Saturday 30 December 2023

Whose Mechanic is it Anyway?

Here's a simple principle:

(1) The player who needs to use a quantity should be the one tracking it.

If you're the one who updates your rogue's hit points, the hit point score should be on a piece of paper in your hands, not somebody else's (e.g. the GMs). Pretty obvious.

I can only ever remember this principle being broken once: in an early version of Blades in the Dark, it was actually the GM who had to factor up all the player skills as part of resolution.. but the GM didn't actually have this information, the players did. We adapted by making a little GM tracking sheet for all the PC's skill levels, but this was a bunch of bookkeeping. (A later version soon smoothed out this problem.)

Here's another principle, one this article is really about:

(2) The player who desires the outcome of a mechanic should be responsible for invoking it.

If you're playing a role-playing game, and part of your fun as GM is to force the PCs to face the hazards of the Purple Steppes, it should be you, the GM, that invokes the wandering encounter table.

This is a simple enough idea, but games break it all the time. This mostly happens because tracking quantities is work, and it can easily overwhelm the GM. But the consequences of giving a mechanic to somebody who doesn't want to use it are often that it doesn't get used at all.

Think about things like negative character conditions: wet, exhausted or plain old arithmetic-heavy encumbrance rules. These are quantities that the players must track, but which is against the PCs' interests. Think about how often these rules get forgotten?

Struggling with adversity is an awesome part of RPGs, but it usually falls to the GM to bring the adversity. When we leave it to players to do a bookkeeping-heavy task whose outcome they don't want, there are subtle incentives built into the rules that will encourage the group to ignore those rules.

I tried to address this in some versions of ALM, where PC conditions are tracked by the GM. It's the GM who wants the PCs to feel the freezing chill after they swim through an icy river, so the GM should a) be the one tracking that information and b) be the one who invokes it.

Here's an addition to that last principle:

(2.b) Mechanics which produce only negative or positive outcomes are especially important to give to the proper player

If a mechanic only ever produces bad news for the PCs, or nothing, it's especially important that it's not the PCs' job to invoke this mechanic. Encumbrance is the classic example of this.

Oh Right, I Forgot About Encumbrance

Look at all this stuff I forgot to weigh

Encumbrance is such a great example of these problems:

  • Encumbrance is a bunch of granular arithmetic, so it takes genuine effort to keep track of it.
  • It's is a purely negative mechanic. There's nothing good that happens with encumbrance, it's all downside. Either you're as normal or penalized.
  • The player who is inconvenienced by encumbrance is the one who has to track it

All together, old B/X encumbrance seems almost purpose-built to be ignored. Do a bunch of math for no other reason than to inconvenience your PC? Oh, we're not bothering with that in this campaign.

Pairing the Good with the Bad

The old approach we're probably all familiar with is to try to be clever about reducing bookkeeping. This is especially true for mechanics with negative outcomes for the PCs, which (by principle #2) properly belong with the GM. GMs are busy and can only track so much, so if you can reduce your quantity to a simple tag or a single-digit number that doesn't change very often.

But a new approach I'm trying out more recently is to pair positive and negative outcomes in the same mechanic. Here's part of the character sheet for my Isle of Wight game:

This is an equipment list, and I've tried to make it chunky/simplistic ('reduce bookkeeping'), but the important part here is that lightly loaded characters get +1 to all of their rolls. This is a big deal, and a massive incentive for players to care about tracking encumbrance. Judging by the player chatter as the characters set out on forays, it's having the desired effect.

There are other areas in adventuring where I think this approach has merit, although I haven't worked out the details:

Lighting and Darkness

In many dungeon crawling games, the GM is the one advocating for the penalties and dangers of darkness, but isn't the one tracking torches. Secondly, having sufficient lighting has no upside, it's basically a mechanic where you just operate normally until you run out of light, at which point it's terrible. Forgetting to track your torches is a great idea!

Instead of this "boring until it's deadly" approach, imagine letting players use excess lighting for bonuses. Sure, they can get by with that one dude's flickering torch and its 30' radius, but imagine a system where searching, movement speed, noticing monsters—all of that is easier if they're using more than the minimum of light. Even if the tracking is still a little cumbersome, players would have reasons  to want to bring these rules into play.

Spell Components

Spend money and track encumbrance so you can use your cool powers? This has forget about it written all over it.

Instead, think about magic that works okay (normally) without components, but if you buy, find, or quest for special components it enhances the magic, or even unlock new versions or higher levels of the spell. As written, AD&D spell components just seem like a way to sop up player money, more than it is an interesting aspect of play. Why not elevate it to an interesting focal point that the players will want to highlight?

* * *

I think there are similar possibilities to give players incentives to invoke rules for things like:

  • Food tracking: like light and darkness, instead of 'eat enough or suffer', turn eating into a benefit.
  • Oh right, we forgot we had those hirelings with us—what useful thing have they done/what trouble have they gotten into?
  • The behavior of pets, familiars, dogs, and pack animals
  • Relationships with allies; reconnecting might reveal you've neglected them or that your rivals have been whispering to them, but it could also bring benefits like crucial news, or perhaps even timely gifts.
What other subsystems could be refined with these principles?

Thursday 30 November 2023

The Isle of Wight: Planning the Sandbox

One of the defining aspects of this campaign is my choice to run this on the real, actual Isle of Wight. I had thought about filing off the serial numbers, but the more time I spent poring over Google Maps, the more tempted I was to use the real place.

Approaching the Needles Tourist Attraction

The sheer amount of information here is truly overwhelming, but also like catnip to my brain. For one thing, players can get a good map of the whole place that really kicks player planning up a notch.

Ordnance Survey - Needles Attraction Area

When the players get to a location, I can actually pull out Google street view and show what it looks like.
"It looks like this, only the bus is burned"

Then when you get to a location, the GM can actually pull out google street view and make it really clear what the players are dealing with, and what it feels like to be there.

Preparing a Real Place

I forget how he put it, but Ken Hite once said that a sandbox is a load of sand your players can do anything with, but it's also great to have a bunch of plastic dinosaurs buried for them to find. This feels like phase 2 of my prep that I'm only now starting to enter, before this I had to figure out how to handle players going anywhere.

Dungeons are deliberately constraining, but I've got almost the opposite - the players have a motorboat, which means they can go to a huge number of places on the island. A circuit of the island is less than 100km, so they can pull into any cove, isolated bed and breakfast, seaside self-catered holiday cottages, and any of a number of actual towns, villages, manors, pubs, and other facilities.

The only way to handle all this is to have a set of tables, enough to be able to roll with any location the players might visit.

The Big Weather Table

Instead of having a weather table to roll on, I decided to pre-roll the weather. The players are starting on a cargo ship, making day and night forays through swift tides, landing on rocky coasts or via estuaries that turn into mud beds at low tide. For this reason, I built out a fairly comprehensive weather table:

I'm especially fond of the little tides notation:

↑12:00 ←14:52 ↓17:45 →20:37 ↑23:30

This is ↑ high tide at noon, peak ← westward flow in the afternoon, ↓ low tide at supper, eastward flow in late evening and then the second ↑ high tide just before midnight.

There's a similar one for the moon (which is important when the players are sneaking around at night without lights):

 ↑07:00 🌓13:15 ↓19:30

That's a 🌓 waxing moon that ↑ rises at 7 AM, highest at 1:15 PM, then ↓ setting after supper. (What's important about this is that the moon is up in the day, and will provide no light at night even if the sky is clear.)

