structure, etc. that might serve these purposes.

. . . . . . . . . .

Deadline had been 4:00 AM, Mountain (Colorado) Time, 6/13/2018. This exercise has ended. Click here for the roundup!


Scenario Stress-Test: The Cross-Genre Gauntlet

Without playtest and blindtest, any work of RPG design is doomed to be its weakest self. As a designer, I know that song by heart ... but as a campaign Game Master, I don't have the resources to test each week's adventure before I run it. To address the tension between my standards as a designer and my desires as a GM, I've devised a handful of stress-tests: modes of interrogation for untested adventures. Bolts of lightning, in the brainstorm.

Stress-testing doesn't replace real testing, but it can help me spot weaknesses (so I can carve them out) and strengths (so I can play them up). Each is a mental exercise, a quick solitaire game of sorts, taking just a minute or two. One of my oldest and most reliable is the Cross-Genre Gauntlet.

To send a module down the Gauntlet, I challenge myself to adapt it to three other genres, rapidly. Sometimes I scribble out the adaptations on paper or on my phone. Sometimes I do it entirely in my head while I wash the dishes or cook a meal.

There’s just one rule in the Gauntlet: the superpower swap rule. If the adventure’s home genre includes superpowers (in the broadest sense, including spell-casting, psionics, and Sufficiently Advanced Technology), then two of the conversion genres must be devoid of such things. If the adventure's home genre is already devoid of such things, two of the conversion genres must contain irrational super-stuff.

For one example, if I'm designing an adventure for some Space Opera gaming, that's a genre well-stocked with superthings, from super-sensors and gravitics to the occasional green-blooded pointy-eared psychic. So to successfully run the Gauntlet, I must adapt my adventure to at least two genres where that isn't the case: Cold-War Espionage, for example, or the world of The Three Musketeers.

For another: if I'm designing a mystery or caper or gang-war drama for Fly From Evil, that's a game of fictionalized history devoid of supernatural elements. To send such an adventure down the Gauntlet, I must adapt it to at least two genres where the laws of physics are something that happens to other people: Elfy-Dwarfy Fantasy, perhaps, or the genre-colliding oddity of Encounter Critical's world of Vanth.

The process of conversion amounts to identifying the bones of the design (things like goals, obstacles, motives, stakes) and re-dressing them with the props and costumes of the target genres. The value of the process is roughly threefold: recognizing the adventure's parts, sticking the adventure more clearly in my memory, and challenging its robustness.

Recognizing the Parts

First, recognizing which parts are 'the bones of the design' and which are just 'props and costumes' is enormously valuable for my focus as a GM. It highlights those things as tools for when I need to goose a lagging pace, or help a conflicted Player Character find their own focus. It's hardcore wheat-from-chaffing. You set your fantasy adventure on a magical airship? Great, that’s colorful, but is it just color? What happens if you move it to a Midwestern American town? PCs now have too much access to the broader world? Okay, the flying ship wasn’t just about color, it was about isolation. Move it to a remote archaeological dig, or a hard-to-reach Appalachian community, perhaps? Did that do the trick? Role understood. And so on.

Sticking in the Mind

Second, it's a powerful mnemonic. I have no patience for mid-game page-flipping or other pace-killers, and spending a few seconds re-dressing the villain's henchman for Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, and France in the 1620s doesn't just give me perspective on his role and nature, it decorates him with colorful symbols I'll remember easily, because in my mind he's now wearing the lace-and-leather gloves of the French court, a green-and-yellow HYDRA uniform, and the stupid little hat of an Imperial officer. That's a version the PCs will never see, not directly, but it's a potent tool for my own mind's eye.

The Stress-Testiest Part

Finally, thanks in part to the superpower-swap, I'm kicking the tires on the module's robustness. Superpowers are super-fun and super-atmospheric, but they're also super-shortcuts which can weaken a design when we sleep at the wheel.

For example: I love mysteries. I love them in part because, as a player, I'm a role-player and problem-solver, and mysteries zero in on both. As a GM, I also love them because I'm a lazy GMing so-and-so, and mysteries are the simplest adventures for me to design, prep, and run (they're chock full of pacing handles for one thing, and easy to stock with eccentric NPCs that form the adventure's connective tissue).

