Saturday, 16 February 2019

The Mouth of Spring

In every town, village, and hamlet are women who have seen beyond fear, who are strong enough to push back winter and bring new life to the lands. Their power comes from beneath an old, stone shrine, half-forgotten by the people of today. What secrets are known to those who dare pass through the mouth of spring?

The Mouth of Spring is flooded cavern system underneath a quiet shrine. I really wanted to have fun with changing water levels—the caverns are navigable both while empty or while draining, but the logistics are quite different in each case.

Mouth of Spring PDF
For those keeping track, the Wives of Spring were first mentioned in back in adventure #33 The Mermaids' Knot, where they had infiltrated the village of Magda to keep tabs on the worrisome cult thriving there. It works just as well with secret organizations of your own, of course!

* * *

There are lots of ways to use this adventure in your campaign. One, if your players are already connected to a secret order of some kind and are looking to get involved, you can use the Mouth of Spring as written, as an initiatory journey. This could either be an ordeal that must be endured to prove loyalty and hardiness, or (if your game has clerics or shamans) as an initiation into contact with a divine presence itself.

If you're running a single-player game, this would make a decent in medias res start for a PC selected by the wives as a candidate, a first adventure of many (if they survive).

Of course, you can also use it more traditionally, as a dangerous place to plunder. It could also serve as the source of power for an enemy cult, something to be rooted out and cleansed, rather than journeyed through. (Consider zombie selkis!)

Finally, being tossed into the pool shaft is a decent option for an adventurer found guilty of a serious crime, or otherwise being disposed of by creepy cultists. "Feed them to the Malak!"



The etchings on the gate are a detailed map. For adventurers who copy it or study it carefully, consider actually handing them a copy of the map image. This will give them some foreshadowing about areas of the caverns that aren't yet revealed, and will give them interesting choices. Do they float down with the receding water levels, or do they wait until the hall of the malaks is dry?

* * *

As always, thank you to my patrons for supporting Trilemma Adventures. If you'd like to join them, toss a buck in my subscription tip jar.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Thank You, Mandy

With a single post, Mandy Morbid has done more to improve my optimism about the gaming community than any single act I can remember.

As is overwhelmingly the case when someone abused calls out an abuser with status, influence, and the wherewithal to weaponize them, this will no doubt cause Mandy a great deal of energy, pain, and trouble.

Please do not be even the smallest part of her problems.


* * *

For years, I've been too chicken shit to call out Zak publicly for his awful effects on the online TTRPG community. A jealous, self-obsessed black hole, he pulls people into his orbit and then slowly rips them up. Like a lot of people, apparently, I've been scared of his three-day revenge benders and his heavily footnoted takedowns.

I've been privately grateful when people close to him put words to what I've felt—notably Patrick Stuart's truly spectacular break-up essay, but dozens of others who I deliberately won't call out here.

My fear comes from a personal flaw of my own, unrelated to Zak. Because of it, I've been riding the coattails of others who were braver, quietly yissing at the screen whenever they said what I was thinking, sharing it in small, private circles. "See? See!"

It's not a good look and I'm ashamed of it, but whatever.

* * *

Part of why I'm saying this is that Mandy's gift out of the blue has made me realize what all this fear cost me. There are all sorts of good an interesting people that I haven't collaborated with or gotten to know better for fear that Zak was part of their circle.

As people have lined up to repudiate him, each time it felt like a little weight was lifting. "Oh, you're okay?"

At some point, I had the obvious realization that my silence has probably had the same effect on others. In fact, I know it has. Because I never said anything, people have had to just guess if my tiny corner of the internet was open to abusers and chucklefucks, or if I would have their back if one showed up. For anyone for whom it really mattered, it wouldn't have been safe to even ask, so you just moved on.

Me, who has had absolutely nothing tangible to fear this whole time.

If my silence helped make your world smaller, I'm sorry.

* * *

Tomorrow, Zak will supposedly post one of his legendary diatribes to tell us how it really 'went down'. I don't know what it will say, but I can take a reasonable guess at its aim.

Zak is very clever, and one of the things he is great at is driving a wedge between how you think and how you feel.

There is a part of each of us that is a total sucker for 'toxic rationality'. Legitimate ideas are supposed to look a certain way, and if you feel bad about them, that's because you're an intellectual weakling indulging your emotional side.

If you read Zak's post, I want you to bear in mind that you are a staggeringly sophisticated gigaprocessor that weighs millions of inputs every second, and filters them through a lifetime of experiences.

Your feelings and intuition are a holistic summation of this unimaginably vast work. They are every bit as important as the formal calculations we do (which are so simple in comparison that you could peg them out on a Lite Brite).

If you read Zak's post, squint a little bit, and you might notice it says something like this:

  1. I am smarter than you.
  2. I am so much smarter than you, you should immediately abandon your embarrassingly stupid ideas, and feel bad about having them.
  3. My feelings are your problem (any action I take to protect them is justified)
  4. Your feelings aren't my problem (even bringing them up is intellectually bankrupt tone policing and probably harassment)
  5. If you disagree with me, there is only one responsible way to go about handling it, and it puts me in the position of maximum leverage. If you don't like that, see point #2.
If you don't get caught up in debating his points, my guess is you'll be able to perceive these emotional threads in the pit of your stomach. Please listen.

* * *

Late last year, I served as a juror on a human trafficking case involving a minor. It took forever, and for all of the pain and suffering involved, resulted in a hung jury. This was all kinds of devastating, and I can't legally talk about the details because Canada.

I bring this up because, afterwards, all this talk of "evidence" in online started to look like farcical bullshit. Over and over I see courtroom analogies applied to online conflicts, and as far as I can tell now they're completely misapplied.

In a trial, the evidence the jury reviews is vetted for admissibility, cross-examined, and (importantly) the jury (who is a specific bunch of people) has to review all of it. (Often multiple times.) Lastly, the question(s) they are answering are known ahead of time, and so are the consequences of whatever they decide.

Because the consequences of being found guilty of a serious crime are so destructive, court procedures are strongly biased in favor of a 'no determination' outcome. (On paper, at least.) To come to a finding of fact, twelve people must unanimously agree that the evidence proves the crime beyond any reasonable doubt. Any other scenario at all and it's a "no result" finding.

This is not remotely how people make every other important decision - who to be friends with, whether to have Gary over again, who to sleep with, where to live, to trust this babysitter, whether to take or quit that job, whether to euthanize a beloved pet, to get this or that treatment for a serious health condition. In these situations there's no waiting for a finding of fact, and there's no default option--we just have to act on a holistic assessment of the partial information we have.

* * *

For online conflicts, here's a big lie: the community needs to come to a finding of fact. (Nope!) "We need to probe the dark recesses until we know all the details, and we've sorted out What Really Happened."

Get real, that's not happening.

What plays out in online communities instead is very different: a revolving door of self-appointed jurors do drive-by reviews of fragments of evidence, which is usually a bunch of hearsay and partial screen caps.

This impulse to seek answers is relatable, but so off the mark it's dangerous. It's not what actually helps.

When your child comes in from outside with a bleeding knee, saying Billy pushed them, if your first order of business is to establish What Really Happened, I can't help you.

If you do a web search to figure how to support victims of trauma (do it, it's time well spent), no reputable resource will urge you to figure out what happened by digging up evidence. Someone is evidently hurting, so support them as you're able.

I think we reach for courtroom analogies because of some combination of:
  1. It's a familiar model for deciding whether someone's life should be destroyed by punishment (thanks, TV!)
  2. It gives me an opportunity to indulge my prurient curiosity into the lives of others
  3. It strokes my ego, that I'm now appointed to the role of Judge
That's a heady mix. More charitably, I might learn about danger that I could face myself, or protect others from it. I'll come back to this one.

* * *

When we fall for this disembodied, logical-sounding indulgence, we wind up with community rules that are totally dysfunctional. One well-intentioned but Zak-orbiting community wound up with a reasonable-sounding set of rules that were subtly awful, when I thought about them.

I forget the exact wording (and I can't dig it up, as they were thankfully changed in the process of banning Zak), but they had two curious properties:
  1. The only activity that was governed was accusing people of bad behavior.
  2. The process mandated for dealing with it made sure the accused had as as much information and leverage as possible.
When Zak's diatribe lands, please don't buy an implied conflict resolution structure that does these two things.

* * *

I believe Mandy, not because I've 'seen the evidence', but because her experiences, though dire, are completely ordinary.

Repeat after me (or not, I'm not the boss of you):

"I will never know what really happened between Mandy and Zak, and that's fine."

I don't need to know in order to decide who I want in my online communities. Believing that I need to know the facts of somebody else's life before I can trust my own intuition is learned helplessness.

For me, this isn't about a societal decision about "what to do with Zak because of what he did to Mandy", this is about who I want near me in my online communities, and who I don't. I can decide that based on the feelings I have when they're around. This is completely appropriate, and the way we make our best relationship decisions.

The "conclusive evidence first" approach is a reasonable-sounding bad idea, and it privileges the null hypothesis. This constant, "no finding" result shrinks our lives and only benefits the creeps, sociopaths and abusers.

Here's an idea, don't take community-building advice from people who act like sociopaths.

* * *

Don't be an asshole in the comments.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Wednesday

A decade ago, the Burning Wheel forums asked people to use their real names rather than aliases. I remember feeling mild disappointment, but it was no big deal, really. (Some folks won't use real names for safety reasons, and that's totally fine.)

Years later (the forum is gone now), the names of the folks I met there are seared in my mind. I think it was a prescient community-building choice.

I'll come back to this point.

As G+ is shutting down, I realize that a lot of what we're losing is not just the concentration of creative people, but the finely curated network of connections. I like this person, but not that person, even though they like each other just fine. It takes time (and pain) to sort these things out.

When we all move to MeWe or reddit or Facebook or Twitter, even if we all arrive safely, the network is still lost. It takes time to connect (or disconnect); all that careful pruning must start over from the beginning. I'll come back to this as well.

I suck at names. I don't know if it's because I'm an introvert or just lazy with my mental filing system, but I seem to be able to track about 100 people. Beyond that, without the benefit of a face-to-face impression, names start to blur together.

I probably rely on the circumstances of meeting too much. For instance, the only person I ever meet at the Workaround's front desk is Renee. If I were to forget her name briefly, she's surrounded by a halo of clues that connect this latest encounter with all the previous ones (e.g. the location, her physical appearance).

Online, I don't have that. In the main feeds of G+, Facebook and Twitter, names (and profile pics) are literally the only continuity from one encounter to the next. I can reasonably trust that if you're in my feed I have no reason to think you're a dick, but other than that, the name is all I've got.

Not long ago, Rob Donoghue changed his icon, and remarked that he couldn't recognize his own posts.

What has become clear as I dig into other social networks is that people call themselves different things in different places. Sometimes different things in the same place.

I'm no better, I suppose I'm variously 'Michael something', 'the Trilemma guy', 'I'll See It When I Believe It", and 'fuseboy'.

Taken with all the other things I've mentioned, the experience is like a weird, hyperlinked dementia.

I visit a Discord server, supposedly a refuge from the G+ shutdown. Apart from two names I recognize, everyone is using aliases. I can't tell if I know literally everyone, or literally nobody. This is a really weird feeling.



Despite conversing with and near him for several years, it was only a couple of weeks ago that I realized that Luka Rejec and wizardthieffighter were the same person. This sounds stupid, but imagine you got over to MeWe and found this guy drawing maps, going by the name Carl Pinkson. How long would it take you to realize that Carl wasn't a Dyson imitator, but actually Dyson Logos? Now ask that question again, but for each of the hundreds of people with less iconic personas, and it becomes a confusing morass.

All in all, the transition is less of an annoyance over having to go to a different place with a slightly more annoying UI, it's a profound and unexpected alienation.

The news that G+ will shut off notifications a month before the service goes down is hilariously apt. Of course. It's the perfect flourish to cap off the experience. Now we'll be able to start conversations and not finish them, leaving earnest questions unanswered, counterpoints sent but never received; conversations forgotten and abandoned in the middle.

* * *

I don't have any pithy final words to close this off with; I think that's the nature of how this is going down. G+ is going away, and it's more of a loss than I realized.

If you see me shuffling along in a bath robe, not sure how I got there, please remind me who I am and point me home. That is, if you know either of those things, and you're not lost yourself.


Sunday, 27 January 2019

After the Lords of Memory

Google Plus is shutting down, and so the tiny discussion/playtest community for After the Lords of Memory is going to fall off a cliff like so much eroding shoreline.

ALM is a fantasy RPG; it's far from finished, and I think it still has an ungainly puberty ahead of it before it actually does what I want it to do.

This is a much ado about nothing post, because I'm doing my best to avoid putting out a new revision of ALM, even though I want to. I'm focusing on the adventure compilation instead.

My design goals are written up in the first post about it. If you want to follow along ALM development (when it resumes), I will post revisions here, and tag them so you can find just the ALM posts if you want.

For now, the latest revision is v0.19. The core works, it's been playtested in a home game over a period of years--you can make characters, take them places, adventure, fight, advance, get injured and so on.

However, the whole point of writing this game was to enable a particular campaign style, and that hasn't emerged organically from my playtest campaign. If you read the design goals post, essentially what you get is a fairly simple, theatre-of-the-mind game where grubby villagers go forth and either die or become heroes. You don't get geographic advancement.

I have much more work to do there, in particular I think I need to lay out the way the campaign is supposed to work in a way that's obvious to everyone (GM, players) so that's the default mode of play.

By way of inspiration, B/X D&D laid out this very mechanistic, almost boardgame-like turn procedure for how you do a dungeon crawl. You don't have to use it - if you meet up with a posse of hirelings you sent in as advance scouts, presumably rolling initiative and then a reaction roll (hostile!) might seem weirdly out of place, but it's a good set of training wheels (a path, to use my own terminology) to get started with.

Anyways, as I said, no news is no news, but here is where news will eventually appear!

Friday, 25 January 2019

PbtA Design - The Purpose of Moves

This is a 2014 G+ post, liberated before it dies. I would write this slightly differently now, and the consensus at the time was that the questions at the bottom were the best part of it.

My brain keeps coming around to this question: what are moves for? By which I mean, why should my PbtA game include move 'x'? What am I trying to accomplish?

Here's what I've got as a tentative list of move 'natures':

Arbiter moves that resolve something contentious, settling a potential disagreement over an outcome or the fiction.  (Example: hack and slash)

Montage moves that skip play past something you don't want to focus on (example: Regiment's downtime move)

Scene-framing moves that plop you into situations with potential (example: Regiment's engagement move). These can flip past time (like montages), but they focus on what's next, rather than quickly resolving a bunch of time.

Opinion moves that inject ideas for genre-relevant outcomes that the participants might not think of (e.g. Go Aggro)

Moves that imply the key factors in genre-relevant situations [or trade-offs!] (e.g. Regiment's Assault move) - whether by making them mechanically relevant, or alternately implying that this is what the unstructured conversation should be about (the 'fruitful void').

Prompt moves that give players ideas for what their characters could do (e.g. Regiment's Petition move), or differentiating characters with things nobody else can do (e.g. Battlebabe's dangerous & sexy)

Moves that serve up meaningful choices (Seduce or Manipulate being one of many)

Moves can of course do several of these things (I notice that one of my favorite moves, Regiment's Engagement move, falls into several of these categories).

* * *

Two slightly problematic move natures pop to mind, where an interesting fictional situation is reduced to a mechanical modifier, or worse, made irrelevant by a resolution move that discounts preceding fiction, thereby discouraging it.

* * *

If this is a useful list, then these might be useful questions:

  • What will participants (players, perhaps including the GM) disagree on?
  • What will they get bogged down on?
  • What won't they think of doing?
  • What won't they realize might occur?
  • What are the key factors in the important situations of the game?
  • What should participants be nudged into talking about?
  • What meaningful choices or trade-offs should be highlighted?

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The Raindrinkers

When clear skies suddenly turn stormy, people look for the strange wagons of the Raindrinkers sliding over the mud, collecting the rain as they go. These nomadic peoples know a terrible truth: the earth’s waters are tainted.

The Raindrinkers is a wandering encounter-style two-pager written by a longtime friend, guest writer Tim Groth. Tim locked in on the strange weapons of the Martoi*—the terrible poisons unleashed on the living by the echoes of ancient conquerors.

What would a people be like if they had made peace with the danger?

Raindrinkers PDF
The Raindrinkers revolves around the five elders of the raindrinker clans. While the clans share a way of life and often travel together in their long, mud-sled caravans, each of the elders has different goals for their people, and a different attitudes towards visitors that would try to ingratiate themselves with the nomads.

If you're integrating the Raindrinkers into your own setting, you have a few options, mostly answers to the question, "What are they avoiding?"

In nightmarish or apocalyptic settings, they can fit in more or less directly. If your world is a little lower key, the Raindrinkers' habits might be religious observances, meant to keep them spiritually pure rather than physically safe.

In the world of Trilemma Adventures, I'm situating them in Haverlow on the big map. I see them travelling a sparsely populated land, visiting a series of towns and villages high enough up in the various watersheds that they're safe from the worst of the weapons—as long as there's rain.

