May 2010


"I'm nothing without you" is a fucked up sentiment." - XKCD

May 11th, 2010



Most of the problems in Infamous are the result of its sandbox, but there are a couple of key problems with the main storyline as well, so let's talk about those.

First, by its very nature, Infamous wants to give you meaningful choice: Do you want to be a supervillain or a superhero? But it runs into a problem because it also has a story to tell, goddamit.

The difficulty here is pretty easy to sum up: Content is expensive. If the game actually diverged every time it gave you a choice, the amount of content required would increase exponentially (and so would the production budget). So, instead, the game gives you the illusion of choice: No matter what you do, the ultimate result on a macro-level is the same and the next stop on the plot's railroad remains unaltered.

Which is fine.

What you can do, though, is specifically color the events of the plot to suit the type of character the player is choosing to play. This is tricky, but it can be done. Infamous even takes a stab at it: Every so often the gameplay is shunted into a short semi-animated sequence that moves the plot forward. Some of these semi-animated sequences are swapped out depending on whether you're a superhero or a supervillain.

The problem with Infamous is that the writers just don't seem to have had their hearts behind the supervillain plot: No matter how villainous the character becomes, the game just can't seem to shake the underlying themes of savior and redemption.

Fix #1: Develop a meaningful theme and arc for the supervillain side of the story. Most of the necessary pieces are tantalizingly within reach: They just need to be realized.

For example, here's the end of the game:

Notice the complete disconnect between the end of the semi-animated sequence and the "evil epilogue"? How can you go from "when the time comes, I'll be ready" to saying "only an idiot thinks I'm going to bother doing that"?

The fix here is simple: The narrative needs to explicitly embrace at every level the irony that Kessler's efforts to indoctrinate Cole have had exactly the opposite result; that the unspeakable and almost incomprehensible sacrifices he made were all for naught.

More radically, it would be nice if not all of our choices were completely meaningless. (It would certainly improve the replay value of the game: After discovering how completely illusionary the choices in the game were, I didn't bother going back to finish a replay.)

For example, you can watch the death of Trish in both the good version and the evil version. The different outcomes in this case depend on your morality rating within the game and suffers from the same incoherence as the end of the game: The fact that Trish, in her dying moments, chose to scorn you or to love you should have some sort of lasting impact on how Cole thinks of her. But it doesn't.

In addition, the death of Trish is couched in a false decision: You can try to save her (evil choice) or you can try to save several innocent hostages (good choice). But, ultimately, the decision is meaningless: Trish is killed either way and the "decision", like so many others in the game, is ultimately trivial and meaningless.

Supporting these variations in the death of Trish would be significant because this is a key moment in the game and its impact would be felt in many other places. But precisely because it's a key moment in the game, a little extra depth here would go a long way towards enriching the entire experience. (And the differences, although pervasive, are cheap: A little extra time recording dialogue and a couple extra yes-no switches in the code.)

Similar changes at other moments in the game would be more isolated than the Trish divergence, and thus easier to implement.

(Tangentially: If you ever have the opportunity to write a video game, please avoid the temptation to include "you have succeeded at goal X in the gameplay, but now we'll go to a cut-scene and reveal it was all a failure after all". The discordant gut-punch is not effective. It is merely annoying. Particularly if you follow the example of Infamous and do it over and over and over again.)

May 12th, 2010


Last year my one-page dungeon The Halls of the Mad Mage, inspired by the twisted landscapes of M.C. Escher, won Best Geometry in the One Page Dungeon Contest. The deluxe version of the One Page Dungeon Codex 2009, which collects all of the winners, has now been released as a FREE e-book from Tabletop Adventures.

I believe the 2010 contest has also concluded (I didn't enter this year).


If you like The Halls of the Mad Mage, while you're at RPGNow for the Codex, you might also want to check out some of my other adventure supplements:

Mini-Adventure 1: Complex of Zombies     Mini-Adventure 2: The Black Mist

May 14th, 2010


A couple months ago I mentioned that I had created counter-intelligence guidelines for the Gather Information skill. Confanity had mentioned that he was intrigued by them, and I promised to get them posted sooner rather than later. For certain definitions of "sooner" and "later", I suppose that this has now been accomplished.