In a world dripping with superswag, though ... mysteries graduate from "easy" to "almost too easy," thanks to a dozen super-rugs to sweep things under and a row of super-butts to pull answers from. If your adventure depends on the supernatural to make sense, it’s often too weak to stand. If your adventure crumples when the PCs start casting spells or pointing tricorders at it, it’s too weak to walk. A robust adventure can run, leap and soar in both rational and fanciful environments. Adventures that can’t do so aren’t necessarily bad (some precious flowers wither outside their greenhouse) but they could be better, and one of the benefits of stress-testing is seeing how. If I design a mystery for Uresia or Call of Cthulhu or Star Trek ... and then mentally adapt it to a straight-historical or hard-SF setting, those lazy dependencies leap from the design and punch me in the eye. In the nice way! On the flip-side of the GM screen, if I adapt a historical mystery to a fantasy world, I begin to spot thin zones where PC magic might render it bland or un-challenging to the PCs: faults in the structure, load-bearing walls that are not up to code.

The Gauntlet might seem an oddball practice at first. After all, if you designed a Space Opera adventure, you’re only going to run it as a Space Opera adventure in your Space Opera campaign with Space Opera characters who have Space Opera expectations ... what difference does it make if it would falter as Cold-War Espionage? Maybe none, and yet ... when you take your adventure for a jog through other genres, you will learn things about it, and you'll GM it with clearer understanding, sharper recollection, and the confidence that comes from a well-kicked tire. If you're lucky, the players will kick even harder, but you'll be a little more prepared.

I love writing about GMing and chatting about GMing, and I'll write more about the stress-tests in the future. If you'd like to discuss this post or float a GMing thingy you'd like my perspective on, drop me a line.

It'll Make Sense to A Few. Not Me, Mind You.


Shave and a Haircut: Half Price

This is a post about wise practices in RPG PDF production. If you produce gaming material in PDF, you might find it useful. If you don't do production work (in particular, if you don't work regularly in Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign or equivalent programs like InkScape, Gimp and Scribus), posts like this will be nonsense moon-language. See the left-hand sidebar to escape.

I love graphics production. I love vectors and rasters and vectorized rasters and rasterized vectors. I love fonts. I love photographs. I love pencil and charcoal and watercolor and oil. I love RGB and CMYK and HSB and the feel of Pantone swatches in my hand. I love lossy and non-lossy compression. I love all those things and more, but most of all I love using the right tool for the job, because this stuff matters to print quality, screen clarity, file size, methods of layering, palette consistency and more.

I read a lot of gaming PDFs, and my head dents a lot of desks. Many producers of gaming PDFs make an easy-to-fix mistake: they use grayscale space for purely black-and-white artwork. Alas. We are, every one of us, learning our craft. Let me help you learn one small thing that might make a huge difference in the quality of your work: the power of 1-bit rasters.

Some people call them "bitmap" images. I do, too (so does Photoshop), but that can also mean a raster image in any colorspace, so we'll be careful with that. Some people call them "pure bitmaps" or just "black-and-white" bitmaps. For clarity, I'll try to stick with "1-bit" in this article.

A 1-bit raster has no dimension of hue or saturation, and only the simplest concept of luminance. Like every raster, it's made of pixels, and every pixel is either black or white: yes or no, yin or yang, Siskel or Ebert, Kei or Yuri. No tones, no shades, no mulligans. Black, or white.

This distinguishes it from the grayscale space, which lacks color (hue and saturation) but has gradations of luminance. A layman would call either kind of image a "black and white picture," but one of them has grays.

Grayscale is generally ideal for representing soft colorless media like charcoal, ink-wash and graphite (and digital art created specifically for that space). 1-bit is generally ideal for representing hard colorless media like black ink. Basically, it's right in the name: grayscale has gray. 1-bit doesn't. If your image has meaningful grays, stick with grayscale. Grayscale is fantastic, for gray. Here are two bits of quickie digital art to demonstrate. The first one contains meaningful (or at least pretty) greys. The second contains no greys at all: every pixel is either black, or white.

Click to Embiggen, If Your Viewing Method Permits

Since these are purely digital creations, I could decide, and plan for, their destination colorspaces. When you're dealing with scans of hand-drawn illustrations, it's sometimes less about planning and more about just asking yourself: does this image have meaningful (or at least pretty) grays?

