January 2010

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3

"I've been teaching him to hear the voices of the stones and to see prophecy in the movement of the clouds. To catch the wind in his hand and to bring forth gems from the dunes of the desert. To freeze air and to burn water. To live, to breathe, to walk, to sample the joy on each road, and the sorrow at each turning."
- Vlad Taltos (Athyra, by Steven Brust)

January 1st, 2011


How the hell did it get here so fast?

December was a somewhat frustrating month for me creatively. My creative vision became completely focused on a 10-minute transhumanist science fiction play written in verse. Although I spent quite a bit of time researching it, toying with it, and eventually laying out the largest chunks of it, the play just refused to gel. And so, after having it consume all of my creative thoughts and energies for the better part of a month, I'm left with nothing to actually show for it.

Ah, well. That happens upon occasion.

And the month wasn't completely destitute.

Complete Readings of William Shakespeare

The American Shakespeare Repertory staged The Merchant of Venice, the 19th reading in the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare. Supporting that production, I wrote several essays: The Textual History of Merchant, Elizabethans and the Jews (Part 1 and Part 2), The Pound of Flesh, The Great Conversion, The Soul of Shylock, and The Four Sallies.

South High Theater Alumni Alliance

I continued my work with the South High Theater Alumni Alliance, which gives a newsletter presentation of local theater productions starring alumni from one of the premiere high school theater programs (which also happens to be my alma mater).

Shakespeare's Mousetrap     Outlaw's Tale

I've also been working on converting Margaret Frazer's stories and novels into Kindle ebooks. In December that included "This World's Eternity", "Shakespeare's Mousetrap", and The Outlaw's Tale.


I'm also been working as the dramaturg for Walking Shadow Theater's Drakul, an original adaptation by John Heimbuch. December saw the bulk of my work on this project to date, and I'm really excited about it: The script is not only the best and most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula that I've seen to date; it also tells a truly compelling story of the sequel to those infamous events.

The show will be running February 11th thru 26th in Minneapolis, MN. If you're local (or passing through), you should check it out.

And I'm looking ahead to 2011. There's some exciting stuff on the horizon.

January 2nd, 2011


I6 Ravenloft     Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

I've recently been reading my way through I6 Ravenloft and Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. Although I haven't finished the latter, I am so far impressed with the way in which it remains faithful to the original module while expanding the material in interesting ways. (It even includes functional notes for stripping out the extra material in order to return the module to something very close to its original form if a shorter adventure is desired.) I am less impressed with the textual bloat which has become endemic in most modern adventure modules. Much of this text seems to be included in the name of being useful (reminding the DM of basic rules like how trip attacks are adjudicated), but it has the practical effect of making it more difficult to rapidly gloss the truly necessary information at the game table.

But I digress.

What really inspired this little post is the Weird Happenings table on page 15 of Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. It's a nice little table, the first entry of which reads:

The sound of a voice screaming comes from somewhere in the castle; it sounds exactly like one of the PCs.

As I normally do when reading module text, I immediately visualized how I would handle that at the gaming table. It would go something like this:

1. Randomly determine the PC. (Let's say a ranger named Afrau.)
2. Hand that player a note reading, "Write two sentences on this note and then hand it back to me."
3. Take the note back.
4. Say, "You suddenly hear the sound of screaming coming from somewhere in the castle. It sounds exactly like Afrau." (point at Afrau's player)

In doing this, I would be practicing something that could be called "metagame special effects". The idea is that I'm using purely metagame activities in order to influence the players' perceptions of the game world.

In the case of this Weird Happening, I specifically want to create for the players the uncertainty, fear, or paranoia which would be experienced by their characters if they suddenly heard their companion (standing right next to them) screaming from some distant corner of a haunted, vampire-ridden castle.

1. I'm secretly rolling dice without any apparent reason for doing it. This creates uncertainty and curiosity in the players. Why am I doing that? What am I hiding from them? Is something about to happen? What?

2. By exchanging notes with a player, I'm specifically creating the awareness that there is secret knowledge being exchanged. That knowledge could be anything. In this particular case, it's a bluff. What I'm creating is the legitimate possibility that the character may have been secretly teleported away and replaced with a double or an illusion.

Something happened. Only one of them seems to know what it was. And that character is now both (a) standing calmly beside them and (b) screaming from another part of the castle.