Making a big weather table like this does take time, but I'm now firmly in favor, for two reasons:
  1. Handling time is much faster than randomly rolling the weather. I just switch to the Weather tab and there it is, today's weather.
  2. I never forget to roll. There's always some weather (even if it's nice).
Because of these two effects, even though the weather and tides have not yet been a meaningful bother, they're always there adding a little bit of texture.

Other Tables

I won't share the actual content of the other tables so as not to reveal the man behind the curtain to my players, but here's what I've made so far:
  1. Day and night encounter tables for town streets, parks, rural areas, and coastlines.
  2. Random situation for street intersections, accumulations of cars (lots, crashes, jams)
    • Vehicle types and condition (e.g. burned, out of fuel).
    • Car crash damage table
  3. Random infected behavior tables.
    Like Year Zero "monster combat action" tables, so far these have been really good for creating slightly chaotic encounters without me feeling on the hook for setting the danger level.
  4. Site condition table - what's going on in this building?
    This one has a few dimensions, based on the location on the island (mostly, how close was it to the initial spread of the infection), and then how lucky was it?
  5. Loot tables for cars, service vehicles, farm buildings, clinics, restaurants, households, campsites, bakeries, shooting ranges, and aircraft.
  6. Survivor tables: what they're doing now, their reaction, how they make decisions, where they're based, the state of the group back at the base, their larger-scale goal and anti-goal (e.g. communicate with other groups, hiding will just get us all starved), their theory about the infection, and what they know about the infected.
Most of these tables were made by hand, but I do have to say that for random loot tables, ChatGPT is incredibly useful.  Of course, all the obvious caveats about ChatGPT apply, but for scutwork tasks like, 'list the shit that's in a rural village medical clinic in the UK in 1989', it's very very fast.

I've now got a prompt that will let me just specify a context, and it will produce output that I can just paste into my self-rolling tables sheet. It's fast enough that I can make and add a new table during play, in about the same amount of time it would have taken me to roll random treasure.

Again, this works specifically because of the kind of game this is. I'd never use this for the cool treasure in the wizard's vault, but for generating the picked-over contents of a blood-spattered .. uh.. aerospace research factory, it's a godsend.

Self-Rolling Tables!

I may write more detail about this in another post, but one of the best things I did with my tables is make them all self-rolling. They're in google sheets, and so every table has one or more die rolls to generate a series of results, and the table highlights itself to show those results.

This is a self-rolling car damage table:

This result has picked out parts of the car that have been damaged depending on the car's speed. Lighter stuff is damaged at low speeds, the darkest color implies high speed damage.

Like the weather table, this means the handling time is incredibly short. I just have to flip to the Loot tab and this is there for me to read off and weave into the description:

These loot tables are rolling on other, much larger tables and pulling out an appropriate number random finds. Pre-rolled loot is especially helpful for me because the players are moving through places that in some cases aren't picked over. When they say, "What's in the car's trunk?" it's amazing to be able to just smoothly transition to narrating them popping open trunks and peering in windows and telling them what's there .. instead of having to stop roll a bunch of dice.

* * *

With all this, I'm able to handle most specific locations, but there are a few situations that still give me pause, namely broad vistas. If the players can see a whole residential neighbourhood (because they're up on a hill), I still don't have a tool to help me generate the overall impression. So far, this has never come up because the Isle of Wight has incredibly steep coastlines in many places, so from the water you can really only see stuff just beyond the beach. But as soon as the players reach somewhere like Cowes, or drive along the Medina river inland.. hoo boy.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Isle of Wight: Zombie Survival

A few weeks ago, I kicked off a zombie survival game set in the real-world Isle of Wight. It's been really delightful!

The campaign pitch goes like this:

On November 4, 1988, a unexpected nuclear exchange takes place across western Europe. The cargo ship BF Fortaleza is travelling unloaded from Lisbon, Portugal to Bournemouth UK when the night horizon lights up with flashes. In the confusion, the ship runs aground on a sand bar off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

With no rescue coming, the crew of 27 shelters on the crippled container ship as winter sets in, glued to the radio for hopeful news. In December, news comes of a mysterious infection sweeping through the cities, with unbelievable reports of people taken by an intense fever and then eating each other.

In January, the UK provisional authority declares mainland cities uninhabitable, and broad-casts an instruction to stop sheltering in place and to flee to sparsely unpopulated areas by any means necessary. Signals from people become infrequent.

In February, the automated radio messages fall silent.

It is March, 1989, five weeks since the last human voice came over the radio. The ship’s supplies will last only a few weeks longer. Reluctantly, the captain asks for volunteers to explore the Isle of Wight, in the hopes of finding other people still alive and the means of long-term survival.

* * *

I'm running the game as a more-or-less West Marches style, in the sense that it's an open sandbox with the players dropping in as they're able. There's a compelling event that gets things going (the home base is running out of food), but other than that there's

I'm trying to run with old school sandbox sensibilities. This isn't a well worn groove for me, I'm very used to trying to maneuver hard to produce a satisfying outcome for each session, avoiding duds at all costs. But I'm letting myself off that hook and instead going with a what would happen? refereeing style.

This can produce sessions that are just so-so, dramatically, but there's a long-term build-up that happens when the world and the events of the game don't conform to dramatic logic, and instead accumulate a sort of stubborn tangibility.

I've written about this before, but the principles of this could be summarized as:

  1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates an environment with hard edges
  2. Players respond by balancing risk/reward, and by inventing solutions
  3. Poignancy emerges over the long term
  4. The design challenge is to help players understand the reality of the situation efficiently, so they can get on with responding to it in the knowledge that their planning effort is worth it


For a system, I'm using a kit-bashed homegrown system I'm just calling 'Isle of Wight'. The aesthetics are deliberately old school, but it's very much a hybrid of a lot of things:
  • levels and xp-for-gold, except the rewards are for survivors, medicine and food
  • old school saving throws to help set the mood
  • core resolution is a sort of PbtA-i-fied Blades in the Dark - roll 2d6, but against three grades of difficulty
  • The Regiment style encounter rolls (so good)
  • Blades-style stress meter, but powered by sleep and food
  • Pits & Perils-inspired inventory with super simplistic encumbrance
  • the table-order initiative with interrupts I used in ALM

At some point soon I'll write about how I'm planning this campaign, which held some surprises for me!

Saturday 11 November 2023

Do Not Anger the Gods

When the servants of the gods fight, they use more than earthly wood and steel. Taking a blow from them can have strange consequences.