In real terms, every real-world piece of art has greys if you peer closely: even a "clean" ink-drawing will have subtle variations in the black, leftover ghosts of graphite or blue pencil used in the sketch stages, and so on. And, if you're dealing with a freelance artist over the Net, the scan they send may well contain some of these, lingering as schmutz in whatever colorspace they scanned in.

If you're actually doing an RPG book about the beauty of schmutz, then by all means, leave it grayscale, or heck, insist on full-color for the complete in-your face schmutz experience. But if an image is clearly meant to be a clean, black and white image, it belongs in clean, black-and-white raster (or vectorized raster, but that's another article for another day). If the thousands of RPG PDFs available across the Web are any indication, there are a lot of folks unaware of this distinction.

Let's consider an extreme illustrative example. Point your peepers into this folder I've prepared over on GDrive. There are two PDFs (ignore the subfolder for now). They're the same file  size (as close as I could get 'em). They're the same image size (U.S. Letter). They're both distilled from the same source image, a black-and-white fragment of a city map in progress, except one is distilled from the 1-bit version, the other from the grayscale. See the differences?


Because grayscale is designed to handle many shades, it has a higher overhead in terms of file size, and responds well to lossy compression methods, while 1-bit has a lower overhead and is perfectly amenable to lossless compression. To get the grayscale version the same approximate size as the 1-bit version, I had to drop it from a buttery 600dpi to a foggy 83, a total pixel loss of 98%, and then subject it to super-lossy JPEG compression (excellent for grays and colors, dead-stupid for black-and-white).

"But S. John!" some may cry. "I don't care about file size! I have a fast internet connection and a stack of external hard drives! I could give two crunchy poops if an RPG book is 20 megabytes or 20 terabytes! File size is meaningless here in the shiny Buck Rogers world we live in! I'll just keep the image gray, refuse to downsample it, and apply only non-lossy ZIP compression!"

And if you're crying all of that, it sounds like you know what you're talking about with the Distiller options, so yes, you can do that. The resulting files will be huge, and it's your prerogative not to care. But, your customers might, and the differences are multiplied by the number of rasters in your book. Quite a lot of gamers are still stuck with DSL or satellite or less. And yeah, affordable storage is great, too, for those who do find it affordable.

But even if you bloat your file to the max, 1-bit images frequently print cleaner on most home or office printers, because of the way most PDF software interprets them. They also render more quickly on slow machines, especially tablets and smartphones. And judging by the many gaming PDFs I've spent time with, a lot of people care about some version of these things, because what I often see is a less-extreme echo of my example PDFs: compromised images downsampled and JPEGged to achieve some kind of more-or-less legible size, when that kind of compromise is unnecessary.

Bottom line on the basics: if a drawing is actually a for-real black-and-white drawing, producing it in 1-bit results in improved quality across the board, without compromise. You can simultaneously achieve higher resolutions, cleaner print, faster renders, clearer on-screen legibility, and smaller file sizes. There's no bad side, no gotcha, no hidden cost.

Then, there's more, as you gain some expertise. Peek at the PDF in that subfolder now, or click here directly, if you like. That's the "Grandma August" map from Uresia: Grave of Heaven. All the meaningful details in Uresia rasters, including this one, are that full buttery 600dpi. The colors aren't fancy, but they're nice enough. It prints clear and it's clear on-screen, even tolerating some zoom. It's nice. I think it's nice, anyway.

File size? One third of a meg. 335 kilobytes. Total. Boom.

Feel free to rummage your hard drive for 600dpi color images of comparable dimensions, weighing in at one third of a meg. While you're rummaging, compare the JPEG version of the Grandma August map, in that same subfolder. Nearly 8 megabytes to maintain the full quality of the image. 24 times the size of the PDF.

What does a full-color image have to do with pure black and white, anyway? And either way, how is this miracle achieved?

There's not a speck of color in the rasters used to create the PDF version. Not a bit. It's made of multiple 1-bit layers sandwiched over a single grayscale layer, and each layer has an appropriate swatch applied as a tone in InDesign ... leveraging two hidden powers of the 1-bit format. First, InDesign (and Acrobat) sees the white pixels as transparent by default, allowing for clever multi-layer bitmap effects (the home-digital equivalent of spot design) without resorting to blending modes. Second, InDesign is happy to tell Acrobat to treat the black pixels as tinted ones, making every "full color" Uresia map possible.

