June 2010

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4

"Because everything is worth examining, and if you don't examine your view of the world, you are still subject to it, and you will find yourself doing things that-- Never mind."
Vlad Taltos, Athyra

June 1st, 2010


Frank Pearce, executive producer of Starcraft II and co-founder of Blizzard, told Videogamer.com:

"The best approach from our perspective is to make sure that you've got a full-featured platform that people want to play on, where their friends are, where the community is.

"That's a battle that we have a chance in. If you start talking about DRM and different technologies to try to manage it, it's really a losing battle for us, because the community is always so much larger, and the number of people out there that want to try to counteract that technology, whether it's because they want to pirate the game or just because it's a curiosity for them, is much larger than our development teams.

"We need our development teams focused on content and cool features, not anti-piracy technology."

This statement makes perfect sense.

First, the only people DRM actually hurts are legitimate customers. The pirates, after all, strip the DRM off the games and no longer have to deal with any of its hassles.

Second, even if a foolproof system of DRM were to be created (and Ubisoft may be coming close by treating single player games as if they were multiplayer games), the nature of DRM is deeply inimical to the rights of common citizens. You have a right to the fair use of copyrighted material you buy, and DRM strips you of those rights.

Thrid, Pearce's assessment is correct: The best way to encourage people to be legitimate customers instead of pirates is to (a) make them want to be your customer and (b) offer a superior product. DRM gets in the way of both goals.

So Frank Pearce is absolutely right: DRM is a losing battle.

From the same article:

Starcraft II, due out on July 27, reequires a one-off activation and a registered Battle.net account.

Online activation?

That's what DRM is.

In fact, it's exactly the sort of onerous DRM system which is inherently unethical.

It suffers from the same problem as all activation-based DRM: If Blizzard goes out of business or decides to shut down their activation servers, the installation DVD becomes a worthless coaster.

My current car is a Saturn Ion. GM recently shut down their Saturn divison. Imagine if my car needed to call up the (now defunct) Saturn Activation Servers every time I put the key in the ignition. Would any sane person tolerate that?

Ah, but Blizzard's system is so much more reasonable, right? My Ion only needs to contact the Saturn Activation Server once and it'll work forever... until my battery dies (or, in the cast of Starcraft 2, I need to reinstall the software). I replace the battery only to discover that the activation servers are gone and -- ta-da! -- my car is worthless.

And here we see the long con of DRM: 

One of the first big efforts to push out activation-based DRM was the DIVX disc format: Buy a DIVX disc for cold hard cash. Then, whenever you want to watch it, pay another $4. And the disc would only play if your DIVX player was plugged into a phone line and connected with the DIVX activation servers.

Fortunately, people weren't stupid: They flocked to the DVD format. Even though the discs were more expensive, people were willing to pay more in order to be able to control their own access to and use of their privately owned movie libraries. Even after DIVX abandoned its re-activation fees (while still offering cheaper discs), people stuck with the DRM-free DVD standard. And everyone who was stupid enough to buy DIVX was punished (as all supporters of DRM formats are inevitably punished): The DIVX servers were shut down in 2001 and all of those movies people had bought turned into coasters.

But now DRM is beginning to see wider and wider acceptance, particularly in the gaming market. And one of the reasons can be seen in Frank Pearce's bald-faced lie: The game publishers have been pushing ever more onerous versions of DRM. They're trying to see just how far they can go before public becomes completely outraged, and then they'll pull back.

But they don't actually pull back all the way: They just pull back a bit. And everyone cheers because Blizzard says DRM is a waste of time and they won't have any DRM on Starcraft II... despite the fact they still have DRM on Starcraft II.

That's the long con.

The game publishers are treating us all like lobsters and they're trying to boil us alive by slowly raising the temperature of the pot.

And make no mistake. If you're sucker enough to fall for it, you will boil alive. Because even if the corporations stick around, they aren't going to keep the servers active: Everyone who bought DRM-laden songs from MSN Music got screwed in 2008 when Microsoft shut down the servers.

I own a vast library of media: Thousands of books, CDs, movies, and computer games line the walls of my home. And the majority of them were published by companies that no longer exist. Which means that if those products required an activation server for me to use them, they would be useless to me. (Not to mention all the other books, albums, movies, and games which were produced by companies who would no longer be supporting the activation servers for them.)