Without creating a legitimate atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty at the game table (however subtle it may be), the scream can be easily dismissed as "flavor text". Some players may find it "spooky" or "creepy". But they probably won't take its deeper threat seriously.



Another example of metagame special effects is my use of "extraneous Spot checks". In my games, I will periodically call for Spot checks regardless of whether or not there's anything interesting to be spotted. Newcomers to my games tend to get paranoid when their high rolls fails: "There must be something. What did we miss?"

Eventually, of course, all of my players eventually figure out that I'm frequently "crying wolf" with these checks. I don't care. The more experienced heroes may no longer be quite so skittish or paranoid as they jump at imaginary shadows, but the tool is still useful: First, it obscures the metagame knowledge of "he's called for a Spot check, must be something interesting". Second, it can be a useful way to passively refocus attention on the game world when extraneous distractions and chitchat have derailed the players.

(I don't simply make the Spot checks secretly because: (a) I'd rather avoid the hassle of needing to track the PCs Spot modifiers. (b) I'd rather have the players actively involved in that moment rather than passively waiting for me to roll dice. (c) It eliminates any arguments about, "Whaddya mean we got ambushed? Don't I get a Spot check? Did you remember that I get a +3 versus spotting cyborgs?" (d) I really like the utility of being able to gently refocus attention through applying a game mechanic instead of saying, "Please focus.")



In short, it's not just enough to know the "what" you're trying to communicate; you also need to give some thought to how you're communicating it.

For example, here's another Weird Happening from that Ravenloft table:

A random PC hears the soft giggling of a little girl; no one else can hear it.

How would you handle that at as a GM?

Lunch Money

January 3rd, 2011


Arsenic Biosphere

NASA has recently announced the discovery of a bacteria in Mono Lake by Dr. Felise Wolfe-Simon which uses arsenic instead of phosphorous for its phosphorylation.

This may not sound all that impressive at first glance, but what Wolfe-Simon has discovered is a little critter which uses a substance inherently poisonous to every other form of life on the planet as one of its most elementary building blocks. It's literally an entirely alternate path by which life could potentially evolve (and even thrive) in environments which would be completely hostile to (most) terrestial life. (I'm radically summarizing here. For a better summary, follow the link.)

As a scientific discovery, this is interesting in its own right. And its potential application in science fiction (from alien lifeforms to the utterly transhumanic) is pretty obvious.

But reading about this discovery also tickled my brain into thinking about the deeper substrates of fantasy. Here's a quick quote from the link:

Phosphorus plays an important biological role in the form of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), which is a cell's "energy currency." ATP is key to metabolic functions, and works by activating structural proteins & enzymes through donating its phosphorus groups.

On the Periodic Table, arsenic sits directly below phosphorus (meaning, among other things, they have the same number of valence electrons). In humans & other forms of life, arsenic can be deadly, since it disrupts cellular respiration by competing with phosphorus & diminishing ATP formation.

An organism that uses arsenic in its biochemistry is "alien" to what is known, since it must have ATP-like molecules with arsenic swapped in phosphorus’ place and because they must have evolved mechanisms such that arsenic doesn’t kill them. All signs point to this announcement being tied to the work of biochemist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who theorized in the past that the unusual ecosystem in California's Mono Lake could have led some life to follow a different "evolutionary pathway."

What other alien biochemistries could we imagine swapping into that process? Something alchemical? Something magical? Something celestial? Something other-planar? What pulses life through a migo's cells or Cthulhu's rubbery skin-substitute? What allows a dragon to process its food so efficiently?

This wouldn't mean, of course, that dispel magic is going to automatically cause a dragon to cease to exist (any more than putting a planet in the shade will cause it to instantly wither). Such creatures might suffer from prolonged exposure to antimagic fields, but otherwise they're probably fine. (Although we'd have to call into question fantasy's prolixity for half-breeds.)

How could such life evolve? Well, it might arise naturally in a world permeated with magical energies. Or it might spwan from an artificial creation (perhaps even accidentally so). "Life will find a way" is hokey as science; but we're not exactly dealing with science here: So when the animated rugs in the flying castle suddenly start mating with each other, we might not be quite as justified in our shock.

To a certain extent, of course, this has the danger of becoming "precious world-building". (World-building that really has no meaningful impact on the game or narrative for which the world is ostensibly being designed.) How can we make this stuff actionable?

Stuff like Mitochondrial Eve from the Parasite Eve games suddenly begin to arise quite "naturally" out of injecting magical juju into your life cycle. Half-breeding could introduce a vector for infection and either explain ancient racist prejudices or justify fresh outbreaks of hate crimes and intolerance in your campaign world.

Literally incompatible biologies coming into conflict: The dark fey rising up out of the underdark aren't just a threat to life and limb; their dark fairy circles are doing whatever the opposite of "terraforming" is. (Magiforming?) Cysts of alien, incompatible life spontaneously blooming in remote regions or incursions of malevolent extra-planar intelligences.

Why can't we eat the monsters we're killing? Because they're fundamentally incompatible and indigestible. ("Don't eat the demon-flesh, kid. It will fuck you up.")

Did you know shadows weren't originally undead in OD&D? They are something strange and other; something so utterly unnatural that our eyes can only perceive them as a living, tumescent absence.

All nature is a war. This kind of stuff just sort of firms up the lines of battle.
January 4th, 2011


I had a few idle moments today and decided to have some fun.

You can read the original post explaining the provenance of this title scroll here.

(If anyone can figure out how to make the embeded widget start in a paused state so that people can have the option of pushing "play" instead of having it run as soon as the page loads, please let me know.)

January 7th, 2011


Castle Ravenloft

As a roleplaying game, 4th Edition sure makes a great boardgame.

... Zing!

But in all seriousness, I've been looking forward to getting my grubby paws on a copy of the new Castle Ravenloft game for awhile now. For the better part of two decades now, I've been looking for a boardgame that could be played when you were in the mood for a little dungeon-crawling but didn't have anyone to DM.

(Over the years I've dabbled with dungeon-crawling boardgames that require DMs, but I've pretty much sworn off them at this point. Descent is a decent game, for example, but I can't imagine a scenario when I would ever play it: Since it requires a DM, I might as well just grab my copy of Dungeons & Dragons off the shelf. The full-fledged RPG is a richer and more rewarding experience in almost every way, and with the speed of OD&D character creation you can actually get the game set-up and start playing much quicker, too.)

Most recently, Munchkin Quest looked like it might fill that slot for me. It had some pacing issues, but after fixing those problems the game saw a couple months of intense use. But after that, the game started collecitng dust: The competitive aspect meant it still wasn't quite scratching that dungeon-crawling itch. And it was too long (3-5 hours) given the relative shallowness of its gameplay. Way too many sessions ended with all of us wishing that the game would just end already.

Castle Ravenloft is pretty much at the opposite end of that spectrum: The prepackaged adventure scenarios all feel lightning fast and can easily be completed in 60 minutes or less. I've played it more than a dozen times already (having gotten it only a week ago). The real test, of course, will be whether or not the game endures after the first flush of excitement. But for the moment I wanted to talk about some of my first impressions.



The game features a random dungeon construction: Individual puzzle piece tiles are laid out as your heroes explore the dungeon. The result can be quite tense at times as you cross your fingers against drawing a black tile (which results in a debilitating encounter being drawn), but very few of the tiles have any kind of special effect or meaningful identity in a given scenario.

So while the game is more variable and interesting than dungeon-crawlers featuring pre-determined dungeon layouts, there's also no sense of actually exploring the dungeon in most of the scenarios.

Similarly, because the dungeon layout is random it doesn't really matter where you go: You virtually never hit a dead end, and at some point you will draw the location tile containing your goal for the given scenario.

Here's a simple hack I may be trying in the near future: For scenarios involving the use of the special 1x2 Start Tile (which is most of them), start by forming a random 3x4 grid of face-down dungeon tiles with the Start Tile in the middle of them. Now take any scenario-specific tiles and shuffle them into a stack of random dungeon tiles to form a stack of 13 additional dungeon tiles. Deal these out randomly to form a face-down, 5x5 grid (including the original 3x4 grid). (For a longer game, form a 6x6 grid instead.)



Although Castle Ravenloft offers a setup superficially similar to 4th Edition, this can actually be quite deceptive. As a result, I've seen quite a few reviews complain that Castle Ravenloft doesn't have any tactical depth.

This is not, strictly speaking, true: Castle Ravenloft does have tactical depth; it's just a tactical depth that looks absolutely nothing like 4th Edition's tactics.

The primary tactical crux of Castle Ravenloft lies in the fact that heroes move by spaces but monsters by tile. (For example, a typical hero might move 5 spaces on their turn. A typical monster, on the other hand, will move 1 or 2 tiles.) Thus, the core tactics of the game revolve around managing the placement of monsters and heroes around the tile borders.

These basic tactics are complicated by the necessity to manage the monster's control sequences; the panoply of variable hero abilities; and the random crises generated by a fair-sized chunk of the game's encounter cards.

(The game may also suffer in the opinion of some because it's very easy to brute-force your way through the early, introductory scenarios. It's thus possible to completely ignore the tactics and strategy of the game and still pull out early victories, leading one to the false conclusion that the game has no strategy. In that respect it's kind of the inverse of Settlers of Catan -- a game which you think has a strategy when you first start playing it and then eventually realize is dominated completely by dumb luck.)



The Castle Ravenloft rulebook is quite possibly the worst I've ever read. It's poorly organized, fails to explain basic terminology, establishes other terminology which it then proceeds to use inconsistently, and then compounds all of these problems with an atrocious (lack of) organization. And given the relative simplicity of the rules, the experience of the designers, and the fact that the game is built on the back of a fairly well-established ruleset... well, it's completely inexcusable.

It's also disappointing that WotC failed to leverage their existing stock of high quality fantasy art to spice up the cards. The lack is particularly felt, in my opinion, when it comes to the treasure cards.



The argument could certainly be made that it's worth buying the game just for the 42 miniatures that come with it. I don't think I'd disagree: Amazon is selling the game for $50 right now, so the price per mini comes out to about $1.20. Since that includes a Huge Dracolich, I'm pretty happy with it. (And that's ignoring the general utility of the interlocking dungeon tiles.)

Laying that aside, I do wish the game had a bit more variety when it came to monsters. There are basically ten varieties of "grunt" in the game (zombie, skeleton, blazing skeleton, wraith, ghoul, wolf, kobold, spider, rat swarm, gargoyle) and you'll see a lot of them all. While the varied scenarios are keeping much of the game fresh for me right now, the monsters have all become rather hum-drum.

Fortunately, this is an aspect of the game which is surprisingly easy to customize. Although game balance probably requires that you keep 10 different types of creature for each adventure, swapping them out for equally challenging monsters isn't a problem. There's a ton of fan-created monsters already available, and there are cheap D&D mini singles available all over the place.

Speaking of scenarios, the game comes with 12 (including two solo scenarios) and 2 more have been released through Wizard's website. The scenarios are varied (often completely changing your strategic approach to the game) and have been easily supporting multiple play-thrus for me. For example, in this scenario:

The heroes start play having been randomly teleported to different corners of the dungeon. You have to reunite with each other and shut down a demonic summoning while the villain of the piece continues to assault the heroes with teleportetic assaults.

(In the image above you can see where we've set off an Alarm trap -- which summons additional monsters each round -- in a section of the dungeon we were subsequently teleported out of. One of the (blue) heroes has been abandoned in a dead end corridor. And both of the heroes are dreading the possibility that the villain is going to teleport them back up to where all those monsters are waiting to devour them.)

But I do wish there were more of them. When I compare the relatively anemic number of scenarios offered by Castle Ravenloft to the dozens of scenarios offered by Betrayal at House on the Hill (another game I received this Christmas which features variable scenarios of roughly equivalent complexity), I do feel this was an opportunity missed by the designers.



Castle Ravenloft is fun.

I'm enjoying it a lot, and I keep roping in more and more people who all seem to agree.

It's not perfect, but its only egregious flaw (the atrocious rulebook) is relatively easy to overcome.

Having just reviewed my early thoughts on Munchkin Quest, I realize that initial success may not translate into a permanent or even long-term success. But as I write this I've already gotten more than a dozen plays out of the game, and I've only touched half the scenarios it shipped with. A couple scenarios have already seen 4+ plays. Even if that's where the game tops out, I'll still get 40+ plays out of it. That's pretty good compared to most of the games I own.


PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3