Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Destroying your Dreams for Fun and Profit

When I start creating something (or planning to), I usually have a vision. I'm going to write, draw, paint or program this really cool thing.

The more I sit and think about it, the more awesome it gets.  Yet, as soon as I put pen to paper, the pain starts.

I start sketching, and .. I dunno, it doesn't look quite right.  I keep going and before long I'm holding my head in my hands. What is this ill-formed monstrosity that's emerging on my paper?

This isn't coming out right..
This isn't how I imagined it..
What's going on?
This sucks!

All that's happening is my blundering efforts are doing nothing but failing to live up to my vision. Aaugh!

This can last an uncomfortably long time. Sometimes, I quit.

You're not what I had in mind

The Trough of Creativity

This has happened to me enough times that I noticed, and named it the Trough of Creativity.

Things start awesome, then soon degenerate into a wilderness, and feelings of regret that I ever started.

'Trough' - like a low place, with potato peelings. And mold. Not the sort of mode that feels like 'art happening here, man.'

If I persist, however, something interesting happens: a new thing begins to take shape. It doesn't look like my vision, but, I dunno, that bit is sorta neat.

Before too long, I'm happily clucking away, adding detail to something that I'm happy with. Something unexpected. Something real.

This is the trough of creativity - for an illustration, I can get out of the trough in about an hour of steady work. The main problem is that psyching myself up to begin the descent can take weeks!

Visions are Empty Lies

The main problem is that my 'vision' of my project is deceptive. I think that I've got a clear picture in my head of how it's going to look. The more time I spend thinking about it, the clearer that picture gets.. or so I think. All that's left is to draw it, write it, right?

What I really have is a clear picture of how awesome it's going to look. How awesome? Really awesome. I can totally imagine myself, looking at the finished artwork, feeling like a million bucks. The figure's stance? Out of this world. My grasp of lighting? Divine!

Just like in dreams - I'm reading a book, but when I wake up, I can't remember what it said. This happens because the book didn't say anything. All the parts of my brain that process language were happily asleep; the part that knows what it feels like to read a book was dreaming.

My daydreams are just the same - exciting, tantalizing, but almost entirely devoid of useful detail.

The worst part is that I can't tell. I think my vision is all worked out but for the doing. This is the ghost's lie.

To Begin, First Kill Your Dream

This is painfully obvious once I start the business of actually creating. I can have a vision of holistic beauty without imagining any actual details. For a real-life piece of art, however, the holistic impressions only come from the parts working together: there need to be parts, or there's no whole!

What keeps me from entering the trough is this:

I believe the vision is real, and I don't want to damage it.

I'm scared, because my unconscious knows that as soon as I start, my precious daydream is going to be blown away like a puff of smoke.

And yet, this is the only way to begin.

The Will o' the Wisp

I think the proper use of vision is as motivation.  The hunger to create shows up like a will o' wisp; the only thing it's going to do is lead you off the path and into the swamps. But that's as far as it goes.

If you want to go any further, you're on your own.

Better keep moving.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Quick Dungeon Method

I've been wanting to do this for a while but never made the time. Here's a video of my process for making an 'old blue' map.

I made a couple of mistakes on the video, notably setting the recording framerate to "ass", but there you go - better luck next time.

My process for making these is completely different from my hand-drawn maps, which should be obvious immediately.  The Photoshop template I'm using has a bunch of useful layer effects all ready to go.

Instead of drawing walls, I'm painting floor space.  I'm literally just grabbing basic shapes for brushes and painting in white, and the outlines grid and get added automatically.

It's a shame I didn't manage to record my mouse cursor, as I think that would make it all a bit clearer - instead of rooms appearing, you'd see me dragging a square brush around for corridors and rectangles, and then using circles and hexagons to make the various notches.

What's fun about this is that I can build up a complex outline a bit at a time (see 1:30 to 2:30) instead of knowing in advance what the outline of the room is going to be.

 Architectural adornments like this don't do anything for grid-based fights, but I hope they convey an baroque impression that would affect the GM's description of the place.  Room #6 is clearly not a crude stone room.

The texture I lay down from 7:40 to 8:15 isn't lost, I just hide it and bring parts back with a chunky 'boulder' brush. (You can then see me go around twice with a 'pebble' brush.)

The final product is a bit simplistic; it's not as lovingly crafted as hand-drawn ones, but it's really, really fast.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Blue Maps are Twice as Good

A recent online discussion got me thinking about nostalgia, and the power that holds for me.

When I see an awesome fantasy map, I get this visceral bolt of pleasure that just makes me want to squeal like a seven year-old, opening Keep on the Borderlands for the very first time.