* * *

This isn't an adventure, exactly, but a roving community, or a network of communities. They're a potential source of safety, replacement characters (if it comes to that!) and because of their mobility, possible allies against mutual enemies, if they can be made to see the common threat.

On the other hand, if you cross them (or if there should be an unfortunate misunderstanding), you'll have to go a long way to get out of their sphere of influence.

(I've never done this, but it's cool to imagine taking a replacement character from some allied raindrinkers, but they've said they'll hunt you down and kill you if so-and-so gets hurt.)

Hell, under the right circumstances, the elders themselves could be PCs.

Thanks again to all of my patrons for supporting the project. More in on the way very soon!

* For more on the Martoi, see The Unmended Way, Task of Zeichus, and Veil of the Once-Queen.







Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Sky-Blind Spreadsheet

This is fun, Goblins Henchman has converted the Sky-Blind Spire into one of his "Spreadsheet Adventure Modules."



He's done four now, including the Halls Untoward. He's also got a bunch of templates for other adventures that aren't yet filled in (including Keep on the Borderlands), so that's fun.

This seems like such a useful format, I wonder why we don't see it more, especially in this age of online play (when the GM is going to be sitting in front of a computer anyways).

Friday, 11 January 2019

Five Years of Free Adventures

As I published my most recent adventure, I realized that I've been doing this for five years. Stellarium of the Vinteralf was published in January 2014! There are now 48 illustrated adventures in total.

This wouldn't have been possible without your help and support—your encouragement, generous donations, and not least spreading the word on social media and forums. These have all made this project grow way past what I imagined when I started.

Hitting the five year mark means it's time for some reflection!

Making everything freely available was a leap of faith, but in hindsight it was absolutely the right call. The adventures do a much better job at marketing themselves than I would have done trying to sell them.

The other thing was that I've kept things pretty lean and mean. Like Kickstarter projects, it's so tempting to load up with stretch goals and produce Patreon tiers that become a burden and collapse under their own weight. This project has been like a Kickstarter without stretch goals.

Everything is free; there's no forum, no t-shirts, or stickers, no physical perks. That stuff is fun, and I'd love to do it, but I know it would jeopardize what's been working so well: every month I publish the best adventure I can come up with, straight from the core of my inspiration.

This means I've only really had one tier on Patreon this whole time, other than a couple of experiments. Even so, a bunch of people decided to make up their own amounts. After years of this, I'd like to make my pledge tiers match what people are actually doing, and recognize them properly for it.


I've been wrestling with this for some time. I don't want to load up with extras that are going to spread me too thin, but there's no way I want to go all paywall on you.

Anyways, I think I got it sorted out, and the new tiers are now in effect!

My adventures will continue to be free here, along with the CC-BY-NC art and illustrations—courtesy of all of you pledging on Patreon.

For people who want earlier sneak peeks, there's a $2/adventure tier.

If you want to throw $3 or $5 per adventure (as some of you have been!), there are tiers for that too, and you have my extra special thanks.

Special Thanks

Several people jumped on the new tiers immediately—here they are:

"Alex" has been here for almost a year now, and with him is Frank Reding. They are both nuss envoys, so be careful!

Nick Stamelos joined last summer, and Gill Garcia, 28 months ago! A different "Nick" joined a week ago, but it was actually his email that finally prodded me to do the revisions. You were right!

To everyone, thanks so much for your support, whether in dollars, kind words, questions, your play reports, tips for improvement, typo-shooting, or spreading the word! It's been fantastic.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Wagoner's Table

The echoes of the feasting songs are fading, but winter still has many cold months in store. In the highlands villages, winter's bite is most cruel. Still, legend has it that even the most desperate can find mercy at the wagoner's table.

Wagoner's Table PDF
This wandering encounter-type adventure gave me a chance to show off a little bit more Seree infrastructure, in this case the towering tribute wagons they used to collect delicacies from outlying areas of their dominion.

You can use it for that, or you can just take this as the holiday-themed fantasy encounter that it is—a benevolent soul in a dangerous landscape provides for the destitute as best he can.

This adventure also marks a personal milestone: Stellarium of the Vinteralf was published in January 2014, which means that The Wagoner's Table bookends five years of publishing an illustrated adventure nearly every month. It's nice to do that on an up note.

If you like this adventure or want more like it, consider throwing me a buck on Patreon. Because of my patrons' generosity, all of these adventures are released under CC-BY-NC, so feel free to remix the text and imagery into your own non-commercial projects.