"It's not an illusion, your majesty. It only looks like one."

There's one more trick: I said the meaningful details are 600dpi, and they are: the text, the borders, the town symbols, the oceans: all of that is in a single 1-bit layer of pure black, and things like forest edges and dotted-line borders are in another 1-bit layer, tinted brownish-sepia on its way toward Distiller.

But the parchment background? And the darker forest-fills? I made this PDF using the same settings I used for the earlier example files, so while the 1-bit elements are 600dpi lossless, the parchment (which contains no meaningful details because it's just nonsense parchment backgroundy stuff) is 83dpi and lossy as can be: a grayscale layer tinted the same brownish-sepia (though, in fact, it could just as easily be a full-color layer like the one in the main Uresia world map; there's no significant savings for such a blobby background). In other words, I used the right tool for each job, within the same job.

If that's confusing, well, like I said: that's a sort of expanded 1-bit power awaiting your future expertise, and it's got friends. For now, please consider getting in the habit of using 1-bit files for black and white images (in Photoshop, the colorspaces are under IMAGE > MODE in most versions of the menu; Google around if you need more help). Your PDFs will be smaller, print clearer, and can have much higher resolutions. And I'll suffer a lot fewer head-desks.

I'll post more about RPG production and Best PDF Practices now and then. Drop me a line if there's something you'd like to read about.


Warm & Crinkly

    “In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do and of course I’m doing it with all fjords again because I happen to like them, and I’m old fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough. Equatorial!” He gave a hollow laugh. “What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”
    “And are you?”
    “No. That’s where it all falls down of course.”

– The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams

I picked up my first copy of Hitchhiker's at the "Seven-Day Store" on Quantico, a convenience shop where Marines would go for Doritos and beer. They had a wall-rack of paperbacks with distinct leanings for the target audience: science fiction, spy novels, self-help books. They stocked the whole trilogy (this was in the last few months of it being a trilogy in the mundane sense), and after reading the back covers, I knew I wanted them. After begging a couple extra quarters from my father, I had just enough for the first one; I'd get the others as soon as I could.

I met Slartibartfast that night as I raced through the book, addicted from page one. Like that X-Men Annual that would show me a magic item before I needed magic items, Slartibartfast taught me fjords and "lovely crinkly edges" before I needed fjords and lovely crinkly edges. Later on, when I'd sit down to draw my first coastline for an RPG fantasy world, I'd settle for nothing less than a lovely baroque feel, and I knew I wouldn't care how equatorial it was.

Slartibartfast is the source of my obsession with crinkly coastlines, but that's just one facet of warmth, a quality I treasure at every level of RPG creation.

When I wrote about the basic qualities of good RPG writing, pre-blog readers may have noticed the abridged version of my usual laundry list, with "warmth" conspicuously absent. There are three reasons for that. First, that article was focused on RPG writing, while my love of warmth extends also into design and production. Second, warmth thus rated a place in the RPG Lexicon series, and here we are. Finally, and importantly: some genuinely good RPG writing is ice cold, and while my love of warm design is absolute and eternal, it would be unfair to include it on list of fundamental RPG writing ingredients.

Warmth in RPG design is something I love, design toward, seek out, and talk about. What's more, I'm often stopped mid-rant and asked to explain it, because I seem to be simultaneously describing a game's systems, worlds, adventures, cartography, typography, illustrations, page design, themes, philosophies, morals, politics, history and resources. But that's only because I am.

The version most people understand immediately is warmth as it applies to color: the red/orange/yellow side of the color wheel is traditionally the "warm" side, with the green/blue/violet side traditionally "cool." I'd love to tell you this stems from some deep spiritual properties inherent in the magic of color (because that would be romantic, and romance is warm) but the ice-cold truth is that of simple association: yellow with sunlight, red with blood and red-hot iron, flames with all three, and so on, while blue and it's neighbors evoke cool water, cool evenings, cool forest glades and death by frostbite. It's not magical or mysterious, but the emotional and thematic impact of color choice is difficult to overstate. It's more than just hue, too. Saturation connotes more warmth than de-saturation: the greyer a color is, the cooler it is, even if it's orange fire greying to cooler ash. Brightness, too, tends to connote more warmth than cold darkness, so this hits every part of the HSB graph (translate to RGB or CMYK at need).

