Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Formula Fail

There are a lot of recent blog posts about innovation, especially when it comes to the OSR.  Well, I didn't set out to write about innovation.  What really motivated me this morning was my annoyance with the new TV show iZombie.  However, my little tirade seems to dovetail with my thoughts on innovation, so here goes nothing...

I had high hopes, but it disappoints.  It's a great premise: girl becomes zombie and gets job at the morgue in order to eat brains... and helps homicide detective solve crimes.  In this case, being a zombie doesn't reduce you to a shambling, drooling idiot - it just makes you really pale with white hair, less enthused about everyday life, and crave brains.

Despite all the fresh trappings of zombidom, there's 2 episodes left and the first season is awfully predictable.  Which means kind of boring.  At every turn, the show's creator and episode writers had a chance to do the unexpected, but instead they chose the path well traveled, the easy road that wouldn't throw the writers for a loop.

It's a shame, is all.  Anyway, let's get to my other point... the innovation stuff.

You can have new places: cities, dungeons, towers, forests, realms, and even worlds.  You can have new characters: a duke, head of security, affable peasant, irritating computer, etc.  You can have a really interesting story, hook, or cultural facet - like everyone wears some kind of mask.

However, if your adventure or campaign follows every logical plot-point without deviation or derailment, even an innovative setting will feel stale.  Thankfully, roleplaying isn't just about the Game Master's carefully crafted story.  The PCs are there to do their own thing, make their own choices, etc.  Unfortunately, a lot of players will try to adhere to either the story and how it "should" play out or the GM's not-quite-invisible wishes.

GMs, you run the show.  That means even when you're giving the PCs free reign, the game will occasionally go in whatever direction you planned (not talking about the minor details, but the big picture).  Be careful you don't course-correct events like in those stories about time travel.  It can happen without your realizing it.  You actually want the train to get derailed!

Well, now I've veered off again and instead of iZombie and OSR innovation, I'm doling out more Game Mastering advice.  Well, what are you going to do?  How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss is still on my mind.  Devoting yourself to a subject for a long period of time will do that to a person.

Getting back to innovation, altering outward appearances isn't enough to make something innovative.  It also takes something else:  breaking the formula.  Years ago, I talked about how the OSR, to me, equates to non-standardization.  Which is tricky, because a certain amount of standardization is inherent in RPGs, let alone the OSR.  Creators need to find a balance and create with a mind towards breaking whatever mold, whatever preconceived notion is guiding their hand.

Don't be like iZombie and take an exciting new direction and then plot it out in the most formulaic way possible.  I'd rather see a dwarven stronghold in the northern mountains that goes off-script and off the rails, than a strange world full of new creatures that live in a giant bubble yet behave exactly like you'd expect.


Friday, May 22, 2015

35th anniversary of Pac-Man!

Keep in mind that CDS is as much a parody/spoof of the 1980's as it is an OSR roleplaying game - kind of like Encounter Critical, except it was created by only one guy from Wisconsin.

I just found out that today's the 35th anniversary of Pac-Man!  And it just so happens that Crimson Dragon Slayer contains a short introductory adventure... Cavern of Carnage!

In that cave-crawl is a creature not dissimilar to the birthday boy (awesomely illustrated by Glynn of +MonkeyBlood Design.  His little ghost friends and some floating fruit are prominently featured, too.

So, in honor of the hungry, spherical yellow one... I've just dropped the price of Crimson Dragon Slayer to $3.50 (regularly $7).  This sale will continue throughout memorial day weekend!


Monday, May 18, 2015

Game of Thrones - why so popular?

Well, there are many reasons for its popularity... but Game of Thrones is doing something specific to hook us in and keep us dangling without our realizing it.  Yes, we're now trained to watch and wait; trained like a dog.  Here's how they do it (woof woof)...

GoT is rewarding us intermittently (that means continuously but at infrequent and random intervals).  Every once in awhile, we get something we've been craving - a reward - tossed into our bowl.  Because we have no idea when (or even if) it's coming, getting such a treat makes it that much more exciting, special, and addictive!

That's why every blue moon, seemingly anyway, (could be every 2 or 3 episodes or once per season) we get the following...