d12 Legendary Critical Hit
  Target knocked unconscious for d6 minutes, slammed into 3d6 years of an alternate life of quiet contemplation and service to the being they were just fighting.
  A mighty blow breaks the target's forearm. d6 musical instruments within a league of here also break. Any song or music played within sight of this spot sounds melancholy and out of tune, and brings misfortune (-1 to all rolls) to anyone hearing it for the remainder of the day.
  The target's name is now a curse. Anyone who hears, reads or utters it suffers -1 to all rolls for the remainder of the day.
  The attack causes a deep gash that never fully heals. Every few minutes, a drop of blood falls. As it touches the ground, it sprouts into a delicate, white flower. If the petals are boiled into a tea, whoever drinks them knows what the target was doing in the moment when the droplet fell.
  Weapon impales the target. It is part of them now, as much as the bones in their body.
  Eldritch strike kills the target's dream body. They may no longer sleep. If they try, their empty body rises, possessed for d4 hours. Roll d6 to determine the possessing entity. On a 1-2, a harmless and playful wisp. 3-4, a harbinger of the being that dealt the blow. 5-6, an infernal spirit that lies and taunts.
  Cratering blow knocks the target flat on their back. A hole opens up in the ground, d6-1 paces from the target. Earth and stone crumble away, widening it by ten feet per year, and deepening by thirty. This continues until the target dies.
  A fearsome, life-ending blow misses the target by a hair. Even so, the psychic wake of the attack is so devastating that it symbolically kills the target. From this moment on, no one remembers anything the target says or does. To the rest of the world, it is as if they have died.
  The target is unharmed, but a distant loved one dies instantly. For the next year, any damage done to the target by any enemy doesn't harm them, but harms a friend, ally, or loved one instead.
  The blow splits the target into two halves, which live on separately. Roll d6. On a 1-2 the separate piece is the head, shoulder and one arm. On a 3-4, top and bottom half. On a 5-6, a split down the middle, from head to groin.
  Astral strike alchemically inverts the target. Their clothes and armor turn to flesh: this is now the target's real body, wrapped around a body-shaped sculpture of leather, metal and wood.
  Weapon strikes the target's sternum, shattering their rib cage. Knife-like bone darts shoot in every direction, causing d6 damage to all who fail a save vs. dragon breath. The target must choose: live on as a ribless human worm, or expire in a shower of innards.

Saturday 4 November 2023

A Patterned Magic

Here's a mini-game for a wizard player, designed to encourage tinkering between sessions in a way that emulates downtime magical research.

Imagine a sudoku board with astrological symbols, which corresponds to the pattern of the wizard's preparations and meditations.

Certain tetris-like shapes of specific symbols are how wizards memorize spells. e.g. Fire over Earth with a Sun on both sides of the Earth is the Smiting Fire spell. If that's placed anywhere on the pattern between sessions, Smiting Fire is memorized.

Smiting Fire

Great Patterns

The GM prepares five or so Great Patterns, completed boards which each correspond to the ultimate expression of a particular divine imprint on the world, ancient unholy covenant, or the most secret teachings of a long-lost school of magic. In addition to the memorized spells, the more of the board that matches a specific Great Pattern adds different effects. (If you unwittingly include the shape for Drenzel's Eye, orcs will always find you, etc.)

There are also basic, sudoku-like rules. It's not good to have more than one of the same rune in any given 3x3 'house', for example. The the more rules you break, the higher the chance of spell failure or wacky outcome.

A small pattern containing 6 different spells

Newer wizards can always leave large parts of the pattern blank for safety's sake, or only bear smaller patterns less than full 9x9 size. Wizards bearing patterns with more than a dozen runes radiate faint magic to those who can see; wizards with completed, full-size patterns are psychically radiant, crackling with otherworldly sparks and eddies that tumble from their hair and fingers.


Wizards advance in a few ways: Fragments of these boards are scattered throughout the campaign world.. a strip of runes on an altar, a 3x3 embroidered on the lich's frayed shroud, a dusty tome of mad scrawlings.

Sometimes it's a literal spell, sometimes it's just a part of a Great Pattern, or perhaps just a clue. ("The great meditation of Deel wants not for fire in the upper houses, and thrice Water.")

A wizard's meditation pattern can be changed in play, but this is usually a solo activity done between sessions. (It takes a game hour of time to change one rune if it does happen in play.)

Another way to advance is magical research. If a wizard has a month of downtime, they can submit a pattern of whatever level of completion to the GM. They make a research roll, modified by the money they spend, the time and the quality of their sanctum.

Based on their research success, the GM will reveal one or more clues, complete spells, or matching parts of a Great Pattern in the wizard's submission. (This could be a useful discovery, or perhaps something to avoid at all costs.)

Another way to learn more magic is to watch another wizard perform it. When encountering either instructive, helpful, or antagonistic wizards using magic, there is a chance for the player wizard to discern a fragment of the meditation in use.

A Magical Minigame

The point of all this is to give wizard players a minigame that feels a little bit like actual magical research. Bring the arcane arrangement of runes and symbols into between session play.

The 'minigame' is the tinkering with the patterns, taking all the scraps and clues of what the party has learned and trying to make the best pattern they can. What if that altar was actually to Deel, and the strip of runes we saw there does belong in the void pattern? How do I sandwich all eleven spells I know without having all those pesky suns fry me alive every time I cast a spell? Do I fully commit to the Great Pattern of Deel, or do I try to bash in a few of those handy Sorgite curses in the bottom row?

Some Assembly Required

This of course only works if the GM is ready to prep a few things, giving runic patterns to all the spells, creating however many Great Patterns.

Most of all, it all relies on some tool to quickly enter and analyze a player-submitted pattern so the GM can immediately see everything of interest that will affect gameplay.

Saturday 30 September 2023

A Downtime Calendar

One way to bring a setting's calendar to life is through downtime. When you spend a month cooling your heels and recovering from the road, each month has distinctive, meaty benefits.

Set the list out where the players can get it, and let them make their own choices. It doesn't even matter if players are actually able to make use of the benefits they want. If all that happens is the party lamenting, "Damn, shame we have to travel during Ferch," it's doing its work!

Here's a set of calendar downtime benefits appropriate to the sort of campaign presented in the compendium, scattered communities in a wilderness full of danger. If the party spends the full month engaged in rest or aiding the community, the benefit is theirs!

# Month  Benefit of a full month of downtime
  Anvial Winter's stillness brings clarity. The guide you seek will find you.
  Bolc As the snows subside, old paths need mending. Those who do warden's work are blessed: they will not get lost on the way to their next destination.
  Cindal Spring dawns. Planting time means grudges must be set aside, at least for now. If you seek a favor of someone influential, ask it.
  Ferch Rains reveal what must be repaired. Find the old stones and new and get to stacking.
  Greel In the humid season, if you seek an ally with special skills, you find them. They will aid you, but summer's friend betrays in autumn.
  Halvilary Summer's forges burn hot and true. If you are procuring gear, one item made for you this month is of remarkable sturdiness. It will never fail you.

Juthon Long idle days and warm summer nights are fertile ground for schemers.
  Marial Summer's last light is golden. Rest in it, and all injuries to the body are cured, however severe—but scars, grief and curses are yours to keep.
  Samber Nothing like a month in the fields to cement a bond with the community. Whatever else has come before, you are welcomed as if you were born here.
  Tershon The last of autumn is no time to start a long journey, but those who feast well in Tershon will not grow hungry until they are home once more.
  Nollen The hopeful stand watch over the roads, praying for cold winds to bring lost friends. The steadfast will not be disappointed.
  Rinth In the darkness of winter, secrets slip from cold-numbed hands. Something important kept hidden by the community is revealed to you.

(These rules are MOSAIC Strict.)

Sunday 3 September 2023

The Fires of Lost Tlarba

A dense and dusty city toils under a flickering yellow sky. None may enter, but everyone does. All may leave, but none do.

Prickly selks stand at the gates. Their halberds gleam like razors, but their eyes are dull from the heat. The crowd inches forward toward the city's mouth.

Sickly smoke rises from the burners along the high walls: a thousand fires of caylum wood, oracle grass, the narcotic feathers of the santhum bird. Travellers cover their mouths and noses, hoping to ward off the stupor that will soon take them. Others breathe it freely in the hopes they will acclimatize. None will.

The crowd moves again, and the gates loom overhead. Everyone who passes them is looking for something. Everything lost winds up in Tlarba, they say, so where better to look? This is why you came, but maybe it was a mistake.

Robed sisters push and weave through the entry line, offering marks of return. "Sixty silver and we'll fetch you out if you're in too long." Ink-black fingers tug at your skin. "Here is best," she says, jabbing at your cheek. "How long do you want? A year? Three?" She isn't joking.

The nut-seller at the side of the road laughs. "Don't waste your money, they can't get out either." He scoops roasted seeds into a folded leaf, "Buy these instead. They won't get you out, but it's best not go in wanting!"

As you reach for them, he catches your sleeve and pulls you close.

"I mean it," he hisses. The humor is gone from his face. "I went in a prince. Choose better!"

He shoves you back into the lineup, laughing once more. Stupid man. Who comes here if they have a better choice?

The crowd moves again, and you pass the gates. Pilgrims, families, warriors, nobles; their mules, horses, dogs and goats. Each enters in their own way, but the sweet smoke claims everyone who draws breath. You're still thinking of the nut-seller's words as it takes you.

* * *

d10 Where You Awaken, d20 weeks later
  A secluded garden terrace, high above the haze of the city. Succulent plants hang from rows of trellis.
  At bend in a narrow, twisting set of stairs. Fresh air somehow blows from a crack in a clay duct.
  In a large stone chamber, apparently beneath a temple. Chanting comes from above. The stone floor below you is warm to the touch.
  Crazily high up, halfway up a cathedral tower. You sit on a stone ledge barely wide enough for the birds. The squares and rectangles of the city spread beneath you endlessly.
  Sitting at the edge of a fountain in a wide, sunlit plaza. The sparking water cools your fingers and clears your mind.
  Lying in soft earth in a walled vegetable garden. Half-eaten gourds surround you; seeds are stuck to your face.
 A public bath house, at the end of a long pool of oily, fragrant water. Bright morning light comes from slats in the ceiling. Smells of cooking waft in from the street outside.
  In a dark servant's passage somewhere in a grand, stone house. A thin shaft of afternoon light comes from a tiny window.
  On a luxurious bed, somewhere in the high palace. A huge silver washing basin stands on spindles of dark wood.  Curtains billow in the cool night breeze. In the courtyard below, servants are lighting lamps along the edge of a dark, shallow pool.
  You stumble on the road leading out of the city. The yawning gates are behind you. Hundreds of people queue to enter as you once did, but they pay you no attention. Roll no more, your time in the city is over. It is d4 years after you entered the city.


 Exhausted revelers surround you. Some are sleeping, others quietly chatting or combing each other's hair. All are sweaty from dancing, running, or sex.
 You are pale and sickly. A friend mops the sweat from your brow. The sickest among you is now immune to poison.
 Damp, mildewed air blows from a hole in the ground. You have found a way into the labyrinth beneath the city, the streets and alleys of an earlier era, buried by time and new stone.
 Several families are preparing food, setting out tables with fresh bread, pots of stew, and hot, watery wine. Children light fill lanterns and musicians are assembling to begin the song. Adults speak in quiet tones about the business of the city.
 You and a woman you don't recognize hold opposite ends of a sheaf of scrolls, the collected notes of the high palace locksmith.
 You are covered in small cuts and bruises. At first they hurt terribly, then not at all, and rub off like actor's paint.
 A small gathering of students and poets was listening to what you had to say, and is waiting for you to continue.
 You have been running for your life. Your heart is pounding. In ten seconds, d6 strong youths will arrive to beat you for stealing from them. 
 A guard's knife is bloody in your hands. He lies at your feet.
 You have found whoever or whatever you came for.

d10A bit later, you suddenly remember
 Living with a family for a time, learning their skills, working as part of the family business. When you touch your callused hands, you remember that they loved you.
 Squatting in a temple for months. You learned the names of many animals who lived there. If you see them again, they will remember you.
 Wading through a foul-smelling canal. A youth you had made friends with dallied, and that was the last you saw of them.
 Watching a pack of feral people eating a man who had stumbled in the gutter. They tore at him while he groaned. You remember the taste of him; perhaps you joined them.
 Exchanging clothes with a princeling, who then slipped away into the crowds. You still wear his ring, which marks your station in the city.
 Studying with a monstrous, toad-like philosopher who swore off tools of any kind—not just hand tools, but clothes, dwellings, weapons, books. 'Convenience softens the mind,' it would croak. It is right, and its teachings have unlocked something strange and new within you.
 Fighting your way through a riot in the Plaza of Jewelers. Many had fallen, and the flagstones were slippery with blood of citizens and palace guards. The shouting still rings in your ears. Many enemies were made that day; some on each side will remember you.
 Plotting against an order of priests who jealously protect a magical way out of the city. Your fellow conspirators plan to strike tonight, coming up through the servers. They're relying on you find an open the sewer grate in the Plaza of Tears, or they will all drown as they try to escape.
 Riding with the nut-seller in a royal palanquin. He was dressed like a prince, and proudly pointed out the sights as you passed. A location you sought is now known to you.
 You remember an age passing, lifetimes, the end of the world—or at least, the city. An eternity of wind gnawed the stone blocks of the walls and palaces down to nothing. For aeons, you knew only blowing sand and a lifeless sky. Then, one day, a traveller came and planted his staff here. Then another. Slowly, you began to take shape again. Streets, walls, gardens, plazas, alleyways, palaces, canals, and of course: people. Seething crowds of millions, the blood of the city. Your blood.

Whatever your circumstances when you awaken, your relief from the mind-addling haze of the city is temporary. In 2d6 hours, you succumb again.

Thursday 27 July 2023

Avoiding Inapt Discussion in RPGs

Recently, I learned about the Brindlewood Bay's approach to mysteries via the Darknened Threshold podcast. It struck me that it's does something that Blades in the Dark also does, but in a completely different way:

It avoids inapt discussion about information the players don't have.

Brindlewood Bay has a Theorize move where players chew over the assembled clues and propose answers to the whodunnit. If their roll succeeds, then their theory becomes the real answer. This is the opposite choice that Blades in the Dark made, but for the same root reason. 

Blades eliminates players interminably planning out their heists, instead letting them retcon in preparations using flashback scenes.

In a traditional game where the heist target or murder mystery is predefined, players can easily spend a lot of time planning for contingencies that will never occur.. or indulging fanciful theories disconnected from the secret truth. 

"You guys are overthinking this," the GM says (or thinks, bored). True as that might be, it's unhelpful advice because the players don't know where they're on and off target, or what they've forgotten (or just plain misremembered). Their conversation is inapt. 

What's neat is the differing approaches to avoid this. Blades makes planning unnecessary by making player choices retroactively malleable. The inapt conversation doesn't need to happen.

Brindlewood, on the other hand, keeps the inapt conversation but makes it into an apt one by having reality bend to meet it. The players theorize at length, but it's not a waste, it becomes the real story. 

* * *

What's neat about holding these up together is how it reveals other design choices that could have been made, as illustrated by two made-up games: Brindlewood Dark and Blades in the Bay.

In Brindlewood Dark, players solve a murder mystery by having a few conversations with the suspects, letting a bit of action unfold, then suddenly launching into an accusation. The accused protests, then the players narrate the clues they noticed, retconning the evidence. 

The accused (or witless Lestrades also at the scene) attempt to recontextualize these clues by narrating flashbacks of their own. Eventually the players close the net or the accused shows their innocence (or at least blows up enough clues to walk). 