The sensation is twice as strong when the map is blue.  Go figure.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Anaglyphic Isometric Map

A little while ago +The Gorgonmilk mentioned the idea of anaglyphic isometric maps. How fun would that be?

I immediately leaped to Amazon to buy myself a ten-pack of cheap anaglyphic glasses.  This morning, they arrived in the mail.

Here's a prototype - there's only one "plane" (except for room 24 if you look carefully), so it's not much of a feat, but I am now quite excited about what's next.  Quite excited.

(Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Unmended Way

At the apex of a mountain pass, high in the Strielwall Peaks, stands a ruined fortress. Once a Seree garrison, it is now occupied by a peaceful band of giants and the assortment of people devoted to them.

Inside, the giants work to perfect a ritual of tea making, a task they see as essential to the well-being of the lowlanders.

Also, they abduct people.

Here's the portion of the Big Freaking Map that shows the view southward from the split peak. (The distance is based on what I wrote in How far can you see on a hex map?)

So, some liner notes!

This release is somewhat autobiographical (at least metaphorically), which it seems can happen to me when I'm listening to powerful music while writing. My first clue was a weird tickle in the back of my throat; I figured if I could get through explaining it to my wife without cracking, it was my imagination and I was in the clear. Nope, she saw right through it instantly.

Also, Splitpeak House is not a self-contained "adventure", for two reasons. First of all, it works best as a doorway to Tealwood which I plan to develop more, although you can of course replace Tealwood with anything you like.

Secondly, there's no obvious threat to be overcome, unless you play the giants as villains (as would be the case if you reduce the threat implied by the Sidhe).

There's a weird project afoot, and it looks bad, but in a sandbox campaign the giants could become extremely useful allies. Not only is the skill they impart a vital survival skill in Tealwood, but (more mundanely) because of its location: the giants are guarding a mountain pass along a useful route, and have a reason to feed and shelter passers-through.

I hope you find it useful!

EDIT: Here's the map art. As always, it's CC-BY-NC.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Big Freaking Map

I promised this to my patrons a long, long time ago, but now that I'm about to hit $200 (thank you!) I'm getting my butt in gear to finally make the Big Freaking Map.

As I said, it's a work in progress - I suppose it will be a WIP indefinitely, as I extend it and add detail. At least half my adventures are on the periphery of the underworld "Ur-Menig", so eventually there will be a version that shows where that lies, and some of the ways up and down.

There's something about this sort of map that tugs at my heart, it's like a gateway to hundreds of places, each one containing some detail of interest, a mystery, adventure, or a poignant ending.

I've always felt this way about maps, but I imagine that the beautiful cloth maps of the early Ultima series cemented this feeling. Each point of interest on those maps was an invitation to explore a richer world.

This map doesn't have that level of reality behind it, and it may never, but if you look at even one place on it and wonder what's there, we're sharing the same feeling.

UPDATE! The map has now been updated to version 1.0, with all the adventures marked on it (except of course the extra-planar Extent of Gamandes).

UPDATE 2! The link has now been updated to always point to the latest version of the map (currently 1.2).

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Night's Black Agents

We're playing Night's Black Agents, GMed by the ever-capable +Stephen Shapiro. We're loving the campaign, but have very mixed feelings about the system.

If you're not familiar with it, Night's Black Agents is a GUMSHOE based game where you play burned spies on the run, who gradually realize that the powers they're up against have a distinctly supernatural flavor - the Illuminati is vampires.

You Must Be Taller Than Rocky To Solve This Case

GUMSHOE was originally created to power investigative scenarios, and there's a somewhat hippie mechanic at its core: rather than your skills being modifiers, they're exhaustible pools. When you have a '3' in Forensics skill, that means you can spend 3 points out of it until you refresh it.

On the other hand, spending a point is pretty powerful - instead of rolling to find the clue, if you spend the point, you've found it. As someone clever pointed out, shows like Sherlock and CSI aren't about people trying to find clues (and sometimes failing), they're about people finding clues. There's no flailing around, only furrowed brows.

Investigative pools refresh infrequently - only once per 'operation' for the most part, so they're a precious resource. We often find we've run out of something critical. This makes no in-game sense, but it has a few useful effects:

It shares the spotlight around - when you're out of the right kind of points, someone else probably has one.

It makes for 'good TV'. It may not make tactical sense to fire a bunch of gunshots then close to melee range with your combat knife, but it's kinda badass.