  • A gloriously gory battle scene with steel and blood and some poor bastard dying horribly up close and personal.
  • Sex!  Yeah, that naked stuff we're not used to seeing in a TV show.  But let's be honest, every time we see boobs it's like the first time.  Am I right?
  • Fantasy:  dragons flying overhead, a spell being cast, or some kind of supernatural event taking place.
  • A major character dies.  What if that one night you decided not to watch, Sansa or Margaery died?!?
  • Victory and defeat - you can't have one without the other, so usually one side gets victory and the other gets the shaft.
  • Tyrion's wit, eviscerating some deserving fuck with just a few words.
  • Revenge/justice bestowed upon the worst of the worst in Westeros.
  • Receiving more than a clue about what's really going on - who's doing what to whom and why!

The rest is just a big tease.  It's medieval Machiavellian foreplay!  Sure, we get to look at beautiful countryside, amazing sets, dirty old men, heroes, maidens, etc, but a lot of the time we're also subjected to banking problems, traveling delays, the schemes of petty bureaucrats, cleaning bodies, traipsing through the forest, highborns being dicks, etc.  

Yes, GoT is all about the waiting.  And once we get our particular fix from the above list, we're all that much eager for more.  Unfortunately, that requires more waiting.  But we can't stop watching!  Oh no, what if we miss that thing we've been yearning for?  They just showed it two episodes ago... that means we could get the good stuff tonight!  Or, if not tonight, then next week.  Come on, man.  Just one more... just one more fix!

Yeah, the life of an addict.  Face it, folks.  We're not going anywhere. You see, GoT knows the secret - that an intermittent reward is stronger (hence, more addictive) than a regular and reliable reward.  Don't blame them, blame the human condition.  

Since this is a RPG blog, I'd be remiss for not suggesting this strategy in your own tabletop fantasy campaign.  Incidentally, I talk about this technique and a hundred more subtle secrets of Game Mastery in my book: How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss.  Also available on and CreateSpace.

What's your favorite thing about Game of Thrones?  Is there something special that you wait for each episode or season?  Some aspect of GoT you love, that they don't do enough of?  Comment below with what that is...

See you at the Westeros methadone clinic,


Friday, May 15, 2015

Softcover like a Fucking Boss

How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss is now a softcover on Amazon (still waiting on the physical proof from DriveThruRPG)!  

If you buy it from CreateSpace and email me evidence (like your emailed receipt or something - not bloodstains or fingerprints... though, that would be awesome), I'll send you the PDF for free ASAP.  

I get a couple more dollars from a CS sale than Amazon is why, but currently they are the exact same price.



Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Crimson Dragon Slayer PDF

Yay!  I finally did it.  Here is the PDF for Crimson Dragon Slayer - my humble Old School Renaissance roleplaying game.  The print version should be available on DriveThru and Amazon in early June.

Since there's already a hundred or so retro-clones and retro-compatible RPGs similar, based on, or taking off from the original Dungeons & Dragons, I really didn't think there was anywhere to go.  After all, I had included a few game mechanic tweaks in Liberation of the Demon Slayer and The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.  Were there enough new ideas in my head to publish yet another OSR RPG?

It started with a face-palm breakthrough in my VSd6 idea.  Instead of multiple 6's being a critical success, just a lone 6 would suffice, with everything scaling from there.  It seems tiny, obvious, and the furthest thing from a revolutionary idea, but when I eventually tripped over it, the revised concept gave me that initial spark of hope that I might be able to contribute something worthwhile.

Re-watching bad/cheesy 80's fantasy films like The Dungeon Master, Deathstalker, and Tron fueled the narrative.  After all, thousands of RPGs hand you a bunch of rules and drop you in a vague setting conforming to the genre or, conversely, slathered in meta-plot.  I just wanted an interesting framework and then back off to let the Dragon Master and players take it from there.

Lastly, I wanted to showcase my sense of humor.  Why not make it kind of funny... an occasionally silly self-parody of what we consider old school fantasy roleplaying?

Glynn from +MonkeyBlood Design and a bunch of my OSR friends and acquaintances did the rest.  They provided ideas, encouragement, and the support needed to float this project until completion.  I literally couldn't have done it without them, so big thanks to all those righteous dudes!


p.s.  Fantastic interior illustration by +Joshua Burnett.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss on PDF

It's here on DriveThruRPG!  Physical proofs of the printed version have already been ordered, so it shouldn't be too long (Cthulhu willing) before HtGMlaFB is available in softcover at DriveThru and Amazon.

I'm especially amazed by the artwork I was able to commission.  Some of those pieces are my favorite of anything I've ever published.  If you recognize the subject matter, it's no accident.  Where possible, I asked the artists to use scenes and characters from my previous books as a model.  Hopefully, that and my own aesthetic / style of writing and Game Mastering create a through line for readers, connecting Liberation, Purple, and Revelry in new ways that even I can scarcely imagine.