Meanwhile, in Blades in the Bay, the players spend 45 minutes planning the heist based up on details of defenses and risks they supposedly scouted out, researched, or paid to learn.. all made up as they discuss. The higher the danger, the bigger the score. 

They then enact their plan. As they do so, they roll for each threat to see if it is really as they understood it. If it is, then plan they made for that part just works.

If not, they're back on their heels and reacting in real time to a situation that has become unpleasantly dynamic. If they handle the chaos well, they resume the later steps of their original plan. If it blows up in their faces, they might just need to scrub the mission. 

Anyways, those are made up games, but they're two different applications of these "avoid inaptness" techniques.

Now I want to overly complicate a heist plan! Blades in the Bay sounds fun! 

Tuesday 28 March 2023

The Terrible Salt

For a generation, the tides at Vincha stopped completely. What was once an enormous tidal flat was lost under bitter waters. Now they have returned, and the brave and curious are gathering to see what was hidden under the terrible salt.

This adventure features an enormous tidal flat, miles and miles wide. Adventurers who set out from Vincha have a strange and dangerous land to explore, and will need to learn its rhythms to return with anything valuable.

The Terrible Salt is something of an experiment in tangibility. Unlike many of my adventures, there's no wandering monster table. Instead, the tides and the crab swarm move in defined ways from their starting points.

The crab swarm is extremely dangerous. It will outnumber most parties, and unless they have good magic (or horses), it will overrun them and eat them. Avoiding notice is better than trying to flee (since the crabs never stop), but this will require that the players stay aware of their environment.

Being spotted by crabs or trapped by the tides doesn't mean certain death, but players may have to ride out an uncomfortable few days being baked by the sun and freezing at night, all without any drinkable water or means of lighting a fire.

The greatest danger in this scenario is facing both crabs and tides at once, either:

  • the crab swarm comes in at the same time as the tide, and you're fighting waist-high crabs in chest-deep water
  • the party is fleeing the crabs, but is then forced by the tide to shelter on a rocky island before they can shake the pursuit

Fortunately, the map is littered with high spots that should allow the party lots of opportunity to scout out their surroundings and avoid danger. (This scenario contains a compressed version of my take on how far you can see on a hex map.)

As I finished the writing, the coral consorts became my favorite part. The implications of these srange marriages transformed the Salt Lords into something more interesting: an ethically neutral but alien presence in the scenario, inviting the party (or whomever) to take a terrifying step into a different world.

The coral consorts themselves make very interesting maguffins: imagine having to go and talk to a knowledgeable NPC somewhere, but learning that they married the sea and need to be found on the slopes of the Salt Lords' citadel. Good luck!

As always, thank you to my patrons on Patreon, who graciously support this project! Because of your generosity, the text and art pieces are released under CC-BY-NC 4.0, for your own non-commercial use.

* * *

EDIT: Some additional hooks!

Wealthy relatives of the doomed expedition members want their bodies (or heirlooms) reclaimed from wherever they wound up

The players need to contact an NPC to learn something, last known to have retired to Vincha. However, she 'married the sea' and is now somewhere on the slopes of the citadel

The other end of the inland sea (beyond the citadel) is a prosperous area. If a reliable way to cross the sea (possibly with the blessing of the Salt Lords) can be found, an important trade route could open up

Crabs have been attacking Vincha; myths say that they serve the Salt Lords' will, and that when they are happy the crabs are kept at bay

From the top of the citadel, when the clouds part, you can see anywhere in the world (or so say the songs)

Every river for a thousand leagues drains into the flats. The Salt Lords know everything that happens along their lengths; they have the answers you seek.

Too long have the Salt Lords stolen the vulnerable, taking them away to marry the sea. Put an end to it.

On the south shore of the inland sea is a tower. Well, more of a ruin than a tower. It stood watch at the mouth of a pass that reaches all the way to Urchlund.

News of the tides restarting has reached Fair Riot, and it's said a Duke is coming to survey lands that he claims are his. Now, maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but a map of the flats would surely be worth good coin and a Duke's favor besides.

In my nan's time, people used to go out on the flats looking for oysters. She said there was an old well on one of the rocks with water you can drink. That would be an incredibly useful staging area for further exploration.

Oysters out on the flats would be an incredible boon to Vincha, if only it were safe. The baron has a sack of silver for whomever can lure those crabs away and deal with them for good.

Sunday 26 March 2023

Incident Report

On Monday, July 20, the Mentor™ learning service suffered an outage that lasted from 4:53AM until service was fully restored on Wednesday, July 22 at 6:11PM.

At Mentor, we don't consider this an acceptable level of service. We sincerely apologize our valued users, institutional customers, and the family and friends of Kyle H. We commit to doing better in the future. This incident report explains what happened, as part of our commitment to openness and transparency.

The roots of the incident start some three months earlier. In April, an automated A/B test of a curriculum modification was proposed by our internal TeachSmart AI. This is normal, and such tests are conducted daily to improve learning outcomes for all Mentor™ students.

Unfortunately, this modification (CT-665.9) was unusual in that it recommended that students begin their learning sessions with a prayer to 'Entity Bezaal'. At Mentor, we have several procedures to ensure that controversial or problematic curriculum modifications don't make it to the public, including random inspection of proposed modifications by our Trust & Safety team.

However, CT-665.9 was not selected for random inspection. This itself is also not unusual; M&L (mindfulness and learning mindset) modifications are inspected at a lower frequency than core curriculum modifications. As a result, CT-665.9 was rolled out to a subset of our students immediately.

CT-665.9 performed well, but not spectacularly, for some time after the test began. Apparently July 19 is a special day to Entity Bezaal (we cannot print the exact name of the celebration), and the invoking prayers suddenly achieved a much greater effect. Learning outcomes in the A group showed a 31% improvement, which is unheard of for an M&L test.

At 5:40 PM on July 19, our Trust & Safety team reviewed the content of CT-665.9 and removed it from production.

Shortly after, at 7:10 PM, a group of individuals breached the Mentor facility in Denver, Colorado, which houses both our primary data center and the offices of our Trust & Safety team.

While Mentor has a strong commitment to both electronic and physical security, our associates on-site at that time initially believed they were facing a group of costumed LARPers from another department. (We believe in a good work-life balance at Mentor, and LARPing in the office had occurred there previously.)

This misunderstanding became obvious at 7:17 PM, when the intruders' greater invocation (we cannot print the exact name) melted the inner wall of our production data center. Mentor employee Kyle H attempted to hold off the intruders with a fire extinguisher, allowing other staff to escape to wade through the caustic mucus and escape.

At 9:47 PM, our secondary incident response team arrived on site and attempted to regain control of our Denver facility. This was initially impossible because of the inhuman strength of the intruders, even after the arrival of Denver police. At 12:02 AM (the morning of July 20), however, this faded abruptly and by 12:50 AM July 20, all floors of the were secured.

Several members of the Northfield High School math team are now in custody (They can't be identified because of their age.)

By Wednesday, our response team had vacuumed up enough of the caustic mucus that we could resume full production operations. Regrettably, Kyle H had been magically transformed into a cone snail during the fighting, and was accidentally crushed by the secondary incident response team during this process. Our condolences go out to Kyle's family and friends; his brave actions on that day saved many lives.

Effective immediately, Mentor is putting in place several enhanced procedures to make sure we don't experience this again.

  • LARPing is no longer permitted at Mentor offices or events
  • Basic fire extinguisher safety courses will be made available to all employees and contractors
  • On the recommendation of TeachAI, all employees will begin their shifts with a prayer to counter-entity Ademilos, may his tentacles surround and protect us.
Again, we apologize for the interruption to our services. Our users have come to expect only the highest in educational outcomes from Mentor, and we regret any disruption this outage has caused.

All hail Ademilos!

Friday 17 February 2023

The Cyberpunk We Got

Taking a covid test in a car speeding through the rain at night feels very cyberpunk. International travel, backseat chemistry..  all I need is a red dot sight on me from a blacked out Mercedes. That makes up for it all.. right?

I guess you can have column A, but not without a little column B.

d10 The future is here but with..
  Implanted augmentation captchas
  Smartgun roaming charges
  Mirrorshades ransomware
  Self-driving car microtransactions
  DIY gene mod banned by moderators
  Retractable finger blade unskippable ads
  Wired reflexes no longer supported
  Designer social movement remotely bricked
  Hacking deck OS Incompatibility
  Monofilament katana supply chain problems

Monday 30 January 2023

An Era of Standard RPG Terminology

Now that the core of Dungeons & Dragons has been effectively open sourced, a lot of retro-clone designers are breathing a sigh of relief. You can't copyright mechanics, but that hasn't stopped numerous lawsuits in the past. Those days seem to be over!

I thought it might be nice to look at some of those now-free core mechanics that have been with the game since its very early, dungeon-centric editions.

* * *

First up is the Hit Die. This is really the heart of Dungeons & Dragons. The image of this iconic, twenty-sided die is almost synonymous with the game itself. You roll the hit die every time you want to see if you hit something, which is often. After all, this is a game about hitting things!

Next we come to the classic Hit Points. Like many D&D terms, this has been pulled into many other games, tabletop roleplaying games, boardgames, and even video games. The hit point is the location on your enemy where your blow has landed, crucial for understanding if you've poked the bulette in the eye or just bounced off its thick armor yet again. Most ordinary humans have a d6 for hit points, but larger creatures with lots of limbs (looking at you, hydra!) often have many hit points.

Another immediately recognizable term is Armor Class. Right after determining the hit point of an attack, you will need to look up if the target is an armor class or not. Fighters, Paladins, and even Clerics are all armor classes, but Magic-Users, and Thieves are not.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game with no take-backs. If your character dies, your progress is lost! Sad as it is, this is part of the game. Savor the experience! But the game does give you one last chance: if you have a sack of gold or treasured magic weapon, you can make a Saving Throw to try to pass it on to another character.

If you do survive the dangers of the dungeon, ask the DM if you reached any Experience Points. Experience points are the backbone of any long term campaign, allowing the PCs to grow and evolve their abilities. Many DMs like to situate experience points all throughout the adventure. Some prefer to have an experience point after each major accomplishment in a campaign. Some prefer having only one, and require that you go back to town to level up. Neither is better, they're just different play styles!

These are the basics, but as time goes on, successful adventuring groups will have to pick up some clever tactics if they want to maximize their chances. Chief among these is making a good choice about who is standing where, the party's Alignment. Parties with good alignment have a significant advantage when dealing with surprise traps or encounters. Chaotic alignment is much riskier, but can be fun in its own way. Make sure to discuss this with your group before entering the dungeon, as mismatched alignment can be a total party kill.

* * *

Like it or not, the world's most popular role-playing game has seeded the industry with terms that affect the very thought process of game design. By embracing this, instead of constantly renaming the wheel, I look forward to a decade of games that can move past the arguments of the past and use common terminology for the benefit of all.

Saturday 28 January 2023

RPG Transcript Analysis: Critical Role

For the third post in my 'transcript analysis' series, I'm looking at a very different play style than I'm familiar with: Critical Role.

For this analysis, I picked a random Critical Role episode, "Between the Lines". Episodes are long, so I chose to do Part I of this episode, which is about 110 minutes and just over 16,000 words.

Unlike most RPG sessions, Critical Role is played for an audience. The participants are professional voice actors, and this shows in a dramatically different kind of play. The sessions are dominated by huge blocks of in-character dialogue.

In the "old school" transcript, the players spent a lot of time strategizing in a way that's not clearly in or out of character. In Critical Role, all of this clearly happens in character, even to the extent that some actions are declared by telling another character about them.

The GM style has a lot more dialogue than in old school play, but is still recognizably similar:

The difference shows up in the player statement balance, which is dominated by in-character dialogue.

The most common action in the old school play transcript was Inquiring for more information - examining something, looking around. In Critical Role, checking out the environment isn't even top ten.

Here's the overall breakdown, players plus GM:

As I was annotating, however, I realized that the play style did shift a lot. When the group was on their home turf, in-character dialogue dominated. Things changed as soon as the party decided to set out for an adventure location.

This got me curious if I could effectively show the ebb and flow of statement types over time. Here's how that looks:

I broke the transcript down into roughly 1,000-word "chapters", and then rendered the distribution of statement types over time.

What immediately stands out is that while IC dialogue is a huge portion, it's steadily decreasing over time. The session starts off with a bit of "last time on Critical Role" (Prior Events), but reaches its peak dialogue-heavy moment in chapter 3, where it's almost pure IC dialogue with a bit of DM exposition.

That immediately slides of as the group sets out. A green band of PC Action appears ("I do x"), along with Describe (the GM describing things)

By Chapter 17, there's even a healthy amount of OOC Approach (statements about how to approach a situation that isn't clearly in-character dialogue)

One similarity with the old school transcript is how little discussion of mechanics there is. Most commonly, the GM simply declares, "Give me a perception check," there's a die roll, and the players are immediately into either groaning, cheering, relevant-but-out-of-character jokes, or in-character dialogue. There's essentially no rules debate in this at all. That's what you might expect from a short-resolution system with an extremely seasoned group.

Here's the "next statement" diagram for the top ten statement types:

This is only top ten, and so we can only see the tip of the iceberg of PC action and how it resolves—some clarifying of the player's intent, but almost always it's simple acknowledgement from the GM. Apart from little sequences of off-topic chatter, game-related joking, or discussion of prior events, all roads lead to in-character dialogue.

Monday 23 January 2023

Further RPG Transcript Analysis: Old School

Recently, I wrote about a taxonomy for classifying the statements made while playing a role-playing game. I've been looking at an 'old school' style transcript that I was given by Ara Winter.

With the whole transcript annotated, including breaking up longer statements into separate ones so they can be tagged distinctly, it looks like this in my google sheet:

This lets me do a couple of fun but simple bits of analysis, such as looking at the relative proportion of various statement types, by the GM: the players:

..and the group as a whole:

But the coolest view for me is looking at next statement types. What statements tend to follow others? I crunched the transcript and it allowed me to make a sort of Markov chain out of it, showing the likelihood of a statement type following another:

What I love about this is that you can really see the style of conversation that emerges in this session: the rapid back-and-forth of description and inquiry between players and GM. Once in a while there are little conversations about clarifying the fiction, player intent, or how to approach the situation. Joking tends to lead to more joking!

That was just the top ten most common statement types; here's the full diagram for the entire transcript:

In the next post, I'll have a look at a very different play style: Critical Role.

Sunday 22 January 2023

A Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances v0.1

There are lots of ways that gamers characterize play styles, many of which focus on the intentions of the play group. I won't recap those here—this post is about a different lens for looking at play style, namely, what are people talking about?

I Describe Fireball At Them

A few years ago I watched a YouTube video where the players spent an incredible amount of time describing how the actions of their characters would be experienced by others. One player spends upwards of sixty seconds describing how his character sits down, unpacks a little flute, and plays it.

In another campaign, a different player would have said, "I cast Sleep."

This got me thinking about a lens to examine play focused on the type of statements that people are making, based on classifying the statements uttered at the table. With such a classification scheme, you could look at any of the thousands of hours of actual play available on the internet and annotate it.

Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances

So, without further ado, here's a draft. This is a bit of a mess; it's a list of things that I've seen happen, sliced into groups based on what I thought was interesting. I present it here mostly so you could either:

  1. try to use it
  2. come up with a different taxonomy
  3. publish and link to transcripts of actual play so that others can do 1) or 2)

I've put it in a hierarchy not because things down on the leaves are far apart, just to make it easier to label things "100", "200" and move on, and perhaps come back and tag it with more precision later.

A few definitions:

Fiction: the qualitative description of the game world and everything in it: the environment, events, the characters and their feelings. 

Quantity: a characterization of the world originating in the rules that uses a number, a tag, an enumerated state of some kind.

A 6' tall ranger is a fictional element; if the ranger is Medium, that's a mechanical quantity.

A Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances v0.1

  • 100 Fiction
    • 110 (GM) General descriptions
      • 111 Environmental description
      • 112 Events
      • 113 NPC actions/behavior/visible emotions
    • 120 Clarifying (e.g. asking for more information, resolving ambiguity)
      • 121 Clarifying the fiction
      • 122 Clarifying feasibility/consequences of action (e.g. "is it too far to jump across?")
    • 130 (Player) Stating a PC action (e.g. "I grab the chalice from the altar.")
      • 131 Descriptions of PC actions (e.g. "My cloak blows in the wind as I leap onto the stone table, I'm like.. silhouetted against the sky."
    • 140 GM Describing PC Action or its results (e.g. "Okay, you leap forward and shove the door—it swings open and bangs against the far door frame..")
    • 150 Fictionalizing a quantity or mechanical outcome (e.g. [Having rolled 2 damage]" The dagger leaves a long, ragged scratch on your arm.")
    • 160 Dialogue
      • 161 IC Dialogue (e.g. "The merchant says, 'My horse is the fastest in the land!'")
      • 162 Description of dialogue (e.g. "The merchant prattles on about his horse and how it's the fastest in the land." e.g. "I tell the King the whole story about the orcs at the mine.")
    • 170 Inner experiences
      • 171 Reactions/emotions of your character (e.g. "My guy is totally taken aback, like.. I thought the Queen was an ally!")
      • 172 Reactions/emotions of someone else's character (e.g. GM: "You feel your hands trembling as you step out onto the ledge." "Haha, you're totally hot for me.")
      • 173 Intentions (e.g. "GM: The monster isn't trying to flee." e.g. "PC: I need to find a way to get out of this damned sewer.")
      • 174 (GM) PC inferences (e.g "You get the impression he's just trying to end the conversation.")
      • 175 Rationale for choices (e.g. "Well, I'm chaotic evil, after all. [I'm going to untie that rope.]")
    • 180 Exposition (e.g. background information, contextualizing what PCs would know about what they see)
  • 200 Engaging with Mechanics
    • 210 Rules
      • 212 Rules explanation
      • 211 Rules query (e.g. "Can I do a follow-up charge against flying enemies?")
      • 213 Rules debate/discussion/disagreement
      • 214 Choosing rules, procedures, resolution approach (e.g. "Let's use the one-roll system for this fight.")
      • 215 Lobbying for a particular mechanical interpretation (e.g. "I'm prone, but I'm prone on a giant table, shouldn't that offset the disadvantage?")
    • 220 Resolving
      • 221 Mechanical preamble to actions ("because of my instinct, I'm going to..")
      • 224 (GM) Stating consequences (e.g. if you fail the save, you fall off the cliff)
      • 225 Rolling dice/using a randomizer (e.g. "I rolled a four.")
      • 226 Applying rules/procedures (e.g. "A roll of four is a severe wound, but also I mark xp. Hey, that means my skill goes up!" e.g. "Everyone roll initiative.")
      • 227 Choosing mechanical options (e.g. "I rolled a 3; I need to either flee or surrender. I guess I'll surrender.")
    • 230 Discussing quantities (e.g. "I have four hit points." "My sword is +2 against golems." "I only need another 200 xp to go up a level.")
      • 231 Asking about a quantity (e.g. "How many hit points do you have left?" "Do you have the Leap ability?")
  • 300 Out of Character (or ambiguously IC/OCC)
    • 301 Approach/tactics discussion (e.g. "Dude, what? Use the Fireball, why are you saving it?" "Can we just ride around these guys and not fight them at all?")
    • 302 Prior events of the campaign (e.g. summaries of last session, reminders)
    • 222 Clarifying intent of a player (e.g. "Are you really just trying to push the orc back a square?")
    • 303 Cheering/lamenting an outcome, pretend IC shit-talking (e.g. "You totally smoked that orc! he's just a crater! lol")
    • 304 Opining (e.g. "We're totally getting double-crossed here, right?")
    • 305 Safety tools (e.g. "Let's X-card that.")
    • 306 Discussing play (e.g. "I loved it when you," "My favorite moment was when..")
  • 400 Off topic
    • 404 Discussing a missing player

If you do actually annotate a transcript with this or any other taxonomy, please indicate what taxonomy you used and its version! (e.g. by linking to it).

Some problems and caveats
  1. Any taxonomy will all sorts of assumptions baked into it. For example, there are GMless games! I have no idea if this would look applied to a Microscope or Quiet Year session. All those are problems for v0.2!
  2. Any classification scheme will have lots of edge cases where statements are hard to classify.

An Example

Ara Winter kindly provided me this transcript of play from a game of his, for this purpose. It's been sitting on my hard drive for years. Here's the raw transcript, without my annotations:

DM: And there is the pond, here.
G: I care most about the area under the planks and the pond.
DM: Well, uh. The only thing you see under the planks is stale fetid water, and inside the pond, you see a giant floating frog corpse about five feet in length.
R: Is in intact?
DM: Fairly intact, yes. It's in the water? So you would have to, I don't know, either get in the water or pull it towards you in some way.
R: How far into the water?
DM: Well, the whole pond thing is maybe 25, 30 feet across, So 10-12 feet?
R: I bet we could throw, what do you call them? One of our grappling hooks.
G: Do we want. . . a frog corpse?
R: Well we might be able to figure out how the frog died.
J: Did the frog corpse have anything on his person? Or is he just a naked frog.
DM: Well, all you see is just the belly of a frog that's about five feet long. And only just parts of it, because it is kind of floating in the water.
J: And it's obviously dead?
DM: Well it doesn't look alive no. You don't normally see frogs like that, lying like that, upside down and not moving.
J: Ok, Can I use my quarterstaff?
DM: Not your quarterstaff, it's about 7' long.
R: All right, I take my grappling hook, with a rope and try and throw it out there.
DM: Ok, you can grapple the frog. It makes a thicking *plctch* sound as it hits the water and your rope goes into it. I mean it's standing water because it's separate from the river and you can hook the frog and pull it towards the shore which you do. You now have a frog corpse near the shore.
J: Is there anything on the frog corpse.

Here it is, annotated by me with Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances v1:

DM: [110 - description] And there is the pond, here.
G: [120 - clarity] I care most about the area under the planks and the pond.
DM: [110 - description] Well, uh. The only thing you see under the planks is stale fetid water, and inside the pond, you see a giant floating frog corpse about five feet in length.
R: [120 - clarity] Is in intact?
DM: [110 - description] Fairly intact, yes. It's in the water? [122 - feasibility] So you would have to, I don't know, either get in the water or pull it towards you in some way.
R: [120 - clarity] How far into the water?
DM: [110 - description] Well, the whole pond thing is maybe 25, 30 feet across, So 10-12 feet?
R: [301 - approach] I bet we could throw, what do you call them? One of our grappling hooks.
G: [301 - approach] Do we want. . . a frog corpse?
R: [301 - approach] Well we might be able to figure out how the frog died.
J: [120 - clarity] Did the frog corpse have anything on his person? Or is he just a naked frog.
DM: [110 - description] Well, all you see is just the belly of a frog that's about five feet long. And only just parts of it, because it is kind of floating in the water.
J: [120 - clarity] And it's obviously dead?
DM: [110 - description] Well it doesn't look alive no. [180 - exposition] You don't normally see frogs like that, lying like that, upside down and not moving.
J: [122 - feasibility] Ok, Can I use my quarterstaff?
DM: [122 - feasibility] Not your quarterstaff, it's about 7' long.
R: [130 - player action] All right, I take my grappling hook, with a rope and try and throw it out there.
DM: [140 - describe outcome] Ok, you can grapple the frog. It makes a thicking *plctch* sound as it hits the water and your rope goes into it. I mean it's standing water because it's separate from the river and you can hook the frog and pull it towards the shore which you do. You now have a frog corpse near the shore.
J: [120 - clarity] Is there anything on the frog corpse.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Death Star Safety Research

In a galaxy far, far away, safety research is a thankless job.

Final year Academy projects don't write themselves, however, and so it fell to Partho Borc to dig deep into the question that had been bugging him ever since the Battle of Yavin.

How on earth did firing a proton torpedo into an exhaust port lead to the destruction of a moon-sized battle station?

The conventional wisdom was pretty straight forward, a deliberate weakness built in by a bent Imperial weapons designer, okay. But what about the shutoffs at level 22? What about the pressure cascade blowback valves in the core sheath? What about literally dozens of mechanisms that would make that  kind of catastrophic failure impossible?

Because of the Death Star's hasty construction schedule, its system designs wouldn't be novel. No, most of the major subsystems have had to be right off the rack, just upscaled versions deployed in clustered configurations. Nothing truly new. All tried and true stuff, very little innovation.

Even a team of designers working day and night to undo centuries of established safety mechanisms would have needed several years to put it all together. And all that before construction started. To say nothing of all the parallel work producing the control procedures, operating manuals, training courses—it just didn't add up.

One guy did all this? Forget it. There was no way the official narrative could be true, and Partho knew it. Something else had undone the Death Star.

Unfortunately, that's about all he could uncover. Safety research was a vocation with poor prospects, and he had little pull to get the information he needed to prove his theories. "Nobody cares about shielding, Parth!" his parents would nettle him. "Why don't you go into something with some upside? What about repulsorlift window cleaning?"

* * *

Partho's break came by accident. One night in the student lounge, far drunker than he usually let himself get, he overheard some third-year xenocultural studies students use the term, "Reactor Shielding Cults."

If he'd been sober, he'd have been too shy to go over, but his inebriation led him into a conversation that changed the course of his academic career.

It turned out that xenocultural studies had its own dead-end lines of inquiry, one of those being the shielding cults: a peculiar pattern of mystical beliefs that repeated itself across the galaxy. The specifics varied quite a lot from species to species and culture to culture, but the one thread that linked them all was sabotaging reactor shielding.

Seventeen completely unrelated religions had holy historical figures whose most famous act was destroying a power reactor. Eleven others hadn't just wrecked reactors, but claimed various mystical powers that had allowed them to do it at a distance, or in the future, with their minds, with or without certain tools, or other non-tool objects.

Weird, sure, but like safety research, a total career dead end. They'd been fully chronicled and holo'ed by the Republic forty years before, what was left to even write about? You certainly couldn't get anything actually published.

But— but! And here's the thing. By the time of the Battle of Yavin, at least three of them had commercial ties with organizations that held Imperial contracts to service Death Star I. They were there!

* * *

Getting the remaining pieces took Partho years, but bit by bit it fell together.

The full picture was breathtaking: no fewer than forty seven mystical traditions were involved in the destruction of the Death Star. While Skywalker and the Jedi took most of the credit for the rebel victory, they were really just there for the showy bit.

Six other "prowess cults" had prophecies that culminated on that day, and each of them celebrated themselves as having primary responsibility. Jana, last of the Shureen, finally listened to her trainer's words and achieved yellow-grade Shur manipulation while Shur-punching the primary reactor's force-field generator through eight levels of metal flooring.

The trio of Briwew adepts who had snuck aboard the Death Star only days earlier used the power of the three-thrum to addle the brains of every clone in the Yavin system, making effective aiming impossible. How many stormtroopers or TIE pilots landed accurate shots that day? In the view of the Briwew, this brave action made rebel victory all but guaranteed. How can you lose against an enemy that can't aim?

It wasn't just the prowess cults who believed themselves to be the lynch-pins that day. Mechesoteric orders had compromised thousands of Death Star subsystems as well. A group calling itself the Veen, whose legends claimed its ascended adepts could etch integrated circuits by hand, had apparently done a number on the Death Star's internal monitoring systems. In combination with the shift schedule suddenly one-way encrypting itself, some days you could walk from one end of the Death Star to the other without ever meeting a guard.

Lights didn't work, turbolifts would stop on the wrong floor and then shut down. Turbolasers would decalibrate during target practice and blast hapless observation towers into fragments.

Worst of all, an order of psycho-netic priestesses had sabotaged the toilets, causing them to either flush at bowel-wrenching triple pressure at random times, or flip into reverse and blast an entire trash compactor's contents into the room. For weeks before the Battle of Yavin, not even the Moffs had been able to take a shit in peace. It was mayhem.

* * *

Partho was ecstatic. Looking at the entire picture, it was clear that the Death Star never stood a chance. But the real discovery was much broader than just one megaweapon! Long-standing xenocultural data showed that it took an average of nineteen years for mystical space wizard orders to produce chosen ones in times of need, nearly twice as long as the Death Star's construction time.

Forty seven separate mystical orders had all spontaneously begun producing chosen ones in anticipation of the Death Star. It was almost like an immune system built into the fabric of the universe. Build something big enough, and dangerous enough, and a hundred heroes would show up out of nowhere to screw it all up.

Partho could hardly contain himself. This would be the greatest discovery in safety research in.. well, ever. Not just safety research! Building a super-weapon that you could actually use would require whole new fields of study. Anti-prophetic architecture. Heroism dynamics. Xenocultural barometrics. Shift schedules written out by hand on whiteboards.

Finally, safety research would get the attention it truly deserved, uniting military security and system integrity planning under a single banner. Partho's hands trembled as he realized what this all meant. With this insight, you could once and for all rule the galaxy in a reign of terror that no plucky band of heroes could ever undo. Partho Borc's name would echo throughout the ages, as the man who finally made galactic empire possible.

But sadly, it was never to be. In a galaxy far, far away, safety research was a thankless job. Nobody listened.

You couldn't even get these people to install railings.