In other graphic terms, straight lines and sharp corners are frosty; wavy and curvy are warm. The same associative logic applies to arrangements and spatial relationships: a perfect line is cold, but perfect parallel lines are even colder (distance is cold, too, so if they're parallel but far apart, that's even colder). A row of perfectly spaced, perfectly-aligned boxes may as well be ice cubes, especially if there's lots of cold air between them. Warm elements relate imperfectly and hug closer; they're too alive for symmetry (life is warm and death is cold). A hand-drawn line is the warmest line, because it feels more human, more organic, more personal, more likely to collide with something or even trip over itself. A perfect vector line is cold because it's mechanical, devoid of individuality, devoid of texture or deviation. Idiosyncrasy is warm.

Warmth is casual and playful; formality and conformity are cold. Warmth relaxes, kicks off its shoes, but it loves socks, because softness is warm. Fluffy is warm. Warm reclines by the fireplace, because actual warmth is warm. Sensuality is warm. Blankets and rugs, slippers and towels, warm from the hot dryer on a cold day. That's one of my favorite little ironies: if your RPG setting is wintry, it's more likely to have warmth, because if it's ice-cold (hard, sparse, dark) outside, a lot of the imagery will be about cozy coats and bulky sweaters, Viking halls with firepits, welcoming inns with hearthside ale, yellow light in frosted windowpanes, the life-saving guts of a light-sabered Tauntaun. Norway is cold but it isn't cold, because Slartibartfast gave it crinkles and Norwegians keep it cozy.

All these things bridge toward emotional and conceptual warmth, because home is warm. Home is lived-in, used, rumpled, messy. Home smells like cooking and pets and grandma's farts, and all those are warm. Brewing coffee is warm, baking bread is warm. The word WELCOME on a mat is warm, and the sentiment "welcome" even moreso, because sentiment is warm. Hugs are warm and love is warm and comforts are warm. The past can seem warmer than the future, partly because familiarity is warm, but the quality isn't limited to the past. Serenity is a warmer starship than Enterprise precisely because it feels so lived-in, homey, messy, imperfect, dirty. It wears its past on its sleeve so the heart rides with it. Fortunately, Leonard McCoy brings the warmth of a thousand suns, so Enterprise is fine.

Fallibility is warm; awkwardness is warm. Cold speaks to the intellect but warmth to the heart, so failure is warm, yearning is warm, well-meaning mistakes and embarrassment are warm. Sincerity and hope: warm. Sympathy is warm. Friendship is warm. Variety is warm. Humanity is warm. Fear is cold but every cure for it is warm. Courage is warm. Passion is warm. Contradiction is warm, and that's a good thing, because if you're designing for warmth, you'll meet more than a few contradictions, because this stuff isn't algebra (math is cold!) There are times when, according to context and connotation, any of these observations gets flipped on its ear. That makes it unpredictable but, that's okay. Unpredictability is warm! Just, not consistently.

This term is crucial to the lexicon because warmth is one of the stars I steer my work by: a core design ideal. That's not to say I don't also work with ice. Like with Norway, ice provides the contrast that makes the warmth brighter. Plus, sticking purely with warmth would be homogeneous, and that's cold. See? It's an excellent source of your daily irony.

It's also, as a gamer, a quality I crave, and I frequently go hungry. For a variety of cultural reasons, cold is the predominant temperature in RPG design, writing, and production, and has been across the hobby's history. There are, of course, many delightful exceptions, and I search them out, scoop them up, hug them, and game with them.

If you've been following this series, I'm sure you can't help but notice that the Invisible Rulebooks have a hold on me, in part, because they're rich in warmth and warmth-potential. The gaming territory they represent is the messy place outside the vehicle, as it were. It's about putting your feet on uneven ground, where the rules aren't just unseen, they're soft, malleable, irregular, contradictory, and ultimately down to the natures of fictional characters and the idiosyncrasies of a human GM. The resulting form of play is so frequently marvelous it kind of spoils me, on both sides of the screen, because that arrangement only works when there's a powerful mutual confidence in everyone's intentions and abilities. A confidence that, when it's present, warms the bones of every piece of related game design.

I'm sure there's a word for that, somewhere down the winding back-country road of the lexicon.