Counter-Intelligence: A character can attempt to detect other characters gathering information about a particular subject in the area by making a Gather Information check. The DC of the counter-intelligence check is opposed by the original Gather Information check made in the attempt to gather the information.

Avoiding Suspicion: If a character is attempting to avoid suspicion, it becomes more difficult to detect them. Although the character suffers a -10 penalty on their Gather Information check for the purposes of collecting the information they seek, they gain a +10 bonus to their Gather Information check for the purposes of opposing the counter-intelligence check.

In addition, cautious characters can voluntarily increase the penalty on their original Gather Information check, granting an equal bonus for the purposes of opposing the counter-intelligence check. (For example a character could decide to be extra cautious and apply a -15 penalty to their Gather Information check. Their unmodified check result is 30, which is modified to 15 (30 - 15) for the purposes of determining what information they actually glean. But if another character attempts to detect their presence, they would have to make a DC 45 (30 + 15) counter-intelligence check to do so.)

Modifiers: Apply a -2 penalty to counter-intelligence checks for every week that has passed since the original Gather Information check.


For PCs, these guidelines aren't only useful to find out if someone is asking questions about them. In fact, they're generally more useful for identifying competing interests. Who else in town is trying to find out information about the Vault of the Dwarven Kings? Or investigating the Baker's Street Gang?

Resolving these types of checks requires the GM to know two things:

(1) Who else is looking for that information?

(2) What should the DC of the check be?

The answer to the former question, of course, is situational. For the latter you could either set simple, static DCs as you would for any other Gather Information check, or you could actually resolve the opposed check.



I generally find it useful to know what kind of information-gathering capacity factions have in my campaigns. For smaller factions (like an opposing group of adventurers or a small gang of bad guys), this is as simple as looking at the highest (or most appropriate) Gather Information skill modifier in the group.

For larger factions, I simply assign a Gather Information modifier to the group. (This number is essentially arbitrary, although I base it on the size, nature, and resources of the group in question.)

When trying to figure out how suspicious a particular group is (i.e., whether they're performing counter-intelligence to make sure anyone is asking questions about them) or how pervasive their surveillance is (i.e., how often they're making counter-intelligence checks), I've generally just relied on common sense to make a ruling whenever the question needs to be answered. But if you're running a campaign where intelligence and counter-intelligence is likely to be fairly common (for example, a modern espionage campaign), then codifying those factors might be useful.

(For example, a Paranoid group might check 1/day; a Suspicious group every 1d6 days; a Cautious group once every 3d10 days; a Naive group might never check. In other words, if the PCs investigate a Suspicious group then there would be a counter-intelligence check made 1d6 days later.)

May 17th, 2010



Dwarves: Oh no! All the gold in our mountain has been cursed!

Dwarven God: That sounds sucky. Hereís a magical artifact to remove the curse.

Dwarf 1: Think we should use it?

Dwarf 2: Nope. Letís lock all the dwarves afflicted by the curse into the lower vaults.

Dwarf 1: And then use it?

Dwarf 2: Nope. Letís evacuate the mountain.

Dwarf 1: And then weíll use it?

Dwarf 2: Nope. Weíll hide the magical artifact in the depths of the mountain.

Dwarf 1: AndÖ then use it?

Dwarf 2: Nope. Weíll create clockwork bodies for ourselves and inscribe the secret of how to find the artifact on the gears and cogs.

Dwarf 1: AndÖ wait, what?

Dwarf 2: Then weíll go senile. And centuries from now the grandchildren of our disciples will ďconĒ a small group of adventurers into retrieving and using the magical artifact.

Dwarf 1: What the hell are you talking about?

I guess this is what happens when you write adventure modules by committee. (I really wish I was exaggerating this, but Iím not. Although they technically didnít plan to go senile, this is, in fact, the background used in the module.)



The artifact wasnít ready-to-use out of the box. The Secret Masters of the dwarves collected the tears of the Hundred Widows who had lost their husbands to the corruption of the curse. The fist-sized teardrop of gold they forged from the cursed gold needed to bathe for a hundred years in the widows' tears before it could cleanse the mountain itself.

Unfortunately, long before the teardrop was ready, the dwarves had been forced to abandon the fortress. Or perhaps the Secret Masters arranged for the evacuation, planning to return a century later. Whatever the case may be, things didnít go according to plan: A hundred years passed and, deep in the bowels of the mountain, the Golden Teardrop was completed. But the dwarves were never able to return to the Golden Citadel, and so the teardrop lay forgotten...