So as much as I'd like to play Starcraft II, I won't be. And I encourage you to do the same. Because if you're willing to support the publishing companies in taking away your own rights, you'll have no one to blame but yourself when you get screwed.

June 2nd, 2010



The PCs are playing agents in the Las Vegas branch of CTU. This mini-scenario begins when they receive an inter-agency intelligence report that a monitoring program established on a known terrorist operation’s bank account information has recorded payments being made on a storage unit in Las Vegas. The PCs have been authorized to execute a search warrant on the storage unit.

The scenario starts at the North Las Vegas Self-Storage on Lake Mead Boulevard (the BLUE NODE).

The storage space itself is stacked high with empty cardboard boxes. Anyone walking past the storage space when the door was open would see a bunch of boxes labeled “LIVING ROOM”, “DISHES”, and the like – but it’s all just for a show. However, there is a large gap towards the back where several boxes have recently been removed: Something was being stored here and now it’s gone.

CLUE 1: Checking the rental records reveals that Yassif Mansoor signed the lease on the storage space. The address given on the lease agreement is a fake, but a routine database search turns up a Yassif Mansoor living in the Broadstone Indigo apartment complex on Azure Avenue (NODE A).

CLUE 2: The storage space contains a bellboy uniform belonging to the Bellagio hotel and casino (NODE B).

CLUE 3: There is also a disposable cell phone in the storage space. Checking the call log reveals several calls being placed to a number that can be traced to Office Frank Nasser (NODE C).

ANCILLARY CLUE: Two detonation caps can be found behind the metal track of the storage space door. (They rolled back there and were lost.)


Yassif Mansoor isn’t at his apartment, but there are eight terrorists hanging out. Four of them play cards in the living room; two are watching TV in one of the bedrooms; and two more are on the balcony smoking.

CLUE 1: A large metal trash can in the storage closet off the balcony contains the charcoaled remnants of a massive amount of documentary evidence (Mansoor was covering his tracks). Sifting through the ashes reveals a few partially preserved scraps of paper, including part of a Radio Shack shipping manifest including an order number. Tracking the order reveals several pieces of electronic equipment that could be useful in building bombs. More importantly, it also gives them a credit card number and one of the fake names Mansoor was using. If they track recent activity on the credit card, they’ll find that it was used to rent a room at the Bellagio (NODE B).

CLUE 2: If the PCs can get one of the terrorists to crack under questioning, they can tell them that Yassif Mansoor was at the apartment yesterday with a cop named Nasser (NODE C).

ANCILLARY CLUE: There are six suicide-bomb vests stored in the walk-in closet. After the big bomb went off at the Bellagio, these suicide bombers were going to deliver a second wave of terror throughout Vegas. (These bombers, however, do not know the actual target of the big bomb. That information was sequestered.)


If the PCs tracked Mansoor’s credit card activity, then they know exactly which suite he’s rented at the Bellagio. If they only know that something might be happening at the Bellagio then the room can be tracked down in a number of ways: Bomb-sniffing dogs; questioning the staff; surveillance; room-by-room canvassing; reviewing security tapes; and so forth.

Mansoor and six nervous, heavily armed terrorists are waiting in the suite with the Big Bomb (which they snuck into the room on luggage trolleys using bellboy uniforms).

CLUE 1: Yassif Mansoor probably won’t break under questioning, but merely identifying him should allow the PCs to track down his home address (NODE A).

CLUE 2: Sewn into the lining of Mansoor’s jacket is a small packet of microfilm. These contain records indicating that Frank Nasser of the Las Vegas police department is guilty of embezzling from a fund used for undercover drug buys. Mansoor was using these records to blackmail Nasser. (NODE C)


Having been blackmailed by Mansoor, Nasser has been helping the terrorist in a number of different ways. (The C4 for the suicide bombers, for example, was taken from a police lock-up Nasser was responsible for. And Nasser intimidated a beat cop into dropping a speeding ticket issued on one of Mansoor’s men.)