Thanks one more time to all the Kickstarter backers who supported this project several months ago, even the scoffers and naysayers who talked about it and kept word of mouth alive.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Season Finale

For whatever reason, I have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly.  Normally, I leisurely skim through it over a few days, reading about the things that interest me and ignoring the stuff that doesn't.

Anyways, the latest issue has an article on "How to Write a Season Finale".  Just thought I'd briefly summarize the article's main points here because they could very well sync-up with RPG adventure writing.

*     Envision the season's final image and reverse engineer the adventure or campaign from there.

*     Give yourself permission to deviate from the plan.  Some things happen last minute.  Characters will act or react differently than you anticipated.  Occasionally, a better idea comes along towards the end.

*     Meet fan (or in this case, player) expectations.  Entertain and surprise players with twists, turns, and secrets.

*     End on a cliff-hanger, setting impossible stakes that will leave players scratching their heads over where the adventure/campaign could go.  In other words, write yourself into a corner and then see what happens.  The ultimate goal is shock value.

*     If you've built the end of the season right, the story will come together with ease.  No matter how good the adventure/campaign was, if you don't stick the landing all people will remember is that the ending sucked.

There it is.  Let me know if you think EW's take on season finales are on target with crafting scenarios and campaigns.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Crimson Dragon Slayer playtest #1

"Couple hot girls, a wizard, and a cyclops... that's all you need for a good night." ~ Steve

I finally got a chance to play it myself... to see if this was something actually worth pursuing or if I'd taken too many wrong turns to even bother continuing.

I tried to pay attention at every juncture, every moment of immersion, laughter, confusion, annoyance, flipping back and forth through the rules, and twinge of nostalgia.

I came away with about two pages of notes on what didn't work, what needed a quick fix or facelift, and a couple things that felt awesome but needed to be reworked until they really shined.

Some things look good on paper but just feel wrong in the heat of the moment, either because they're unbalanced, clunky, or flat.  As a game designer, it's my job to notice the discrepancy between how something reads and how it plays.  Years ago (see my cringe-worth Empire of Satanis), I was more likely to power through a crappy mechanic or, worse, a lackluster or overblown premise even if it seemed less than wonderful... even ignoring constructive criticism.

Anyways, that's enough game design philosophy and peek into my shady past.  Onto the session report!  I had four players, below is a look at the party...

  • Robert  played an infernal elf ranger (defender) named Pin.
  • Steve played a dwarf thief (spell scoundrel... formerly known as "arcane trickster" named Alfonse.
  • Daniel played a human warrior named Stan Gruberman - the man with a mop!  (a reference to the movie UHF)
  • Ethan played a dwarf wizard named Jerry.

After about an hour of character creation, there was backstory and a cave.  My chief objective with Crimson Dragon Slayer is to emulate a science-fantasy computer roleplaying game from 1983.  Like a gonzo version of The Bard's Tale or sword & sorcery version of Ice Pirates.  It's meant to be funny and retro and kind of dumb in a (hopefully) awesome sort of way.

The first area inside the cave was full of dazed Infravision programmers with red glowing eyes.  They dispatched them well enough.  I found myself turning the 18 page manual back and forth between the initiative system I came up with and whatever other part of the rules I needed.  After that first battle, I realized initiative needed an overhaul.  

The thief rolled to see if he could find some treasure on the dead bodies.  Yes, the senior programmer had a wand.

The next area contained zombie cannibal ninja and a human bound and gagged on the floor.  

Even though it seems like combat is only taking off a few HP here and there, every once in awhile (about ever third round, I'd guess) something dramatic happens.  A character rolls a few sixes or exploding damage goes through the roof.  This might be a case of seeing what I want to see, but it reminds me of watching a sword fight (or any other battle on the screen).  For the first bit, it seems like it's a draw between warriors as not much is happening.  They seem equally matched or at least both seem decent at not being harmed.  And then all of a sudden, Ka-Bam!  Someone gets a sword through the throat!

But the thief wasn't special enough.  I mean, when you only have four core classes, you've got to differentiate.  That was also part of the initiative problem.  It wasn't until the drive home that I came up with a solution.

They saved the henchman tied up.  He gave the party his magic ring and wanted to serve them.

The last battle was against a wizard, his demon, and a black knight.  The ranger rolled double sixes in his dice pool and though it was clear that doing extra damage was the default benefit of such critical success, I pursued the matter further.  "You could do something else, like a called-shot to the wizard's amulet that had summoned the demon."

"Is the wizard wearing such an amulet?"  Daniel asked?