Until now.

May 19th, 2010


Tonight only the American Shakespeare Repertory will be presenting a staged reading of The Second Maiden's Tragedy as part of the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare. This is the second apocryphal entry in the series, presenting a play that has been hypothesized as being by Shakespeare without being widely recognized as such. (You can see that the controvery started early in the play's history: Early owners of the original manuscript, pictured above, crossed out a succession of would-be authors for the anonymous manuscript before someone finally supplied the name "Will Shakspear".)

Some of you may have also read the recent news articles about the Arden Shakespeare deciding to include an edition of Double Falsehood as being at least representative of the lost play of Cardenio allegedly written by Shakespeare and Fletcher. The Second Maiden's Tragedy is the other "lost play of Cardenio" -- a completely different manuscript, but a second contender for the same title.

This is a rarely performed play, so if you're local this may be your only chance to see it in performance. It will also give you a chance to see me. (No assassins please.)


MAY 19th, 2010
7:30 PM
Tickets: Pay What You Can!

People's Center Theater
425 20th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN
Directions to the Theater

May 20th, 2010


Twin Cities Theater Connection recently put a panel together of local artists working on summer productions of Shakespeare. You can hear the discussion on their "Summer of Shakespeare" podcast. So if you've always wanted to know what I sound like (and can't afford to spring for the Call of Cthulhu audio book I did), this is your chance.

May 21st, 2010



(prompted by "Signs of Life" at the Society of Torch, Pole, and Rope)

The reason we look for verisimilitude in the rules of a roleplaying game and not in the rules of Monopoly is because we don't play roleplaying games as if they were a round of Monopoly.


Personally, I look at the rules of a roleplaying game as the interface between me and the game world. I want those rules to be fun and interesting, but I also want them to be transparent: My primary interest is interacting with the game world. If I wanted to interact with the rules of a game, I'd play a boardgame like Monopoly or Arkham Horror.

So if the rules in a roleplaying game get in the way -- either due to a lack of verisimilitude; or because they're boring; or dissociated; or too complicated -- then I'm going to be unhappy with those rules.

May 24th, 2010


Keep on the Shadowfell was the inaugural introductory product for 4th Edition. When it was released, I shared my initial impressions and eventually ended up writing a lengthy series of essays in which I remixed the entire adventure.

One of the major problems I had at the time was the sheer sloppiness of the module: There were continuity errors in the adventure scenario and numerous self-contradictions in the rules. Ignoring some of the larger creative and structural issues with the adventure, on a very basic level the product was a mess.

In April 2009, Wizards of the Coast released a revised version of the module as a free PDF on their website. I didn't pay much attention to it because I had already sampled 4th Edition, found it lacking in everything I value in an RPG, and moved on. But I did think it was a rather nice gesture on WotC's part to make a corrected version of the product available.

Recently, however, I decided to re-visit this material with an eye towards using my remixed version of the module as the basis for an OD&D one-shot. Remembering that the module had been revised, I tracked down the PDF. My plan was to re-read the revised version of the module, see what had been improved, and then adapt my remix notes as necessary if I thought incorporating the changes would be worthwhile.

Unfortunately, I couldn't even get past the first paragraph of the first encounter before discovering that WotC's revision was just as sloppy as the original product.

The original module describes the encounter like this (pg. 16): "The player characters are on the King's Road traveling toward Winterhaven east to west (or right to left on the map)." They are then ambushed by kobolds, as shown on this map:

The obvious problem, as I detailed in my original remix essay, is that the indicated kobolds are all standing in plain sight for characters traveling east to west along the road.

WotC's keen-eyed revisers noticed the same thing, but they didn't want to redo the cartography. So they opted to simply change the direction that the PCs are traveling (pg. 6): "The player characters are on the King's Road traveling toward Winterhaven, west to east (or left to right on the map)."

Problem solved!

... except that's completely impossible.

Because two pages earlier in the module we can see this map of the local area:

And, as you can clearly see, Winterhaven is at the western end of the King's Road. You cannot travel west-to-east anywhere on the King's Road and end up at Winterhaven.

