August 2010

PART 1

"This is a Trojan Horse with no horse. It's a guy knocking on the gates of your city saying, 'Yeah. I've got a present from the King of Greece. It's his army. They're well-armed and would like to come into your city whilst you sleep. So I'm going to, uh... need your signature on this.'"
Jon Stewart - Daily Show
(07/26/2010)

August 2nd, 2010

JAQUAYING THE DUNGEON

PART 5: JAQUAYING FOR FUN AND PROFIT

We started with a linear dungeon:

But after jaquaying the Keep, the result is this:

Note that we haven’t changed the actual key to the adventure: We’ve just restructured the environment in which those encounters are placed.

I’ve also prepped some detail-light maps to make the changes a little clearer. You’ll want to cross-reference with the maps from the original module. (The original Level 2, which is now Level 3, is unchanged, so I didn’t re-map it.)

I’ll take a moment to note that this isn’t the only way we could have done this. Other things we could have done:

•    Put a secret door at the bottom of the pit trap in area 1 (leading to one of several possibilities on the second level).
•    Have the kruthiks tunnel from area 10 down to area 15.
•    Put a teleport in Sir Keegan’s tomb keyed to a matching crypt on the second level.
•    One of the prisoners in the torture chamber dug a hidden escape tunnel leading to area 6 (where he was killed by zombies, the poor bastard).
•    Could there be a connection between the pool in area 11 and the water-based trap in area 16?
•    Could the access to area 15 north of area 16 be a secret door, with a more obvious entrance leading from area 17 (allowing meticulous PCs to potentially bypass the trap)?

The particular revisions I’ve made simply struck me as either the most interesting or the most appropriate or both.

But the point of performing this revision on Keep of the Shadowfell is not only to salvage another aspect of this adventure. My primary goal is to demonstrate how easy it is to implement these techniques in your own dungeons. If we can take an existing, linear dungeon and fundamentally transform it in just a couple of minutes using a handful of jaquaying techniques, then the effect can be even more dramatic if we were to design a dungeon from the ground-up using those techniques.

Here’s a quote from a recent interview with Paul Jaquays over on Grognardia:

The core inspirations for Caverns of Thracia were threefold. The first was to ally the various "beast" races of AD&D as a unified force. The second was to build encounters that took place in multiple levels of a cave, where the open upper areas were situated above open lower areas. The final inspiration (that I remember) was the rather primitive, but unique plate armor used by Mycenaean soldiers. These became the human guards of the upper reaches of the Caverns.

Of particular interest here is Jaquay’s second inspiration: I can personally testify to the effectiveness of these open caverns in transforming the typical dungeoncrawling experience. They immediately force the players to think in three dimensions, while their ubiquity significantly contributes to the memorable layout of the dungeon.


But the important revelation to be had here, in my opinion, is the effectiveness of clearly delineating a small list of concrete creative goals before beginning your dungeon design.

Building on that point, notice that Jaquays only specifies a single non-linear design technique in his list of creative goals. (And it’s actually a very specific variation of a generalized technique.) And although that is not the only non-linear technique employed in the Caverns of Thracia, Jaquays’ riffs on that theme are a definitive aspect of the module.

Here’s my point: Earlier in this series, I listed a dozen jaquaying techniques. Next time you’re designing a dungeon, don’t feel like you need to cram ‘em all in there. Instead, pick one of them and try to explore it in as many ways as possible while you’re designing the dungeon. (If you want a more focused experience, follow Jaquays’ example and try to narrow your design theme down a specific variant of one technique – just like multi-level caverns are a specific form of unusual level connectors.)

Jaquaying your dungeon is easy. It’s also fun. And this applies to both the designing of the dungeon and the playing of the dungeon. Nothing is more exciting for me as a GM that to sit down at the table and know that I’m going to be just as surprised by my players as I hope that my players will be by me.

And when it comes to dungeon design, that’s the unique and exciting experience that jaquaying unlocks.

August 3rd, 2010

THOUGHT OF THE DAY: OXFORD COMMAS

An Oxford comma (or serial comma) refers to a comma placed before a conjunction (such as or, and, or but) in a list of three or more items.

"apples, oranges, and pears" (Oxford comma)

vs. 

"apples, oranges and pears" (no Oxford comma)

When I was in elementary school we were taught that you should never use an Oxford comma. (Although we weren't told that was the term for it.) At the time I didn't think that made much sense because it's far too trivial to come up with scenarios in which the lack of an Oxford comma would render a construction illogical:

"apples and oranges, left and right, and up and down"

vs,

"apples and oranges, left and right and up and down"

This is often taught as the "exception that proves the rule". But here's an example from Contested Will

"Louis Benezet, an English professor at Dartmouth College, published the first of many Oxfordian volumes, Shakspere, Shakespeare and de Vere."

Should the be understood as Shakspere, Shakespeare, and de Vere? (Implying an equality between the three names.) Or should it be understood as Shakspere: Shakespeare and de Vere? (In other words, with the latter clause being a subtitle.) Or could it be Shakspere; Shakespeare and de Vere? (With "Shakespeare and de Vere" being joined as a single unit vs. Shakspere.)

No way to know.

Which is why I maintain you should always use an Oxford comma in order to maximize the clarity of your text.

August 6th, 2010

MINNESOTA FRINGE FESTIVAL

The Minnesota Fringe Festival started last night and will be running through August 15th. I have an UltraPass this year, which means that over the 10 days of the festival I'll be seeing 40+ shows. So things are going to slow down a bit here at the Alexandrian for the duration.

On the other hand, I'm planning to be an active Fringe reviewer. You'll be able to check out my reviews on the Fringe Festival website, and I may play around with reposting some of them here as well. Here are a few samples.

 

ALEXANDER AT DELPHI - A SQUANDERING OF GOOD MATERIAL

Alexander at Delphi

Many of the actors in Alexander at Delphi spent the majority of the show with their gazes locked on the lone conductor stationed offstage left. Despite disrupting any real chance the show had for chemistry, pace, or immersion, I found I couldn't really blame them: There wasn't anything on the stage worth looking at.

The music itself is intriguingly possessed of Greekish overtones, but is largely undistinguished. (Literally. You can't distinguish one song from the next as they blend together into a kind of sub-symphonic mush.) In addition, the music and the lyrics appear to be locked in some sort of blood feud from which they both emerge as losers. (You can't really make up for a lack of syllables in a lyric by trying to make one syllable do the work of four.)

I have a passing, but not particularly detailed knowledge of Alexander the Great and the accuracy of the history depicted is impressive. Unfortunately, it often takes the form of historical bullet points serving as dialogue and characters narrating their own biographies.

And although faithful, the script also manages a fair degree of incoherency. For example, Alexander and Hephaestion are first introduced to us as they are roleplaying Achilles and Patroclus during the Trojan War. But this is never actually explained, leaving the audience at least momentarily confused as to which characters these actors are actually depicting. The play also has a habit of jumping backwards and forwards through time, but frequently doesn't give the audience any meaningful clue where or when they are.

And please stop stabbing the floor with your bendy, plastic swords.

What should be singled out for praise, however, are the many actors who struggle mightily to entertain. Particularly notable is the performance of Brandon Osero, who frequently brings a breath of fresh energy to the otherwise weary proceedings.

1 KITTY

 

COMMUNOPLY - INCESSANTLY CLEVER SATIRE

Communopoly

Communopoly succeeds at being much more than the polemic it could have easily become in less talented hands: Instead, it presents itself in a series of complex and multifaceted (and funny!) layers, peeling them back one at a time for our enjoyment.

First, the show makes the game of Monopoly comes alive. And it's funny. It's like the movie Clue, except it's Monopoly and it was written by Monty Python.

Second, it puts up a mirror and forces us to really look at the ideological underpinnings of the game through the lens of communism. And somehow it's still funny.

And finally they turn the mirror back on themselves for one last bit of self-deconstruction.

And it's still funny.

The show's not perfect: It can be a little rough around the edges. But it's entertaining, clever, and rewarding.

4 KITTIES

 

RACHEL TEAGLE BELIEVES IN GHOSTS

Rachel Teagle Believes in Ghosts

Watching Rachel Teagle Believes in Ghosts was like sitting around a campfire listening to ghost stories. Except instead of your goofy friends, the tales are being told by a talented and gifted storyteller.

Mixing "real" ghost stories with a collection of original tales, Teagle succeeds brilliantly at exploring the full range of spectral tale-telling: Haunting. Scary. Nostalgic. Painful. Funny.

Unfortunately, the show does occasionally fall down. In particular, the interpretive dance portions of the evening were complete failures for me. And while Teagle is to be commended for the innovation of including guest storytellers at each of her performances, the timing of the guest performer was mystifying to me: Coming immediately after what was, arguably, the high point of the performance, the guest performer (despite his quality) nevertheless seemed to turn the last portion of the show into an anticlimax.

In a perfectly calibrated world, I would probably give this show 3.5 or 3.75 kitties. But since it succeeds far more often than it fails, I'm quite happy to round that figure up to 4 entertaining kitties.

4 KITTIES

August 13th, 2010

FRINGE FESTIVAL - CLOSING WEEKEND

The Minnesota Fringe Festival is wrapping up this week. We'll be resuming more normal operations around these here parts next week, but I wanted to share with you my reviews for the three best shows I've seen at the Festival this year. All of them have performances remaining this weekend, and I heartily encourage you to seek them out if you can.

 

BALLAD OF THE PALE FISHERMAN

Ballad of the Pale Fisherman

This show was so profoundly moving; so ethereally beautiful; so flawlessly perfect that I grabbed a fistful of postcards as I left the theater and spent the rest of the day enthusiastically handing them out to anyone who would listen to me.

It's that good.

As a theatrical event, Ballad of the Pale Fisherman takes a page from the minimalist staging of Our Town and the lyrical majesty of Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood. But within that broad form it creates its own uniquely beautiful visual vocabulary and transcendent audio landscape. From the first moments of the show you are subtly and powerfully immersed into the richly detailed and mythic world of the play while the cast simultaneously creates a panoply of characters, each intimately drawn and immensely memorable.

The tale itself is like a soap bubble jewel: So infinitely faceted; so delicate; and so ephemeral. And the telling of the tale is masterfully woven, with sudden, almost imperceptible transitions from tragedy to comedy and back again, with each flip of the switch tying you ever tighter to the characters and drawing you ever deeper into the narrative.

It brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart.

And in the end I was propelled from my seat into a standing ovation, possessed by the kind of raw theatrical energy and passion that is so rarely achieved, but so utterly transforming when it's experienced.

Shows like this are what make theater worth watching.

 

SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY

See You Next Tuesday

Two hours after seeing See You Next Tuesday, we were still talking about it.

The script is nuanced and complex. It refuses to hold your hand or package up a preconceived message. It defies simplistic analysis.

Which makes it infinitely rewarding.

Each character is a completely realized and fully-rounded human being. It means that you can't just tag them as "The Nice Guy" or "The Bad Girl". And there's no one you can point to and say, "That's the guy I'm supposed to like!" (Particularly since the two main characters are locked in a completely caustic and dysfunctional relationship.)

The ridiculously talented cast latches onto this rich dramatic fodder and turns it into a theatrical feast.

Funny. Provocative. Thoughtful. Clever. Painful. Entertaining. Meaningful. Deep. 

Like a fine wine upon the tongue, See You Next Today will linger in your mind.

 

UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL

Underneath the Lintel

Underneath the Lintel is one of the crown jewels of this year's Fringe Festival.

First you have the script. It starts off endearing, transitions rapidly to clever, turns suddenly enthralling, and then transforms itself into something transcendentally operating simultaneously on multiple levels.

Second you have the actor. Heading in a one-man Fringe show the default assumption is that you're going to see someone portraying themselves (or someone much like themselves). But O'Brien is a gifted and talented actor who transforms seamlessly into the giddy excesses of the Librarian, helping to carry you along on the Librarian's kaleidoscopic journey of discovery.

All of it simply WORKS on a deep, profoundly moving level.

August 18th, 2010

JAQUAYING THE DUNGEON - ADDENDUM

DUNGEON LEVEL CONNECTIONS

This was originally written as part of the main sequence for the "Jaquaying the Dungeon" essay, but it rapidly grew to a size which proved disruptive to the essay as a whole. Nevertheless, I think it remains a useful resource and so I present it here as a separate addendum.

Many of the Jaquays Techniques deal with elaborating, enumerating, or complicating the transitions between levels. So let’s take a moment to consider the many different ways in which levels can be connected to each other.

STAIRS: The very first level connector mentioned in all of D&D. They feature prominently on the “Sample Cross Section of Levels” dungeon map provided on page 3 of Volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures in the original 1974 ruleset. (A map which also featured sub-levels, divided levels, multiple entrances, and elevation shifts.)

SLOPES: Similar to stairs, but without the stairs. Sounds simple enough, but in the absence of stairs long, gentle slopes can transition PCs between levels without them realizing that they’ve shifted elevation.

CHUTES: Vertical passages that cannot be traversed on foot. They require either climbing or flight.

LADDERS: Like a chute, but with a climbing aid already onsite. Variants of the ladder include ropes, poles, pre-driven pitons, and antigravity fields.

TRAPDOORS: Trapdoors may lead to stairs, slopes, chutes, or ladders, but they may also taunt PCs from the middle of a ceiling. Or drop down directly into a lower chamber.

WINDOWS: In Dark Tower, Jaquays gives us a window looking down into a lower level of the dungeon (with something looking back up at the PCs). One could also imagine a vertical dungeon in which PCs could fly up to a higher level and find an alternative entrance by smashing through a more traditional window.

TELEPORTS: Teleportation effects allow for rapid transit through larger dungeon complexes, but also have the potential to leave PCs disoriented until they can re-orient themselves at the other end. Teleports can be either one-way or two-way.

TRAPS: Pit traps that drop PCs into an underground river three levels below. One-way teleportation traps that leave them unexpectedly stranded in a far corner of the dungeon (or staring at a familiar entrance). Greased slides that send them shooting down to lower levels. Moving walls that shove them off subterranean cliffs.

    Traps that force the PCs to enter a new level are usually designed to be one-way trips. But sometimes resourceful characters will find a way to reverse the journey nonetheless.

MULTI-LEVEL CHAMBERS: Large, vertical chambers can contain entrances leading to different levels within the dungeon. For example, one might imagine subterranean gorges and cliffs. Or an obsidian pyramid squatting in a massive cavern, its steps leading to a burial chamber connecting to an upper level.

ELEVATORS: In their most basic configuration elevators are chutes with a self-propelling means of passage, but taking a page from Star Trek’s turbolifts and Wonka’s Chocolate Factory suggests that elevators don’t always have to be limited to the vertical plane. Others may require the PCs to provide the means of propulsion. (A grinding wheel? Magical fuel? Blood sacrifices? Mystic keys?)

    Gygax and Arneson also refer us to “sinking rooms”, reminding us that fantasy elevators don’t need to feel at home in the Empire State Building. And may not exist to serve the interests or comforts of their passengers.

BASKET AND PULLEY: These are similar to elevators in their operation, but have the distinction of allowing their passengers to directly observe their surroundings for the duration of their trip. (The small size of a “basket” might also serve to suggest that entire adventuring parties may not be able to take the journey at the same time.)

ETHEREAL TRAVEL: Sections of the dungeon in which normally solid obstacles (like the floor) can be moved through by way of the Ethereal Plane (or similarly transdimensional/non-Euclidian egress).

RIVERS: A natural variant of the slope. If the river runs flush with the walls, however, getting back upstream may require some tricky swimming. (And if it runs flush with the ceiling, navigating the river may require some deep breaths.)

UNDERWATER: In the real world, the fluid level in any connected system has to be the same, which means that underwater journeys will be most useful in moving PCs across divided levels, nested levels, or to sub-levels on the same horizontal plane of the duneon.

    However, magic, alchemy, and steampunk technology can provide any number of airlocks and semi-permeable barriers allowing for underwater dives to the depths of an otherwise dry dungeon.

    Or possibly the PCs will be responsible for flooding those lower levels. (In a minor way if they just swum down a stagnant, submerged shaft. Or in a major way if they dump an entire subterranean lake into the 8th level of the dungeon.)

COLLAPSED PASSAGES: A variant on any chute, stair, shaft, slope, or passage. Or, rather, where there used to be a chute, stair, shaft, slope, or passage. Its former existence may be obvious or it may be obfuscated, but it’s going to require some excavation before the passage will be usable again.

    A common variant on this theme is the doorway which has been deliberately bricked up or plastered over. It’s not unusual for such passages to be obvious from one side but not from the other.

TRANSPORT: Think Charon on the River Styx. Harpies willing to carry women (or men disguised as women, their eyesight is very poor) up a shaft. A PC being sucked bodily into a fist-sized ruby which is then carried aloft by a silver raven. The form has an essentially limitless variety, but the basic idea is that the PCs are being transported through the agency of an NPC or monster.

BEING SWALLOWED: “The cave is collapsing.” “This is no cave.” Esophageal jaunts to the lower reaches of the dungeon should probably be used sparingly, but will certainly be memorable when they are employed. (The vomitous method of ascension is less pleasant, but no less memorable.)

BRUTE FORCE: Tunneling through walls using a stone shape spell. Levitating or flying through “unreachable” vertical passages. Using gaseous form to traverse “impassable” air vents. Blind or scry-prepped teleports. Casting ethereal jaunt to phase through solid stone. Basically this is a catch-all for PCs finding paths where no paths were meant to be. This isn’t really something you can plan for (although you might be able to encourage it by giving the PCs maps as part of their treasure), but you should try to keep in mind that they’re not cheating when they do it. (An attitude which may be easier to hold onto if the dungeon already has multiple paths to success designed into its non-linear structure.)

To Be Continued... 

August 19th, 2010

THOUGHT OF THE DAY: KINECT WILL FAIL

The Playstation Move and the Kinect will both fail.

This isn't because they aren't worthy technology: The Kinect is potentially revolutionary and slagging the Move because it's dupiing the Wii's controller is like slagging the Sega Genesis because it duped the NES controller. It's obviously true. It's also irrelevant.

But they will fail. Because add-on controllers for video games will always fail.

 

THE SIMPLE MATH

There have been 40 million X-Box 360s sold worldwide. The cut-off point for the Top 10 games sold for the X-Box 360 is Fable II with 2.6 million copies. Which means that if you can sell your X-Box 360 game to just 6.5% of your potential customers, you can break into the Top 10 list (which would obviously qualify your game as a huge success).

Now, let's assume that the Kinect is a huge success as a technology platform and sells to 25% of X-Box 360 owners. This would mean 10 million Kinects sold with somewhere between $1 and $1.5 billion in total sales. Huge success for Microsoft.

Despite this massive success for the Kinect, however, the developer of a Kinect game is still going to be struggling: In order to sell the same 2.6 million copies of a Kinect game, they now need to achieve a 26% market penetration.

In other words, under this incredibly rosy scenario for Kinect, a developer has a choice: If they develop a non-Kinect game, their potential audience is 40 million customers. If they develop a Kinect game, on the other hand, their potential audience is 10 million and they'll have to literally quadruple their performance in order to achieve the exact same success.

That decision is practically a no-brainer. Which is why game developers rarely develop games for add-on controllers and virtually never bother developing AAA titles for them.

 

IT GETS WORSE

But in practice things are even worse for the Kinect.

The second best-selling game on the X-Box 360 is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which sold 7.5 million copies on the platform. But total sales for that game are almost twice that (at least 14 million, possibly more than 15 million). If it had been a Kinect game (and thus exclusive to the X-Box 360 platform) none of those additional sales would have happened. One of the most successful video games in history would suddenly only be half as successful.

Which means that a game developer doesn't have to just quadruple their performance with a Kinect game, they actually have to increase it by seven- or eight-fold in order to match their potential success with a non-Kinect game.

 

THE (NOT SO) BIG PREDICTION

Of the two technologies (Move and Kinect), I trivially predict that Kinect will be more successful. Not because it's cooler or more innovative (although that may attract a few developers in its own right), but because I believe it will be easier for designers to incorporate Kinect-enhancements into games which will not require the Kinect (and can therefore still be marketed to the total X-Box 360 market and ported to other platforms).

For example, in Assassin's Creed 2 there's a section where one of the NPCs suddenly stops talking to the protagonist and instead turns to the camera and begins directly addressing the player. (Which, in itself, was a pretty nifty bit of meta-narrative since you're actually playing as the guy who's playing the Assassin's Creed 2 simulation.) The effect is pretty cool. But it would have been even cooler if the game had a Kinect-enhancement which allowed the NPC to look directly at me no matter where I was sitting in the room (or even follow me around if I chose to get up and move around). 

If I was Microsoft, I'd be doing everything in my power to convince AAA developers to include these kinds of subtle "Kinect Enhancements" to their games. If they could pull it off, they might even find the magic bullet to disprove my prediction: Making the X-Box 360 version of every AAA title into the "best" version of that game would not only help to sell the Kinect hardware (since every game you buy would make the Kinect more valuable to you), it could also prove to be a potentially devastating blow for Microsoft's competitors (turning even cross-platform AAA releases into something akin to a "semi-exclusive" for the X-Box 360).

August 27th, 2010

JAQUAYING THE DUNGEON - ADDENDUM

DUNGEON LEVEL CONNECTIONS

PART 2: TRICKS AND VARIANTS

COMBO PLATTER: Elevators that lead to underground rivers. Ladders that take you through imperceptible teleportation effects. Stairs that end in a sloping passage.

    Such combinations of multiple level connector types can be as complicated as you’d like: For example, an elevator shaft that has been blocked by the adamantine webs of a lavarach. This requires the PCs to climb down the shaft (like a chute), clear the webs (like a collapsed tunnel), and then reactivate the elevator mechanism (allowing it to be used as such in the future).

ONE CONNECTOR, MULTIPLE LEVELS: An elevator can stop at several floors. A flight of stairs can provide exits to many different levels. A single room might contain multiple teleportation devices, or a single teleportation device might lead to different locations at different times of the day.

INVISIBLE TRANSITIONS: The PCs swap levels without realizing that it’s happened. These can be the result of mundane effects (like a gently sloping passage), but are perhaps more frequently magical in nature (imperceptible teleportation effects). In dungeons rich with minor elevation shifts, the PCs may even baffle themselves by mistaking an obvious level connector (like a staircase) for a minor adjustment in the elevation on the same level.

FALSE STAIRS: In their section on “Tricks and Traps”, Arneson and Gygax refer to “false stairs” without any real explanation of what they mean. I’m going to use the phrase to mean the opposite of invisible transitions: False stairs are features of the dungeon which lead the players to believe they have moved to a new level of the dungeon when they haven’t actually done so. Minor elevation shifts frequently fall into this category, but so can more deliberate deceptions. (For example, an elevator wrapped in illusions to make the PCs believe they’re descending, but which actually releases them back onto the same level they started on.)

MISLEADING STAIRS: Connectors which initially look as if they’ll take you in one direction before actually heading in the opposite direction. For example, a flight of stairs that go up one level to a sloping passage that goes back down two levels.

ONE-WAY PATHS: Teleportation devices are perhaps the most common example of one-way paths, but more mundane traps and hazards can also have the same result. For example, a flight of stairs that turns into a slide. Or an underground river that sweeps PCs away in a torrential current.

REMOTE ACTIVATION: A path that only becomes available once it has been activated from some remote location. For example, a lever which opens a stone panel and provides access to a staircase. Or a teleportation system which must be properly aligned.

    Remote activation also implies the possibility for remote deactivation, either stranding the PCs with no possibility of retreat or removing familiar paths that were taken in the past.

AUGUST 2010:

PART 1

RETURN TO THE ALEXANDRIAN - SUBSCRIBE

 

RECENT COMMENTS