CLUE 1: Nasser is more likely to crack under questioning than Mansoor (particularly if the PCs reveal that they have hard evidence of any of his wrong-doing). But he’s also aware of the consequences: If he can, he’ll try to cut a deal before answering their questions.

CLUE 2: Nasser can also be placed under surveillance. He will check in at both the Bellagio and Mansoor’s apartment before the bombings occur.

To Be Continued...

June 4th, 2010



Go to Part 1

As I noted before, the plotted approach gives control to the designer of the scenario by taking that control away from the players.

For example, if we were to re-design our Las Vegas CTU scenario using the plotted approach, we could carefully control the flow of events:

Evidence at the self-storage facility (BLUE NODE) leads the PCs to Yassif Mansoor’s apartment (NODE A) where they have a frenzied gun-fight with the suicide bombers. But Mansoor is missing and there’s evidence of an even bigger bomb somewhere in Vegas! Their only hope is to track down the corrupt cop Frank Nasser (NODE C) and force him to break under questioning. But will they reach the Bellagio in time (NODE B)?

This is obviously an effective way for the scenario to play out: Everything builds naturally up to a satisfying confrontation with the Bad Guy and his Big Bomb. The argument can certainly be made that you would want to enforce this linearity to make sure that the PCs don’t take out Mansoor and the Big Bomb half-way through the scenario and end up with a massive anti-climax.

But in making that argument, I think we’re overlooking some equally viable alternatives.

For example: Following evidence at the self-storage facility the PCs head to the Bellagio. There they capture the internationally infamous terrorist Yassif Mansoor and disarm the Big Bomb. It looks like they’ve wrapped everything up, but then they discover the truth: There are more bombs! The Bellagio bombing was only the tip of the iceberg, and even from behind bars Mansoor is about to turn the Las Vegas Strip into a Boulevard of Terror!

(And in a more reactive scenario, you might even introduce the possibility of the undiscoveredNasser somehow freeing Mansoor from his cell.)

My point here is that when you create individually interesting nodes, you’ll generally find that those nodes can be shuffled into virtually any order and still end up with an interesting result. The PCs might even decide to split up and pursue two leads at the same time (in true CTU style).

As a GM I find these types of scenarios more interesting to run because I’m also being shocked and surprised at how the events play out at the gaming table. And as a player I find them more interesting because I’m being allowed to make meaningful choices.

Of course, the argument can be made that there’s no “meaningful choice” here because there are three nodes in the scenario and the PCs are going to visit all three nodes no matter what they do. In the big picture, the exact order in which they visit those nodes isn’t meaningful.

Or is it?

Even in this small, simple scenario, the choices the PCs make can have a significant impact on how events play out. If they go to the Bellagio after they’ve identified exactly which room Yassif Mansoor is in, for example, they’ll have a much easier time of confronting the terrorists without tipping them off. If they have to perform a major search operation on the hotel, on the other hand, the terrorists may have laid a trap for them; Mansoor might have a chance to escape; or there might have been time to make a phone call and warn the terrorists back at the apartment.

And in more complex scenarios, of course, there will be more meaningful contexts for choices to be made within. For example, something as simple as adding a timeline to our sample scenario can make a big difference: If CIA communication intercepts indicate a high threat of a terrorist attack in Vegas timed for 6:00 pm, then PCs standing in the storage facility with multiple leads to pursue suddenly have a tough choice to make. Do they go to the Bellagio because it’s a high-profile target despite the fact they aren’t sure exactly what they should be looking for there? Do they go to Mansoor’s apartment in the hope that they can find out more information about the Bellagio attack? Do they split up and pursue both leads in tandem? Do they call in the Vegas police to evacuate the Bellagio while they pursue the apartment lead? (Is that even a safe option if they have evidence pointing to a mole inside the department?)

Furthermore, when an individual scenario is placed within the context of a larger campaign it allows the choices made within that scenario to have a wider impact. For example, if they tip off Mansoor and allow him to escape by rushing their investigation, it means that he can return as a future antagonist. Similarly, if they don’t find or follow the leads to Nasser, the continued presence of a terrorist-compromised mole in the Las Vegas police force can create ongoing problems for their investigations.

(And if the Bellagio gets blown up there will obviously be a long-lasting impact on the campaign.)