Mistakes, of course, get made. (For example, both the original and revised versions of the module refer multiple times to the Burial Site being southwest of town. You'll note that it isn't.) But what you have here is an acknowledgment that there is a problem that needs to be fixed; a decision being made (either deliberately or ignorantly) to not fix the root of the problem; and ending up with a half-assed effort that just creates an entirely different problem.

And it doesn't even fix the original problem, because there are still kobolds standing in plain sight.

This is symptomatic of WotC's general culture of not-fixing (or even anti-fixing).

May 25th, 2010


This, like pretty much everything Google does, is really cool. But either I'm becoming an old fogey, or the fact that Google continues to make us more and more reliant on content that exists only on their servers makes me nervous.

In pondering the implications of the AIs in Greg Egan's Diaspora immersing themselves so completely in virtual realities that they forgot about the real world, I found a simple saying: "You should never forget where your plug is." The virtual reality may be indistinguishable from the real world in every way while being filled with endless possibilities far beyond the scope of anything the real world may be able to offer: But if the sun goes supernova in the real world, you're still going to die, no matter how deeply nestled you've become in your artificial life.

In reflecting on cloud computing I think it's equally important to say: "You should never forget where your data is."

Because the "cloud" is increasingly becoming a buzz word that means, "If Google ever goes away or chooses to shut down a server or decides to start charging for a service, then you're all screwed."

Don't get me wrong: I use GMail, Google Calendar, and Google Reader. I watch videos on Youtube. I search prices on Froogle. Google Books (along with the Internet Archive) is literally revolutionary in making information widely and rapidly accessible. I'm even convinced that Google Wave has the opportunity to replace e-mail. (Although, notably, one of the reasons I believe that is because Wave is an open protocol and not dependent on Google's servers.)

But whenever I hear about somebody who has lost their entire blog because their hosting company has gone out of business or failed to back up their servers properly, I'm reminded of the importance of knowing where your data is. The Alexandrian, for example, is actually designed so that the primary copy of every document is kept on my local computer. The website itself is the first of several back-ups. And even though that isn't an option for many blogs, you should still make a point of making a local back-up on a regular basis.

The same applies to anyone who's keeping their data exclusively on Google Docs, Flickr, Facebook, or anywhere else on the web. The utility of being able to access and manipulate your data from anywhere is great, but the importance of both knowing and controlling the physical location of your data just cannot be stressed enough.

Which is why, for example, I can't get excited for Google Chrome OS. In fact, it's why I can't figure out why anybody is excited about it. This is an operating system which fails to offer even a single unique feature: Everything it can do, other operating systems already do. In fact, the only thing it can uniquely claim to do is to make your computer completely reliant on the "cloud" -- in other words, to force you to give up your control over your own data. For some reason this is supposed to be a "feature", but I can't fathom what advantage anyone thinks they're going to get out of it.

May 27th, 2010



Most published adventures are designed around a structure that looks like this:

Your start at the beginning (Blue), proceed through a series of linear scenes (Yellow), and eventually reach the end (Red).

Occasionally you may see someone get fancy and throw a pseudo-option into things:

But youíre still looking at an essentially linear path. Although the exact form of this linear path may vary depending on the adventure in question, ultimately this form of design is the plotted approach: A happens, then B happens, and then C happens.

The primary advantage of the plotted approach is its simplicity. Itís both easy to understand and easy to control. On the one hand, when youíre preparing the adventure itís like putting together a scheduled to-do list or laying out the plot for a short story. While you're running the adventure, on the other hand, you always know exactly where you are and exactly where youíre supposed to be going.

But the plotted approach has two major flaws:

First, it lacks flexibility. Every arrow on the plotted flow-chart is a chokepoint: If the players donít follow that arrow (because they donít want to or because they donít realize theyíre supposed to), then the adventure is going to grind to a painful halt.

The risk of this painful train wreck (or the necessity of railroading your players) can be mitigated by means of the Three Clue Rule. But when the Three Clue Rule is applied in a plotted structure, you run the risk of over-kill: Every yellow dot will contain three clues all pointing towards the next dot. If the players miss or misinterpret a couple of the clues, thatís fine. But if they find all of the clues in a smaller scene, they may feel as if youíre trying to spoon-feed them. (Which, ironically, may cause them to rebel against your best laid plans.)

Second, because it lacks flexibility, the plotted approach is inimical to meaningful player choice. In order for the plotted adventure to work, the PCs must follow the arrows. Choices which donít follow the arrows will break the game.