I can imagine if you're devoted to a strongly character-identified style of play, this would be really frustrating: there's no in-game/fictional reason you can't use your forensic scene. I thought this would feel annoying, but it seems to line up with good play habits well enough that it doesn't feel intrusive.

For me, that was the system's big surprise - given the 'out there' core mechanic, gameplay felt remarkably similar to other, more traditional games.

If you need one (and I usually don't), a rationalization that works for me is that we're just seeing the highlight reel. Forensics 3 doesn't mean you're Sherlock homes exactly three times and Watson the rest of the time, it just means that with a bunch of faffing around not shown on screen it turns out that your Forensics skill is what gives you the big break three times, and that's all we see.

The Conspyramid

On the GM's side is a piece of brilliance, the "Conspyramid".  The GM is encouraged to structure the vampire-controlled organization as a series of hierarchical nodes - at the top you might have a cabal of ancient vampires nestled in an NSA hard room; at the bottom you might have crooked local piece, 'turned' intelligence stations, or the Serbian mob dealing drugs out of a laundry.

At first, the players are tangling with the lowest levels; clues (inevitably found, one way or another) lead them to other nodes - but also, as the PCs cause damage, the conspyramid reacts like a wounded organism, at first curious, then angry and vengeful.

Villains higher-ups start asking questions as the low-level nodes go dark, using other low-level nodes to investigate. As the party makes its way up, the reprisals escalate, until finally they're being hounded in the night by carrion-fed ghouls that hunt by scent, targeted by SWAT teams acting on mysterious orders, or facing unmasked vampires themselves.

I Shoot Him For Zero Damage

Given such a fast-moving engine for tangling with the clues left by vampiric minions, the big disappointment was the combat system.

The skills that get used in combat are treated differently than investigative skills - here, rather than 'spend a point to find a clue', you dip into (much larger) pools for one-time modifiers to d6 rolls. Want a chance to shoot the bad guy? Spend a point of Shooting.

Definitely want to hit him? Spend three, or more if it's an especially hard shot.

That would be fine if combat weren't so freaking whiffy. It's like the worst of mid-level retro-clone combat. It's so unsatisfying to spend five points of Shooting to pull off that make-it-or-break-it shot, and then roll 2 points of damage.

It achieves spotlight-sharing, but in an awful way - individual actions are often either ineffective or inconsequential, so everyone gets a turn and scrape a couple of hit points off the villain.

It's irritating enough that there's a special combat system for fighting groups of low-powered villains if you get the jump on them, which mercifully allows you to kill them without rolling damage.

Full-Auto Point Spend, Please Hold

All the little tactical action and gun porn frills are handled, but holy snot, the special cases! Everything has its own little rule, and no two things are handled the same way. Like:

Point blank range modifies damage (but not the odds of hitting, unless the enemy is charging you); long range doesn't modify the odds of hitting, but you need to spend 2 extra points of Shooting to make the shot at all. Scopes reduce this cost (but not the odds of hitting), while laser dot sights reduce the long-range point cost and modify the to-hit roll, and allow your partner two free points of Intimidation.

Depleted uranium ammo (yay!) is resolved in three different ways (boo!), depending on the target. Against armor of grade 3 or less, it acts like incendiary ammo (flip flip), meaning it can ignite fuel/explosives but has a two-round penalty to both your and the target's to-hit threshold; against hard targets (regardless of their armor value) it bypasses armor completely and does +1 damage; otherwise it acts as armor-piercing rounds (flip flip) which reduces armor by half, rounded down.

I've taken to writing down the page numbers next to each skill, piece of equipment and accessory. It badly needs a reference sheet (booklet?), then a second edition edited by a scalpel.

A 9mm pistol causes d6 damage. An MP5 with a silencer, laser sight and hollow-point ammo, on the other hand, causes a d6-minute delay.


Try Shooting Him In The Eye With A Wooden Bullet!

It's taken us a few sessions to figure out what the combat system wants us to do. It's demoralizing to spend 5 points on a brilliant display of martial arts but do no damage, because combat knives do d6-1; you really need a gun.

But choose wisely, fully automatic weapons just allow you spend more Shooting points (literally, spend 3 more points to roll more damage). On the other hand, flash-bang grenades seem to bypass the GUMSHOE ideology completely, doing massive amount of stun damage to everyone in range.

This led to a hilarious scene in our third session, with +Tim Groth's character having crippled two flak-armored ghoul-handlers in their BMW with a well-aimed flash-bang toss, only to follow up with hilariously useless rounds of SMG fire, failing to hurt them at all.

Then it came to me. The combat system is the framework for a second type of investigation.

Seriously, why would there be this mad little table with separate to-hit and damage penalties for each body part.  (Chest, -2 to hit if the target is facing you, -4 if they're facing away, +3 damage in either case; limbs, -2 to hit, +0 damage; heart, -3 to hit, +4 damage, etc.)?

The game wants you to try it all out!

NBA encourages the GM to customize their vampires for their campaign, giving them different basis (supernatural, viral, etc.), powers and weaknesses. You can explore this space, but instead of Forensics or Streetwise skill, you use different combinations of weapons, ammunition, and called shots.  Wooden bullets to the heart not doing it? Try incendiary ammunition to the eyes!

All that grindy combat certainly gives you plenty of opportunities.

Combat As Investigation

I feel like it would be an improvement to ditch all the modifiers and whiffing, and treat combat skill usage much more like investigative skills: every time you use a point of Shooting (or Weapons, or Hand-to-Hand) you succeed, with an effect appropriate to the in-game situation:

If you're trapped in elevator with two thugs and only a pen as your weapon, a point of Weapons will let you kill one of them and take a bit of a beating from the other, getting horribly bloody in the process.

If you've got an SMG, one point of Shooting will let you cause lethal damage to whoever you have in your sights, unless you're shooting at something SMGs don't hurt, like armored cars or vampires.

Scopes, laser sights, depleted uranium rounds, are all just tweaks to the fictional positioning that let you spend your Shooting points on tougher targets, in just the same way that a 10' ladder lets you climb better.

Why not let the GUMSHOE engine do its work?

The Burning of Intermodal X LLC

Last night's session was great fun, and I think it's worthy aside to my ranting about mechanics.

We're in Serbia, following leads we've gleaned from a stolen laptop. Belgrade is seeming decidedly unfriendly these days, and we've caught the attention of the very pissed off Bonchev mob, who we've managed to figure out are working for the suspiciously pale Sergei Dragonov.

A lot of our options have been cut off or burned, including our former handlers. Licking our wounds in a safe house, we're ambushed by a pack of ghouls - incredibly strong undead things wearing GoPro cameras, which was our first scary brush with the supernatural, back in session 3.

Reeling from that fight, we decided to take the fight to the enemy. Intercepting the ghouls' broadcast signal, our hacker managed to track them back to a warehouse controlled by shipping distributor Intermodal X, where they're 'stored' in a steel vault.

In session 4, we successfully infiltrated the apartment of Intermodal Belgrade's general manager. Stephen rendered this in heartbreaking detail, down to the bottle of antidepressants in his bathroom cabinet. Dressed as HVAC repair crew, we replaced his smartphone's USB charger with one that'll inject our hacker's custom apps.

Session 5, licking our wounds from another ambush while trying to extract a burned contact, we decide to take down Intermodal and the ghouls.  We show up as exterminators (Intermodal is mostly a legit business) in a hastily repainted van, and try to talk our way in.

Fortunately, our hacker has cloned the general manager's phone by now, so when they call to get authorization for something not on the schedule, he takes the call.

Simultaneously, a surprise delivery shows up - a truck full of packing peanuts, courtesy of our hacker +Tim Groth.  While Moisha (our tweed front man played by +Sean Winslow) kills time with Intermodal's irritated security team, +Michael Atlin and I (playing the wet work heavies) head down to the basement where the ghouls are stored.

We've come prepared! You know what sorta looks like industrial pesticide-applying gear? A thermal lance.  Fsshhhhhhhhh

We jump our security escort and make short work of the pair of them, then set to burning our way into the vault. We don't need a big hole, because you know what also sorta looks like industrial pesticide-applying gear? A scratch-built flamethrower.

Rebreathers (also standard industrial exterminator gear) keep us cosy while our smoke bomb goes off; the hacker trips the alarms to cause more chaos upstairs. Intermodal starts evacuating. Thing is, there's a detail of Bonchevs upstairs, led by surprisingly pale and strong Dragonov, and it doesn't take them long to realize something is seriously wrong.

But Moisha, on the lookout, spots them coming down the external staircase - he ambushes them with a flashbang tossed through the security door, and move in with my flamethrower. Turns out that flamethrowers at the right range are like flashbangs, awfully cheaty and point-efficient. The mooks don't stand a chance, and even Dragonov goes down under the intense one-two combo. It's hideous, but then that's the job some days. 

In Conclusion

Night's Black Agents combines excellent GM advice for campaign-structuring with a hippie approach to investigation, resulting in fast-moving conspiracy-hunting gameplay; we're having tremendous fun.  For no good reason this beautifully humming engine groans under a fatty layer of mediocre combat rules in dire need of simplification.

Would play again.