On a more basic level, in my opinion, the fact that the players are being offered the driver’s seat is meaningful in its own right. Even if the choice doesn’t have any lasting impact on the final conclusion of “good guys win, bad guys lose”, the fact that the players were the ones who decided how the good guys were going to win is important. If for no other reason than that, in my experience, it’s more fun for everybody involved. And more memorable.

To Be Continued...

June 5th, 2010

I've updated the Creations index page. It was getting a bit messy in there, but hopefully this re-org will make it a bit easier to find stuff. Or just browse for interesting content.

While you're poking around in there, you may want to take a peek at my remix of The Tomb of Horrors and my supplementary material for Rappan Athuk. This early material from the website tends to get overlooked, but I think there's some pretty nifty stuff in there. (If I do say so myself.)

June 7th, 2010



Go to Part 1

On the other hand, there is something to be said for the Big Conclusion. There are plenty of scenarios that don’t lend themselves to a shuffling between nodes of equal importance: Sometimes Dr. No’s laboratory is intrinsically more important than Strangeways’ library. And the Architect’s inner sanctum requires the Keymaker.

So let’s talk about some alternative node structures.



In this design, each node in the second layer contains a third clue that points to the concluding node D. The function should be fairly self-explanatory: The PCs can chart their own course through nodes A, B, and C while being gently funneled towards the big conclusion located at node D.

(Note: They aren’t being railroaded to D. Rather, D is the place they want to be and the other nodes allow them to figure out how to get there.)

One potential “problem” with this structure is that it allows the PCs to potentially bypass content: They could easily go to node A, find the clue for node D, and finish the adventure without ever visiting nodes B or C.

Although this reintroduces the possibility for creating unused content, I put the word “problem” in quotes here because in many ways this is actually desireable: When the PCs make the choice to avoid something (either because they don't want to face it or because they don't want to invest the resources) and figure out a way to bypass it or make do without it, that's almost always the fodder for an interesting moment at the gaming table in my experience. Nor is that content "wasted" -- it is still serving a purpose (although its role in the game may now be out of proportion with the amount of work you spent prepping it).

Therefore, it can also be valuable to incentivize the funneling nodes in order to encourage the PCs to explore them. In designing these incentives you can use a mixture of carrots and sticks: For example, the clue in node A might be a map of node D (useful for planning tactical assaults). The clue in node B might be a snitch who can tell them about a secret entrance that doesn’t appear on the map (another carrot). And node C might include a squad of goons who will reinforce node D if they aren’t mopped up ahead of time (a stick).

(That last example also shows how you can create multi-purpose content. It now becomes a question of how you use the goon squad content you prepped rather than whether you’ll use it.)



The basic structuring principles of the conclusion can be expanded into the general purpose utility of funneling:

Each layer in this design (A, B, C and E, F, G) constitutes a free-form environment for investigation or exploration which gradually leads towards the funnel point (D or H) which contains the seeds leading them to the next free-form environment.

I generally find this structure useful for campaigns where an escalation of stakes or opposition is desirable. For example, the PCs might start out investigating local drug dealers (A, B, C) in an effort to find out who’s supplying drugs to the neighborhood. When they identify the local distributor (D), his contacts lead them into a wider investigation of city-wide gangs (E, F, G). Investigating the gangs takes them to the Tyrell crime family (H), and mopping up the crime family gets them tapped for a national Mafia task force (another layer of free-form investigation), culminating in the discovery that the Mafia are actually being secretly run by the Illuminati (another funnel point).

(The Illuminati, of course, are being run by alien reptoids. The reptoids by Celestials. And the Celestials by the sentient network of blackholes at the center of our galaxy. The blackhole consciousness, meanwhile, has suffered a schizord bifurcation due to an incursion by the Andromedan Alliance…. wait, where was I?)

In particular, I find this structure well-suited for D&D campaigns. You don’t want 1st-level characters suddenly “skipping ahead” to the mind flayers, so you can use the “chokepoints” or “gateways” of the funnel structure to move them from one power level to the next. And if they hit a gateway that’s too tough for them right now, that’s OK: They’ll simply be forced to back off, gather their resources (level up), and come back when they’re ready.

Another advantage of the funnel structure is that, in terms of prep, it gives you manageable chunks to work on: Since the PCs can’t proceed to the next layer until they reach the funnel point, you only need to prep the current “layer” of the campaign.



A layer cake design achieves the same general sense of progression that a funnel design gives you, but allows you to use a lighter and looser touch in structuring the scenario.

The most basic structure of the layer cake is that each node in a particular “layer” gives you clues that lead to other nodes on the same layer, but also gives you one clue pointing to a node on the second layer. Although a full exploration of the first layer won’t give the PCs three clues to any single node on the second layer, they will have access to three clues pointing to a node on the second level. Therefore, the Inverted Three Clue Rule means that the players will probably get to at least one node on the second layer. And from there they can begin collecting additional second layer clues.

Whereas PCs in a funnel design are unlikely to backup past the last funnel point (once they reach node E they generally won’t go back to node C since it has nothing to offer them), in a layer cake design such inter-layer movement is common.

Layer cakes have a slightly larger design profile than funnels, but allow the GM to clearly curtail the scope of their prep work (you only need to prep through the next layer) while allowing the PCs to move through a more realistic environment. You’ll often find the underlying structure of the layer cake arising naturally out of the game world.

To Be Continued...

June 8th, 2010


A couple days ago I talked about the Long Con of DRM and the inherent ethical and cultural problems with embracing (or even accepting) DRM systems.

When this topic comes up, people often mention Valve's Steam as a counter-example of how to "do it right".

They're half right. Steam has taken the onerous nature of DRM and turned it into a feature by allowing you to access your Steam account and play your games from any computer in the world. The system also, obviously, allows you to buy games online and have them instantly delivered.

In other words, people don't (generally) complain about Steam because the platform gives you the ability to do something that you otherwise wouldn't be able to do. I can understand (and share) the appreciation of that added value.

On the other hand, all of these features could be offered without DRM which requires the copy I currently have downloaded to my computer to be periodically re-validated. (DrivethruRPG does it.) And any game that you buy in a box at your local store and then need to validate through Steam's servers before playing is every bit as bad as every other online activation schema in terms of its long-term impact on consumer rights.

Make no mistake: The Half-Life 2 box I have on the shelf contains nothing but a worthless coaster on the day that Valve goes out of business or migrates to Steam 2.0. And the Orange Box I purchased through Steam directly will become nothing more than wasted hard drive space only a few days later.

The features Steam offers to the consumer are the reason I'm willing to occasionally buy games through the service. But the unethical DRM that they've made part of their service is the reason that I rarely do so. And if there is any other method of purchase available, I'll avail myself of it.

Unfortunately, the PC gaming industry's increasing reliance on draconian DRM is the reason that all my game purchases in the past 3 years have either been indie games or console games.

June 9th, 2010



Go to Part 1


In case it hasn’t been clear, I’ve been using three-node layers in these examples because it’s a convenient number for showing structure. But there’s nothing magical about the number. Each “layer” in the previous examples constitutes an interlinked environment (either literal or metaphorical) for exploration or investigation, and you can make these environments as large as you’d like.

As long as each node has a minimum of three clues in it and a minimum of three clues pointing to it, the Three Clue Rule and its inversion will be naturally satisfied and guarantee you a sufficiently robust flow through the layer. But as you increase the number of nodes, you also open the possibility for varying clue density: Particularly dense clue locations could have six or ten clues all pointing in different directions.

Obviously, however, the larger each layer is, the more prep work it requires.



Dead ends in a plotted mystery structure are generally disasters. They mean that the PCs have taken a wrong-turn or failed to draw the right conclusions and now the train is going to crash into a wall: There should be a clue here for them to follow, but they’re not seeing it, so there’s nowhere to go, and the whole adventure is going to fall apart.

But handled properly in a node-based structure, dead ends aren’t a problem: This lead may not have panned out, but the PCs will still have other clues to follow.

In this example, node E is a dead end. Clues at nodes B and C suggest that it should be checked out, but there’s nothing to be found there. Maybe the clues were just wrong; or the bad guys have already cleared out; or it looked like a good idea but it didn’t pan out into usable information; or it’s a trap deliberately laid to catch the PCs off-guard. The possibilities are pretty much limitless.

The trick to implementing a dead end is to think of clues pointing to the dead end as “bonus clues”. They don’t count towards the maxim that each node needs to include three different clues. (Otherwise you risk creating paths through the scenario that could result in the PCs being left with less than three clues. Which may not be disastrous, but, according to the Inverse Three Clue Rule, might be.)

On the other hand, as you can see, you also don’t need to include three clues leading to a dead end: It’s a dead end, so if the PCs don’t see it there’s nothing to worry about.

Of course, if you include less than three clues pointing to the dead end then you’re increasing the chances that you’re prepping content that will never be seen. But this also means that the discovery of the dead end might constitute a special reward: Extra treasure or lost lore or a special weapon attuned to their enemy.

Which leads to a broader point: Dead ends may be logistical blind alleys, but that doesn’t mean they should be boring or meaningless. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In the same vein as dead ends, you can also use “clue light” locations. (In other words, locations with less than three clues in them.) Structurally such locations generally work like dead ends, by which I mean that clues pointing to clue light locations need to be “bonus clues” to make sure that the structure remains robust.

The exception to this guideline is that you can generally have a number of two-clue locations equal to the number of clues accessible in a starting node. (For example, in the layer cake structure diagram you have three nodes in the bottom layer with only two clues each because the starting node contains three clues. If there wasn’t a starting node with three clues in it, the same structure would have potential problems.)



In this simple loop structure all four nodes contain three clues pointing to the other three nodes. The advantage of this simple structure is that the PCs can enter the scenario at any point and navigate it completely.

Obviously, this is only useful if the PCs have multiple ways to engage the material. In a published product this might be a matter of giving the GM several adventure hooks which can be used (each giving a unique approach to the adventure). In a personal campaign, clues for nodes A, B, C, and D might be scattered around a hexcrawl: Whatever clues the PCs find or pursue first will still lead them into this chunk of content and allow them to explore it completely.

To Be Continued...

June 10th, 2010


It took about forty years before Frank Miller rationalized Batman wearing a huge target on his chest. (He can't armor his head.) But as I was watching the first episode of Naruto today, I was struck by how quickly they demonstrated the silliness of ninjas wearing big, round bullseyes in the centers of their backs.

(Particularly in a universe where shurikens are apparently the size of small Japanese cars.)

But when I stopped to think about it, I realized (in my own little Milleresque fashion), that it might not be a mistake after all: These are members of a fierce, warrior-centric culture. They're supposed to stand bravely in the face of danger. And what's the quickest way to make sure your soldiers never turn and run?

Put a huge target on their back.


What? You were expecting something profound?


(1) When creating a fictional world, what can you include that seems deliberately odd by our modern and cultural understanding of the world? The oddity will draw the attention of your players/readers/viewers, allowing you to reveal some deeper truth about the setting. And once it has been explained, the oddity will (by its very nature) stick in the memory (along with its associated truth).

(2) I may be underestimating Masashi Kishimoto, but I'm guessing he didn't give any more thought to the placement of that logo/bullseye than "that looks cool". But that doesn't mean that there isn't value to be found in my explanation of it. Attempting to rationalize the incoherent can give rise to fresh and creative ideas.

When I'm using published modules I am almost always forced to adapt them to the cosmology of my own campaign world. For example, in my primary D&D campaign setting there is only one pantheon of gods. Trying to adapt adventures designed for the typical multi-pantheism of D&D can pose some unique challenges. But I welcome the challenge because the effort of rationalizing the incoherency between world and adventure results in a richer and deeper understanding of the world. It's given rise to saint cults, lineages of holy artifacts, regional factionalism, heresy rituals, and more -- and rather than defracting or detracting from the world, all of these elements instead become refined and concentrated.

(And this can flow both ways: For example, the conflict between the Imperial Church and the Reformist Churches in my campaign world frequently allow me to re-purpose church-vs-church material from published scenarios. But this will also frequently enrich individual adventures by introducing avenues of friction and tension which would otherwise be atypical.)

The real world is made up of diverse and often contradictory viewpoints, cultural traditions, and personal opinions. By injecting and adapting material created by others, some degree of that balance between the coherent and the incoherent which can be found in the real world is brought into the game world.

JUNE 2010: 

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4