"Yeah, sure.  Why not?"  I replied.  And so it was.  

The ranger did just that and the demon vanished.  The wizard was dispatched with the newly acquired wand and the black knight was killed by a ton of damage from the warrior.  

That battle ended too quickly for everyone's liking, so there was an invisible wizard who shot one of those metal balls from Phantasm out of his hand.  Between that and his glaive, Stan the mop man was nearly dead.

For reasons that are still unclear - it may have been a really low intelligence or wanting to get back home or because he couldn't wait to find out what purple lightning strike did - the party wizard decided to betray everyone and started casting his spell.  Some damage was done.  Then he was charged by both the ranger and warrior while the thief hid.  

The best Ethan rolled that day was his death save.  He rolled 2 sixes and was up with a few HP to his name.  He attempted to cast another spell.  Failure.  The fighter types bashed him again.  I could see where another roll on the death save table would be ridiculous so ruled that since he was unconscious again, a simple coup de grace would do the job.

A lot of fun was had.  Some of it bad fun that went horrible wrong.  Hey, that's what playtesting is for.  Changes have already been implemented.  Go check out the g+ community for Crimson Dragon Slayer to download the beta version PDF uploaded on dropbox.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Outer Presence - playtest #1

This investigative horror scenario was born here.  Got to keep this short.  Busy, busy, busy!  Also, this session report will be short on details - spoiler free, it's called these days.  ;)

Below are the players and their characters.  I told them to create a character concept instead of going through the motions using Call of Cthulhu or something similar.  Interestingly, none of the characters were scientists, explorers, or even academics.  For an inexperienced Game Master, this probably would have led to either GM interference or crying.  I decided to massage their entry into the story.  Seemed to work well, no one mentioned anything.

Oh yeah, I also decided on the 1970's.  Not only is it a compromise between the 1920's / 30's and present day, but I was going for a Cannibal Holocaust type thing.

Tim Virnig:  "Lang"; grew up wealthy; father founder and editor of Gazette newspaper; supposed to follow in his father's footsteps; instead, photographer of B-list celebrities and scandals; in free time, hoping to write mystery novel; also hoping to be a news reporter.

Jeff Adamus:  He played Jeff.  Photography print shop owner; advertising, pop culture, and band/music enthusiast; owns a couple cats; band and business promotion with marketing specialty.

Russell Reed:  Frank Smith; writer; reporter; disco dancing freak; reveals corruption; wants to write detective novels.

Kent Nedland:  Vince O'Donald; accountant; believes world can be placed in a monetary paradigm; scrawny dude; pocket calculator; # crunching.

Marie Nedland:  Susan Thompson; tech person; plays poker and goes dancing; wants to fix the disparity between rich and poor.

Somehow, I turned a desperate need for more explorers into a desperate need for publicity now that the first expedition was such a success (not really a success).  The players were all game and they roleplayed their involvement extremely well.

Clues led them to believe that this wasn't just a fun, all expense-paid tax write-off.  For instance, a couple investigators found a hand-written note telling them that the expedition's last telegram should be shredded so that no one can learn the truth!

Onto New Guinea!  Their host was a piece of work.  I really wanted to push the envelope with what players and PCs might expect from the scenario's principle antagonist.  He pushed a lot of buttons and made everyone hate him.  PCs didn't actually vomit... but they wanted to.  Incidentally, the actor Sidney Greenstreet was my inspiration for Doctor Karl Steiner.

Exploring the temple!  Over the last few years, I've been on the jungle cruise at Disney World's Magic Kingdom probably a dozen times.  The part when the boat goes into that dark structure was the basis for my temple.  Could have been more detailed, but I think it was successful on the whole.

Two investigators went temporarily insane, none died.  Was the world saved?  Perhaps...

The timing went extremely well.  Including 15 min. of character creation, the entire scenario took 2 hours and 55 minutes to resolve.  Good thing as two players had to leave just as we'd finished the game.  The first hour involved the set-up, including arrival.  The second hour involved getting a lay of the land, interacting with the people, and learning what the scenario was really about.  The third and final hour involved exploring the next location, learning the truth, and final resolution.

Probably won't get around to publishing it for awhile as I already have two irons in the fire: the Game Mastering book and Crimson Dragon Slayer, my very own OSR rule-set.  Both will be available this summer!  Check out the g+ community for CDS here.  The support, feedback, and even playtesting (!!!) that I've received since mentioning the idea weeks ago has overwhelmed me with happiness and enthusiasm.  Thanks, everyone!