This is why I say Donít Prep Plots, Prep Situations.

To Be Continued...

May 28th, 2010



Of course, itís all well and good to say, ďPrep Situations.Ē But one of the reasons people prefer the plotted approach is that it provides a meaningful structure: It tells you where youíre going and it gives you a way to get there.

Without that kind of structure, itís really easy for a gaming session to derail. Itís certainly not impossible to simply turn the PCs loose, roll with the punches, and end up somewhere interesting. Similarly, itís quite possible to jump in a car, drive aimlessly for a few hours, and have a really exciting time of it.

But itís often useful to have a map of the territory.

This line of thought, however, often leads to a false dilemma. The logic goes something like this:

(1) I want my players to have meaningful choice.
(2) I need to have a structure for my adventure.
(3) Therefore, I need to prepare for each choice the players might make.

And the result is an exponentially expanding adventure path:

The problem with this design should be self-evident: Youíre preparing 5 times as much material to supply the same amount of playing time. And most of the material youíre preparing will never be seen by the players.

In some ways, of course, this is an extreme example. You could simplify your task by collapsing some of these forks into each other:

But even here youíre designing eight steps worth of material in order to provide three steps of actual play. Youíre still specifically designing material that you know will never be used.

And in other ways itís actually not that extreme at all: The original example assumes that there are only two potential choices at any given point on the path. In reality, itís quite possible for there to be three or four or even more Ė and each additional choice adds a whole new series of contingencies that you need to account for.

Ultimately, this sort of ďChoose Your Own AdventureĒ prep is a dead end: No matter how much you try to predict ahead of time, your players will still find options you never considered -- forcing you back into the position of artificially constraining their choices to keep your prep intact and leaving you with the exact same problem you were trying to solve in the first place. And even if that wasnít true, youíre still burdening yourself with an overwrought preparation process filled with unnecessary work.

The solution to this problem is node-based scenario design. And the root of that solution lies in the inversion of the Three Clue Rule.

To Be Continued...

May 31st, 2010



The Three Clue Rule states:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

The underlying theory behind the rule is that having three distinct options provides sufficient redundancy to create a robust scenario: Even if the PCs miss the first clue and misinterpret the second, the third clue provides a final safety net to keep the scenario on track.

This logic, however, also leads us to the inversion of the Three Clue Rule:

If the PCs have access to ANY three clues, they will reach at least ONE conclusion.

In other words, if you need the PCs to reach three conclusions (A, B, and C) and the PCs have access to three clues (each of which would theoretically allow them to reach one of those conclusions) then it is very likely that they will, in fact, reach at least one of those conclusions.

And understanding this inversion of the Three Clue Rule allows us to embrace the full flexibility of node-based design. Hereís a simple example:

The scenario starts in the blue node, which contains three clues Ė one pointing to node A, one to node B, and one to node C. Following the inverse of the Three Clue Rule, we therefore know that the PCs will be able to conclude that they need to go to at least one of these nodes.

Letís assume they go to node A. Node A contains two additional clues Ė one pointing to node B and the other pointing to node C.

At this point the PCs have had access to 5 different clues. One of these has successfully led them to node A and can now be discarded. But this leaves them with four clues (two pointing to node B and two pointing to node C), and the inverse of the Three Clue Rule once again shows us that they have more than enough information to proceed on.

Letís assume they now go to node C. Here they find clues to nodes A and B. They now have access to a total of seven clues. Four of these clues now point to nodes they have already visited, but that still leaves them with three clues pointing to node B. The Three Clue Rule itself shows that they now have access to enough information to finish the scenario.

(Note that weíre only talking about clue access here. That doesnít mean that theyíre guaranteed to find or correctly interpret every single clue. In fact, weíre assuming that they donít.)

Now, compare this node-based design to a comparable plotted approach:

Note that the plotted approach can also be broken down into distinct nodes. And in terms of preparation, the plotted approach requires the exact same resources: Four nodes and nine clues. But the non-plotted design is richer, more flexible, and leaves the PCs in the driverís seat. In other words, even in the simplest examples, node-based design allows you to get more mileage out of the same amount of work.

Of course, this entire discussion has been rather dry and technical. So letís put some flesh on these bones.

To Be Continued...

MAY 2010: